The Oklahoma City Thunder are known for a variety of different things. Kevin Durant, their offense, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka's blocks, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook's infuriatingly effective game, Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins' new statistical lows—just to name a few.
Among what they're most notorious for is the sixth-man slot. Where guys like Harden and Martin would and have headlined the starting lineup for other teams, the Thunder had them coming off the bench. And it worked.
Oklahoma City reached the NBA Finals in 2012 and won a Western Conference-leading 60 games last season before a Westbrook injury derailed its postseason ambitions. Harden and Martin, respectively, were instrumental in each of those campaigns.
Along with the five-star play they injected into the Thunder's bench, however, came the inability to retain either of them.
The bearded shooting guard wanted (and deserved) more money ($80 million) than the Thunder were prepared to offer him last fall, so he was traded to the Houston Rockets. After restoring what was lost of his reputation, Martin jumped at the opportunity to make far more with the Minnesota Timberwolves ($28 million) than he could have with the Thunder.
Now Oklahoma City must look for another replacement to shore up its sixth-man mantle. And according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, it will come down to Jackson and Lamb.
What Do the Thunder Need in a Sixth Man?
Offense. A specific kind of offense.
Generally, Oklahoma City's sixth man will be the fourth scoring option behind Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka. Although that stands to change depending upon who's in the game, the Thunder's sixth man has routinely been their third- or fourth-best scorer.
From the outside looking in it seems seems like a cushy gig, because on some levels, it is. You're not put under the microscope the way Durant and Westbrook are and, let's face it, playing behind two top-10 superstars makes for prime real estate.
It's not all complementary hugs and kisses, though. Plays aren't designed as frequently for your enjoyment, and you're tasked with sustaining a high level of production within the flow of Durant and Westbrook's offensive games.
A pair of NBA teams had two players rank in the top 10 of individual usage rates last year—the Thunder (Durant and Westbrook) and the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade). With so many sets scripted with two big names in mind, you have to find a way to capitalize off the bridled number of opportunities you're going to receive.
Below you'll see how Harden and Martin fared in their last season—in Martin's case, his only season—with the Thunder:
|James Harden (2011-12)||31.4||5.0||10.1||49.1||39.0||16.8||4.1||3.7||1.0|
|Kevin Martin (2012-13)||27.7||4.5||10.1||45.0||42.6||14.0||2.3||1.4||0.9|
Harden was clearly the more complete player, but Martin replaced enough of his production next to an evolving Durant and Westbrook that Oklahoma City held steady last season. Jackson or Lamb (or both) must now do the same.
Jackson didn't receive a ton of playing time in 2012-13.
During the regular season he averaged just 14.2 minutes in 70 appearances, finishing with a line of 5.3 points and 1.7 assists on 45.8 percent shooting. Extrapolated, however, Jackson posted an impressive 13.6 points and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes. Not bad for a sparingly used sophomore on a title contender, eh?
Still, we know the perils of reading into projected stat lines. In theory, it can be easier for a player to excel in short bursts of action compared to long-form stints. Jackson wasn't logging significant minutes on a consistent basis, so the numbers could be misleading. Who knows how he would respond to increased playing time?
Well, we do.
Once Westbrook went down, Jackson was catapulted into Oklahoma City's starting lineup. The Thunder ultimately fell in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies, but they don't sneak past the Rockets and into the second round without Jackson.
In 33.5 minutes of action, he notched 13.3 points and 3.6 assists on 47.9 percent shooting, or 15 and 3.9 per 36 minutes.
Take a look at how his per-36 minute averages in the playoffs stack up to his numbers during the regular season when he was playing less than half the minutes:
Though we can't say he was patently better in every statistical category, his quality of play didn't subside when he took on more responsibilities. At the very least, it stayed constant.
Better still, look at how his playoff numbers compared to Martin's last season, and Harden's in his second year in the league:
Bits of the statistics can be difficult to read with regards to Jackson and Harden, but that's the point. They over-freaking-lap.
In so many ways, he matched Harden's output in his second year. The significance of that is not to be overlooked.
