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Thunder bench mob: five big questions for OKC's second unit for the rest of 2016 season

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The Thunder bench is still trying to find itself. What questions must be answered as OKC looks ahead to the end of the season?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the All-Star break at (40-14), a great start in Billy Donovan's first season as head coach. The Thunder are getting superstar level production from Kevin Durant (27.8 PPG, 8 RPG, 4.5 APG, 1.2 BPG, 1 SPG and right on the cusp of another 50/40/90 season) and Russell Westbrook (24.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 10 APG, 2.4 SPG and eight triple doubles).

However, OKC and their 60-win pace have played second fiddle to the Golden State Warriors (48-4) and the San Antonio Spurs (45-8), two teams that have decimated the rest of the league on a nightly basis.

If the Thunder are to reach their championship aspirations, they are going to need more than just Westbrook and Durant playing elite basketball.

One thing that both the Warriors and Spurs have working in their favors is depth. The Spurs and Warriors are completely comfortable letting their reserves battle it out in those late first/early second quarter and mid-third quarter into fourth quarter stretches of the game, even if the game’s outcome is in the balance.

All offseason the talk was about how Oklahoma City had put together their deepest roster yet. How they finally had found the pieces to ease the burden off KD and Russ. Do the Thunder have the pieces necessary to bring them to the promise land? Should Donovan keep using an all-reserve unit in the postseason?

Let's ask the most important questions about the bench as we head into the final third of the season.

1. What to do with Dion?

One of the key roster pieces to every Thunder roster has been the Sixth Man spot. From James Harden to Kevin Martin to Reggie Jackson, OKC’s best teams have always had a player capable of running the second unit on his own.

Sam Presti, being of Spursian origins, no doubt saw the success of Manu Ginobili and wanted to emulate it with the Thunder. And last season, when the Thunder acquired the enigmatic guard from Cleveland, it was believed that he would be the next player to fill this role. So far, Waiters has yet to make it his own.

Let's compare Per 36 numbers between Waiters, Harden, Martin and Jackson.


Per 36


PPG


2FG%


3FG%


APG


RPG

James Harden (2011-12)

19.3

58%

39%

4.2

4.7

Kevin Martin (2012-13)

18.2

47%

42%

1.8

3

Reggie Jackson (2013-14)

16.6

47%

34%

5.2

4.9

Dion Waiters (2015-16)

12.7

42%

36%

2.5

3.6

All stats via Basketball Reference

Waiters comes in last in just about every statistical category in comparison to the other three. Harden was a great all-around player, Martin was an elite scorer, and Jackson was an adept playmaker.

Dion doesn't have one single trait or facet of his game that stands out. He's not the playmaker that Harden and Jackson are and he's not as efficient of a scorer as Martin.

However, what if Waiters is being miscast?

In my opinion Dion is better suited as a starter. He would be another offensive weapon that OKC could turn towards if Serge Ibaka isn’t connecting on his jumpers. Russ has shown a propensity to getting others involved to begin games and giving him Durant, Waiters, Ibaka and Steven Adams makes the entire lineup a threat offensively.

Now defensively is where the biggest risk would present itself for the Thunder if Dion became the full-time starter. Since losing Andre Roberson to injury the Thunder are an impressive (7-1). Their defense has suffered setbacks without their best wing defender, but Waiters hasn't been worse than average on that end of the floor.

Despie facing a who’s who of shooting guards--featuring Andrew Wiggins, James Harden, Klay Thompson Victor Oladipo, Devin Booker and Aaron Afflao--only Oladipo (37 points on 13-19 shooting) really hurt the Thunder offensively. It took Harden 22 shots and 17 free throws to get his 33 points in their matchup.

In games Dion and his matchup have played 25 minutes or more the Thunder are 22-9; including 7-2 when Dion has won the plus/minus (via HoopStats).

As a starter, Waiters is often guarded by the opposing team's worst perimeter defender. In the case of the Spurs and Warriors, that means they will try to hide Stephen Curry or Tony Parker on him.

For all his step backs and missed fast break layups, Waiters is capable of taking advantage of Curry/Parker on the perimeter and in the post. Defenses would be reluctant to help off KD and Russ, giving Waiters free reign to attack as he pleases.

I wouldn’t say that Waiters has "won" the starting spot away from Roberson--Roberson's elite defense will be needed against the elite teams and according to stats.nba.com, OKC's starting unit has one of the team’s best Net Ratings (+21.5)--but I think Waiters’ best spot for the Thunder is sharing the floor with KD and Russ.

2. Who is the 6th man?

That would be none other than the $70 million dollar man, Enes Kanter.

