With two of the NBA's most potent offensive weapons in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in the starting lineup, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks has the luxury of keeping James Harden, another versatile scorer, on the bench as a sixth man.
Usually starting in Harden's position is defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha. However, the recent foot injury to Thabo and the lack of bench scorers aside from Harden forced Brooks to give the opportunity to three-point specialist Daequan Cook.
And the decision is paying off.
With Cook in the starting lineup, the Thunder are currently 11-3. Compared to the 16-2 record with Sefolosha starting instead, this may give you the impression that Sefolosha is the better option.
However, if the Thunder want to keep the improved balance between the offense and defense of the starting lineup, they are better off keeping Cook in that starting lineup.
The Thunder's frontcourt features Durant and two defensive-minded players in Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. While Ibaka is continually improving his mid-range game, he is still not a reliable option offensively, and Perkins provides nothing more than what Joel Anthony can give the Miami Heat.
The presence of Ibaka and Perkins starting the game may help the Thunder defensively, but it throws a lot of pressure on Durant and Westbrook to start the games off well.
Should Durant and Westbrook both struggle, it is very difficult for the Thunder to garner points to keep the point differential close.
Granted, any team would struggle with their two best players out of form, but one of Cook's advantages over Sefolosha is that he can make it easier for Durant and Westbrook to score by spreading the floor.
Although Sefolosha can also hit three-pointers, he is on a different level than Cook, a former Three-Point Shootout Champion on NBA All-Star Weekend.
Prior to starting, Cook's role was similar to Kyle Korver of the Chicago Bulls, with the team requiring nothing more than a few three-pointers off the bench from him.
However, unlike Korver, Cook plays acceptable amount of defense to go with his points scored, which allows him to stay on the court longer.
Still, no one is expecting Cook or Sefolosha to play major minutes as long as Harden continues his surge into potential stardom.
But as long as Brooks requires The Beard to start games on the bench, the starting lineup will always be looking for more offense, and Cook will provide more points than Sefolosha will.
The difference between starting Sefolosha for Cook may only be a few points, but those few points could very well be what separates a championship contender from a pretender.
The Thunder are definitely capable of being the latter.
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