(For your viewing pleasure, the same data is shown in an easier-to-read format below.)
None of what we have just seen proves Jackson should adopt a no-shave policy, produce awful music and declare himself the second-coming of James Harden. That their postseason numbers are so similar at the same stage of their careers, however, is huge, Westbrook or no Westbrook.
Unlike Martin, Jackson consistently provides playmaking in addition to his own point totals. His three-point shooting (22.3 percent from three for his career) hardly withstands the blow his predecessors would issue, but the results he generated on offense last season don't lie.
That is, unless Harden and Martin's numerical values have lied to us too.
And you thought Jackson barely played last season.
Lamb averaged a mere 6.4 minutes in 23 appearances, not nearly a large enough sample size for us to draw any groundbreaking conclusions from. This is one of those situations where we must be leery of the 17.4 points and 4.4 rebounds he tallied per 36 minutes. Not much, if anything, can be gleaned from a campaign in which he saw just 147 total minutes of action during the regular season.
He was admittedly more of a standout during his D-League and Summer League jaunts, securing more playing time while offering us a more distinct measuring stick in the process.
The graph below shows his numbers relative to the playing time he received this past year in each of the three different settings:
With the exception of his time in the D-League, Lamb has struggled to remain efficient from the floor. Once again, limited playing time can adversely impact his ability to establish rhythm, thus hindering his shooting, but he received extensive burn in Orlando this summer and still knocked down just 39.1 percent of his shots.
At 6'5", Lamb has a two-inch height advantage on the 6'3" Jackson, leaving him better suited to guard opposing shooting guards. According to 82games.com, he held 2-guards to a 15.9 PER compared to the 18.9 Jackson relinquished.
But the Thunder can afford to give a little on the defensive end. Remember, the primary objective here is to find someone who can act as a third or fourth scorer, who can replace as much of what Harden and Martin took with them as possible. And so long as we're talking defense, Jackson also limited opposing point guards to a 9.1 PER, well below the league average of 15.
Lamb also had an opportunity to separate himself as a spot-up shooter, and didn't. Next to ball-dominators like Durant and Westbrook, off-ball scorers are of significant value.
Per Synergy Sports (subscription required) Jackson hit on just 35.8 percent of his spot-up opportunities (30.1 percent from three), failing to make a case for himself as the strongest of shooters. Lamb actually fared worse, though, connecting on a paltry 30.8 and 27.8 percent, respectively.
Curbed samplings prevent us from reading too much into what we know about Lamb and how he performed during his rookie campaign, but only so much can be deduced from his D-League and Summer League showings as well.
All we know for certain is that he's still raw, and the Thunder must have infinite faith in his potential if they figure him for a more prominent role next season.
Ideally, we would have more intel before making our decision.
There would be more information on lineups and how each of these players produced next to Durant and Westbrook. Tell-all sample sizes aren't a luxury we've been afforded, though.
All we have to go on is what we've seen, what the numbers have revealed. We've seen more of Jackson obviously, so there's more to go on, but what we have to go on is also far more promising than anything Lamb has yet to show us.
Entering the game as the sixth man would indeed require Jackson become accustomed to playing off the ball and at shooting guard more. Finagling such a change shouldn't be too much of a challenge, though, when you consider how versatile both Durant and Westbrook are. Westbrook especially is capable of adjusting to a hybrid guard lineup; it's essentially what he and Harden did for three years.
Knighting Jackson the team's sixth man is not without its risks, and there's no sense assuming he'll rival the impact both Harden and Martin had. Maybe he will, maybe he won't.
Who should the Thunder use as their sixth man next season?
Maybe there won't even be an unquestioned sixth man. Perhaps, like Mayberry notes, the Thunder will rely on both players to supplant the production they lost. Substitutions could depend on the situation and the opponent.
But if it's continuity Oklahoma City is striving for once again, Jackson is the one it must turn to. Not enough about him is known to make gargantuan-sized promises, but even less is known about Lamb. That, for now, makes all the difference.
One successful postseason campaign already to his credit, Jackson is the more certain of two ambiguous options.