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Enes Kanter leading the way for the Thunder bench unit

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Enes Kanter has helped the Thunder bench find itself in the 2nd half of the season, but many questions still remain.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Before the Oklahoma City Thunder won a season-high eight-straight games, they lost back-to-back games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the San Antonio Spurs.

During the loss in San Antonio two Saturdays ago, the Thunder bench went a combined 5-of-17 from the field (four field goals from Enes Kanter) and 1-of-11 on 3-pointers. One night before, at home against Minnesota, OKC’s reserves went a combined 12-of-32 from the field (seven field goals from Kanter) and 1-of-14 from three.

That’s 25 attempts from three and only two makes in two nights. If the bench guys hit a couple of threes in either game, who knows, maybe they escape an embarrassing loss to the Timberwolves or grab a statement win over the Spurs. Instead, that two-game losing streak served as one of the lowest points this season.

Fast-forward to now, and the Thunder has turned things around. The eight-game winning streak (that just ended Tuesday thanks in part to Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka resting) featured four wins on the road, four against playoff-bound teams and four of the blowout proportion.

There are many reasons for the improved play, the bench play being a big one. This season, the Thunder is 29-7 when the reserves outscore the opponent’s reserves, but only 19-15 when they don't. In five of the eight wins these past two weeks, OKC’s bench won the point battle—60-35 over the Blazers, 55-41 over the Celtics, 42-38 over the Sixers, 45-14 over the Pacers and 40-27 over the Rockets.

With the bench playing better and only seven games left in the regular season, it raises a few questions: Who should play? Who shouldn’t play? When should they play? How much should they play?

Backup center/PF Enes Kanter is leading the way with that bench unit, so should he get more minutes? If so, he would have to take either Steven Adams or Serge Ibaka’s minutes. Is that the right move?

The Case for Kanter

Against the Timberwolves, coach Billy Donovan subbed out Kanter with 5:43 left in the game with the Thunder up six. Donovan called for Adams to reenter the game, even though Ibaka had zero points and two rebounds in 21 minutes. Even when Ibaka fouled out with two minutes to play, Donovan elected to go with Nick Collison. Kanter finished the game with 17 points and 14 rebounds in 21 minutes.

The next night, in the Thunder’s loss to the Spurs, Donovan gave Kanter more minutes, and the reserve big man produced again. Kanter finished with 11 points and a game-high 17 rebounds. But again, down the stretch, Donovan went away from him. Adams subbed in for Kanter with 5:56 left, and Kanter didn’t return.

It was a different story against the Indiana Pacers, as Kanter dominated in the final frame by scoring six straight, four on putpacks, to help OKC build a lead.

For Kanter, his presence will not pay dividends with every matchup. Most teams, especially in the playoffs, will play at Kanter’s weakness. The Pacers tried to attack him in the pick-and-roll, and got what they wanted a few times. But it’s little stuff Kanter can provide during closing time that may make those miscues an acceptable collateral damage in exchange for what he brings. His rebounding and gaining of extra possessions has been huge, along with his ability to catch and score around the basket. What he’s good at he’s been doing at an elite level, which can be critical in tight games.

Which is why Donovan chose Kanter over Ibaka to close against Indiana.

The bottom line is that giving Kanter more minutes has to be situational, whether it’s because Adams or Ibaka is struggling or the Thunder’s fourth-quarter scoring has gone stagnant. Either way Kanter and his offense need to remain part of the end-game puzzle. The massive per-minute production with Kanter will always be there, so if he’s dominating on the offensive side of the ball and if he’s holding his own on the other end then why not try closing out with him?

Kanter does have his limitations with his slow lateral movement, but the defensive improvement has earned him more trust with Donovan and his teammates.

Lastly, Kanter’s a top candidate for winning the Sixth Man of the Year. The Clippers' Jamal Crawford and Warriors' Andre Igudola are also good candidates, but so many numbers are backing Kanter. In the previous nine games Kanter’s averaging 15.4 points per game, 9.6 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field in just 22.6 minutes.

His Per 100 possessions and Per 36 numbers are monstrous in the previous nine games.

  • Per 100 Possessions: 32.8 points and 20.3 rebounds.
  • Per 36 minutes: 24.6 points per game and 15.2 rebounds.
  • The Thunder finished 8-1 in those games (Durant and Ibaka sat out against Detroit).

(Per NBA.com/STATS)

The Case for Ibaka

Ibaka helped his case mightily during the recent winning streak. He looked solid against the Spurs, had a couple of blocks, knocked down open jumpers, and was aggressive on both sides of the ball.

However, Ibaka’s best performance came on Monday in Toronto. He finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. The most eye-opening stat was in his 33 minutes, the Thunder outscored the Raptors by 39.

Regardless of what Ibaka provides on the offensive end, it’s his rim protection and ability to switch out onto smaller guards that make him so valuable. He changes the team on the defensive end of the floor by blocking and altering shots, which can lead to fast-break opportunities.

Ibaka's numbers are down this season, but throughout the win streak he averaged 13.1 points on 54.2 percent shooting along with 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 28.1 minutes per game. It’s not that Ibaka has a lesser role in the offense. He’s averaging the third most shot attempts in his career at 11.3 compared to 12.3 and 12.1 the previous two seasons. It’s that he’s not capitalizing on opportunities. His field goal percentage the last two seasons are the lowest of his career, which has to do with him taking more 3-pointers. He’s averaging 12.7 points per game this season compared to 14.3 and 15.1 the previous two seasons. Some more telling stats have decreased for Ibaka as his rebounding and blocking averages are both at the second-lowest of his career.

