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Thunder's Quest for a Sixth Man

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A historical strength for the Oklahoma City Thunder has become a glaring weakness

The Sixth Man. Such an integral part of quality NBA teams since, well, always really. Sixth men are generally guys who play anywhere from 25-35 minutes per game, and when they’re in the game, they typically run the show. For historical perspective, the last Sixth Man of the Year award winner that wasn’t a guard was Lamar Odom in 2010-11, although he was pretty much the definition of a point-forward. The last Sixth Man of the Year award winners that weren’t "ball-handlers" were Mike Miller in 2005-06, and Antawn Jamison in 2003-04. A "pure" center has won the award only once – Bill Walton in 1985-86.

Why is this relevant? Because this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are facing quite the unfamiliar problem – they don’t have a sixth man.

When it was evident that Reggie Jackson wanted to be a starter and had no future in Oklahoma City, the Thunder brought in Dion Waiters. Hindsight or not, it’s not too difficult to see the Thunder’s logic here. Known as a ball-handler and a scorer, Dion Waiters was essentially brought in to be Reggie Jackson’s replacement as the sixth man.

Then there’s Enes Kanter. After his emergence last season, many people, including myself, figured he would get the sixth man minutes. A sixth man center is an NBA rarity, and with Kanter’s unique skillset, this was a potentially fun and intriguing new look to the Thunder.

Instead, Kanter is averaging just 20.7 minutes per game off the bench, while Waiters is averaging just under 27 minutes per game off the bench. Waiters’ 26.9 minutes per game off the bench are right in line with previous Thunder sixth men, but his production falls flat in comparison. Take a look:

Per 36 Minutes:

*Per 36 Minutes

In most statistical categories, the Thunder’s sixth men have progressively worsened by the year since the James Harden trade, although I’m quite certain most fans would choose Reggie Jackson over Kevin Martin any day of the week.

So if Waiters isn’t getting it done, who can? Better yet, who will? Let’s go back to Enes Kanter and see how his numbers compare:

Per 36 minutes:

Now those are some gaudy numbers by Kanter. Arguably the best of the four, albeit the 3-point percentage a small sample size (5-11 on the season). It’s obvious that it’s Kanter’s defensive woes that are keeping him from playing 20+ minutes on a consistent basis, but is that really a fair treatment on a team where solid defense has been erratic at best? While he’s still no regular everyday Ben Wallace, his defense has improved this year.

Then there’s a guy who I believe isn’t playing enough minutes -- Cameron Payne. Sure, he’s a rookie, but he’s a pretty damn good one. He’s had a few shaky "rookie" moments, but they’ve been few and far between, and the kid practically sweats confidence. There are times when it looks like he should be the one closing games alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant rather than Dion Waiters or Andre Roberson or Anthony Morrow, et al. Since Payne officially became the backup point guard on December 27, 2015, his per-36 averages are pretty tasty: 16.4 pts, 4.7 reb, 5.7 ast on 44% FG and 39.1% 3PT. While he’s not the defender Dion Waiters is, his offensive numbers are far superior.

The lack of consistent sixth man production has really hurt the Thunder bench, and struggles will likely continue without some sort of solution. If there is any feasible answer at all, it’s unclear at this time if it lies in the buyout market, (names such as Joe Johnson or Kevin Martin, again, come to mind), or right there on the roster itself. It’s a challenge that the typically stable Thunder have never really had to face since being a Western Conference power, but it’s one they’ll have to address if they truly have championship aspirations.