Pundits and analyst alike lambasted the Thunder for matching the Portland Trailblazers’ max offer sheet for Kanter in the offseason. Yet, it's his play that has been the biggest bright spot off the bench for OKC.

Kanter will never be a great defender, but he has been slightly better than his abysmal performance from last year. Donovan has changed OKC's pick and roll coverage so that the guards are told to fight over screens and the bigs are allowed to lay back and protect the paint.

Letting Kanter to sit in the lane makes him more effective as a rim protector, causing the shooters to alter their shots often. He also sees most of his minutes against backup big men, and most of them aren't great offensive threats.

Where Kanter makes his biggest impact is on offense. Kanter ranks in the top 10 in Offensive Rebounds (8th in NBA), Field Goal Percentage (4th in NBA), Offensive Rebound Percentage (1st in NBA), Total Rebound Percentage (6th in NBA), Offensive Rating (8th in NBA), Win Shares Per 48 (7th in NBA) True Shooting Percentage (8th in NBA), and Effective Field Goal Percentage (10th in NBA) (via BasketballReference).

His Player Efficiency Rating of 23.2 is just outside the top 10, but ranks him ahead of All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins, Pau Gasol, Paul Milsap, Jimmy Butler, and Kyle Lowry and potential Rookie of The Year Karl-Anthony Towns.

Yet, it was the first meeting against the Warriors that proved just how valuable Kanter can be this season. Kanter pulled down 15 rebounds in only 20 minutes. He got OKC second shot after second shot off of offensive rebounds, and was a key part of the Thunder's second half surge to tie the ball game.

The best part of it all was that Donovan was able to find a way to keep Kanter on the court down the stretch. Taking a page out of the Warriors book, Donovan had Kanter defend either Shaun Livingston or Andre Iguodala, neither of whom are knockdown shooters from behind the arc.

With Kanter in the game and the Warriors going small, the Thunder were able to use his offensive rebounding and post play to their advantage without getting burned on the other end of the court (Kanter's -1 was the second-highest Plus/Minus on the team for the game).

3. Will the real Kyle Singler emerge?

When the Thunder traded away Reggie Jackson to the Detroit Pistons, one of the pieces they got in return was Kyle Singler. Presti liked Singler enough to re-sign him to a five year, $25 million deal this offseason.

Singler repaid Presti by having the worst start to the year of any rotation player in the entire NBA. Think that’s hyperbole? Take a look at these numbers from November for Singler: 12.8 MPG, 2.3 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 21 3FG%, 57.1 FT% (via HoopStats).

Compare that to his 2014-15 stint with the Detroit Pistons, and you can see the player the Thunder front office was hoping it would get (23.8 MPG, 7.1 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 40 3FG%, 80.6 FT%, via BasketballReference) when they moved on from Jackson.

Thankfully, Kyle Singler seems to have regained his old form of late. In January Singler has upped his averages across the board: 16 MPG, 4.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 45 3FG%, 83.3 FT% (via HoopStats).

At 6'8", 228 lbs, Singler fits into a combo forward position for OKC. Now that he's regained his shooting form, he offers the Thunder a floor spacer for when the team opts to go small or when they rest Durant. He is also not a complete negative on defense like Anthony Morrow so he can be used to guard opposing forwards that might cause mismatches for a Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison.

If Singler can keep his shooting numbers at this level he can be that swing forward and potentially fill the 3-and-D void that OKC has had problems filling since Thabo Sefolosha lost his shot.

4. What is Cameron Payne's true potential?

When the Thunder missed the playoffs last year, their impending lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft was looked at as a silver lining. With KD and Russ on the team and healthy, OKC would never again be in the position to draft in the lottery.

There was no ping pong magic and the Thunder remained slotted in the 14th pick and with that selection they took Cameron Payne from Murray State.

As a mid-major star, Payne didn't receive as much national attention as some of the other players selected in the lottery, but he definitely had the talent.

After missing the Orlando Summer League with a broken finger, Payne was brought along slowly in his rookie season.

To begin the year, it was D.J. Augustin as the backup to Russell Westbrook. He's a good enough shooter and capable playmaker that he requires a defense’s respect when on the floor. Augustin, a career backup, is perceived as a solid option off the bench, but his underwhelming play to begin the year ultimately led to him being replaced by Payne.  During that stint, Augustin averaged 17 MPG, 5.2 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2,1 APG, 0.4 SPG 1.3 TOs, 40 FG%, 43 3FG%, 58 FT% (76.5% OVR) (via HoopStats).