Ibaka seems more engaged on both sides of the ball and with the playoffs coming up it’s the right time to do so. The Thunder will need Ibaka playing at a high level to have a chance against the Warriors/Spurs juggernauts. Simply put, he brings an element defensively against those offensive machines that Kanter doesn't that could potentially prove to be the difference.

Kanter over Adams or Ibaka?

I’ll go ahead and say that Adams is one of the most improved players on this Thunder team, and he deserves all of his minutes. He's a physical presence in the paint and a solid roll man offensively, although his offense is admittedly limited. That doesn’t mean Donovan shouldn’t continue to play Kanter with either Adams or Ibaka.

Kanter is a terrific scorer and he’s gotten better defensively these past two weeks, but Adams (and Ibaka as well) are much better matchup-wise when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, so there are times the more defensive-minded bigs (or just one big when the Thunder go small) need to be on the floor.

But if the offense needs a spark or Ibaka is having a terrible game offensively as he did at Indiana, then finishing the game with Kanter by giving him an extra 5-10 minutes seems like the right thing to do. Having Kanter out with the starters stretches the floor, gives you better rebounding, and most importantly, more offensive.

But the Thunder need Ibaka to be good in the playoffs, so taking away some of his minutes for Kanter permanently could hurt that process. To cut his minutes and confidence is not a good idea, so 20-25 minutes for Kanter is perfect.

Anthony Morrow or Kyle Singler?

Changing gears, I completely agree with R.K. Anthony in that Morrow should be given Singler’s minutes. Singler is currently averaging 14.2 minutes per game while averaging 3.3 points, shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 28.4 percent from three. So to get an idea of what Morrow’s stats are like with Singler’s minutes, here are his stats in which Morrow played 14 or more minutes this season.

In those 29 games Morrow’s averaged 7.6 points on 43 percent field goal shooting and 41.4 3-points shooting. And in those 29 games in which he played 14 or more minutes he had a negative plus-minus in only six of those games.

Kevin Durant is shooting about the same with all the wings but Morrow. His spacing is valuable. Durant’s eFG% and TS% with Morrow on the court is 69.6 and 76.

Russell Westbrook's shooting with all the wings is best with Morrow as well. Westbrook's eFG% and TS% with Morrow on the court is 51.1 and 57.3.

Clearly, Morrow's spacing provides some value to the offense.

What About Waiters?

The Thunder both know what they have with Dion Waiters' and don't know what they have with Waiters because of his inconsistency. Basically they know he's going to be inconsistent, and they just have to hope the good version shows up. For example, he scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting against the Raptors, and then the next night he started and scored four points on 1-of-8 shooting. That's been the story all season for Waiters, so it is what it is.

Randy Foye or Cameron Payne?

In the Pacers game, Donovan also benched Waiters along with Ibaka, who was simply having a terrible game, in favor of Randy Foye, who was not. Foye finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Ibaka and Waiters weren’t fond of sitting out the end of the fourth quarter, but Donovan made the right decision and it’s a decision that might have to be made several times throughout playoffs.

Foye came to OKC from Denver at the trade deadline with an already struggling shot. He shot 29 percent in Denver but then it got worse in OKC, where he went 8-of-32 in his first 11 games. With averages of 3.9 points on 30 percent from the field and 25 percent from three in those first 11 games with the Thunder.

But Foye has been starting to look more comfortable on his new team and has provided some boosts offensively and defensively. Steady offensive is important, and Donovan has shown that Foye will be on the court a lot. He’s averaged 24 minutes in the past nine games.

It'd be nice to see Payne get more of Foye’s minutes and play more alongside Westbrook in these final regular-season games, but we're probably not going to see Payne much in the playoffs, if any at all, especially if Foy continues to play at an acceptable level.

Perhaps Payne can provide a spark if needed, but Donovan will likely trust the veteran over the rookie. Payne's getting 10 minutes per game and come playoff time those minutes will only decrease. Payne in the 17 games in which he played 15 minutes or more averaged 8.1 points per game and 2.5 assists on 48 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. Granted 13 of those 17 games were against non playoff teams.

Although, I don't necessarily agree with benching Payne, but I still think he needs another offseason before fully taking the reigns of the backup point guard position and be ready for the playoffs. Playoff experience for Payne now would benefit him tremendously, but I don't see Donovan playing the 21-year-old this postseason.

But Foye does two things that the Thunder often don’t. He takes care of the ball and plays solid perimeter defense. And despite heavy minutes and occasional point guard duties, Foye has only 18 turnovers in 20 games with the Thunder.

Foye’s also tough and experienced. Guys don’t just push him around like they do with the rookie Payne. Foye is the more experienced player but has only been to the playoffs once back in 2012 with the Los Angeles Clippers.

He’s Sam Presti's Derek Fisher and Caron Butler pickup; a veteran who can contribute immediately with an already shaky shooting guard position. There’s no telling what the Thunder will get out of Foye come playoff time, but that's who they're likely going with, although don't completely count out Payne.

Seven Games Left

With the postseason now just weeks away, the Thunder are basically locked into the No. 3 seed. Donovan has already started resting players in preparation for the playoffs, but Oklahoma City can't get complacent, and Donovan needs to lock down the ideal rotation he wants heading into the games that really matter.

Either way, this team seems to be rolling at the right time and today's game against the Clippers should be a great chance to prove that.