However, Payne slowly but surely made hedge and overtook DJ for the role of backup point guard. In January, Payne has posted averages of 17.3 MPG, 7.3 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.7 TOs,42 FG%, 38 3FG%,50 FT% (76.9% OVR) (via HoopStats).

Payne has shown to be a better playmaker, often making hockey assists and firing nifty one-handed lasers across court. Payne is also more of a pest on the defensive end, notching a steal per night for OKC.

While not as good a shooter as Augustin, Payne has developed a chemistry with Durant on the court and has shown a knack for hitting end of quarter three pointers.

Payne looks the part of the Ginobili Sixth Man role that Waiters had been slotted into, and Kanter has since morphed into his own.

With another playmaker and an outside threat, the Thunder have a potential closing group of Payne-Westbrook-Durant-Ibaka-Adams/Kanter (depending on the matchup) that can cause trouble for any team.

5. What should be the Thunder's playoff rotations?

So far, the performance of the Thunder's bench has been a solid indicator of whether or not the Thunder win or lose.

They have outscored their opponents' bench in 29 games, OKC record is 27-2 in those games. With their only losses to CHI 12/25 & MEM 12/8 and they have been outscored in 25 games, OKC record is 13-12 in those games (via HoopStats).

Even still, all of these regular season stats will be wiped away when the postseason rolls around. At the moment the Thunder looked firmly entrenched in the third seed in the West.

The old adage is that rotations tend to shrink in the playoffs. I don't think it's likely that we see the Thunder use a steady diet of their 11-deep roster, rather we'll see Billy Donovan look to use eight maybe nine players consistently.

Especially because the Thunder's all bench lineups have been bad to say it nicely.

Lineup

GP

(W-L)

Mins

OffRtg

DefRtg

NetRtg

Ast/TO

DReb %

TS%

Pace

Augustin

Waiters

Morrow

Collison

Kanter

15


(10-5)

76

93.9

113.5

-19.7

0.85

81%

55.3%

91.98

Augustin

Waiters

Singler

Collison

Kanter

6


(3-3)

52

93.5

91.9

+1.7

1.11

84%

48.2%

95.72

Payne

Waiters

Morrow

Collison

Kanter

11


(9-2)

47

99.4

112.5

-13

1.45

68.6%

47%

91.61

Payne

Waiters

Morrow

Singler

Kanter

6


(6-0)

16

83

109.4

-26.4

1.5

100%

39.2%

97.24

All stats via (stats.nba.com)

Only one of these groups has a positive Net Rating, but with DJ being replaced by Cam and Collison being nothing more than a situational player at best, it's highly unlikely that we ever see that group on the court again.

For comparison sakes, here are the Spurs and Warriors all bench units advanced stats:

Lineup

GP

(W-L)

Mins

OffRtg

DefRtg

NetRtg

Ast/TO

DReb %

TS%

Pace

Mills

Ginobili

Anderson

Diaw

West

14


(10-4)

57

114.5

114.3

+0.2

2.46

70.5%

58.3

97.43

Mills

Ginobili

Simmons

Diaw

West

12

(9-3)

34

102.7

100.1

+2.6

1.67

77.1%

63.6%

104.95

Livingston

Barbosa

Iguodala

Speights

Ezeli

10


(9-1)

42

116.7

106.4

10.3

2.36

83.3%

57.6%

92.28

All stats via (stats.nba.com)

Both teams posses positive Net Ratings, with the Warriors favorite five-man unit reaching as high as +10.3. These two teams can rely on their reserves to keep the game close, hold a lead, or cut into a deficit.

Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich have both shown that they have no problems adjusting on the fly and mixing players and lineups in whatever way they see fit to get the biggest advantage. Donovan must learn to be equally as flexible.

Either Durant and Westbrook should be on the court at all times in the postseason and that bodes well for OKC, as those lineups with just one of the two stars have fared much better so far than having them both on the bench concurrently.

It's going to take some tinkering and maneuvering by the coaching staff, but finding another two or three lineup packages (outside of the starting five with Roberson and the Westbrook/Waiters/Morrow/Durant/Kanter units) that will be successful in the heightened intensity and slowed down pace of the postseason.

My suggestion would be to follow an outline that has Kanter-Singler-Westbrook as one trio and Durant-Payne-Waiters the other and fill in the other two spots based on matchups.

The Thunder have the depth and talent to win an NBA Championship now it's on the shoulders of the players and coaches to get the most out of this year's team.

***

Brandon Jefferson is an avid Thunder fan and freelance writer whose work has been featured on sites such as Bleacher Report, Dime Magazine, Complex, NBADraft.Net. Brandon also runs a NBA Parody blog at textsfromthenba.tumblr.com. This is his inaugural post at WTLC.