The Oklahoma City Thunder may be one of the three or four best teams in the league, but they have a major question to answer this season.
Who will fill the offensive hole Kevin Martin left behind?
Now that Martin is suiting up for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder are out a third offensive option, and they'll need to find one to survive what looks to be a brutal Western Conference.
Oklahoma City wisely chose not to break into the luxury tax to sign a so-so free agent for help (sorry, Ryan Gomes, you don't count), and that means it's up to one of the Thunder's youngsters to pick up the slack.
A quick look at the OKC roster shows that there's only three real candidates for the job: Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson.
So who will it be? Let's break it down.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 13.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists
Ibaka has grown into one of the league's best two-way bigs, and he's got plenty of room to grow still. With Martin gone, Ibaka's almost certain to get a healthy bump in usage, and his scoring should rise as a result. If the question was simply “who will score more?,” then Ibaka would be the obvious pick.
But “third offensive option” suggests the ability to create shots, and to be frank, Ibaka just doesn't have that. Last season, 76 percent of Ibaka's shots were assisted, and most of those shots were mid-range jumpers out of simple pick-and-pop sets (per 82games.com).
There's absolutely nothing wrong with that—in fact, Chris Bosh is the only big in the league who can match Ibaka from mid-range (per NBA.com). But shot creation is important when talking about “offensive options,” and it's a skill Ibaka lacks. Even in post-up situations, Ibaka's only real moves are to face up for a jumper or attempt a one-dribble drive to the basket.
Thunder fans have been hoping for Ibaka to develop a back-to-the-basket game for quite some time, but at this point, it just doesn't seem realistic. If anything, he's likely to expand upon his current skills. Ibaka hit 37 percent of his (admittedly few) corner-three attempts last season, and if that shooting holds up over a larger sample, he could be a real weapon, particularly in small lineups (per NBA.com).
The best-case scenario would be Ibaka developing into a better pick-and-roll player. He finished 41st in offensive efficiency as a roll man last season, but there's no reason (well, outside of Kendrick Perkins' space-eating tendencies) that he shouldn't have a Tyson Chander or Dwight Howard-like impact in that area (per Synergy Sports Technology. Membership required).
Ibaka's improving as an offensive player, but asking him to consistently create his own shot is a different matter entirely. Which means that Ibaka just doesn't make the cut.
2012-13 Per-Game Stats (D-League): 21 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists
Lamb is one of the biggest pieces the Thunder got in the James Harden trade, and he's got the potential to be a major contributor in the future. The question is, can he do it this season?
Of the three potential candidates we're looking at, Lamb has by far the least NBA experience. Lamb looked good in the few rotation minutes he got last season—most notably against the Atlanta Hawks, where he canned two jumpers and played solid defense against Josh Smith (!!)—but he spent most of his time playing garbage minutes or in the D-League.
To be fair, Lamb looked terrific in the D-League. He scored in bunches, scored from just about everywhere (he has a beautiful floater) and proved to be a pretty sophisticated passer as well. He sometimes was a bit reckless with the ball, but what young player isn't? Overall, he had a successful season.
Still though, Lamb has a few issues that need to be sorted out if he's going to pick up the Thunder's scoring slack. His biggest problem is defense, and while that may seem to be a non-issue when discussing who will be OKC's third offensive option, it's not. Lamb's defense may not be a Kevin Martin-level of bad, but he's certainly not good, and that could be a real detriment when it comes to getting floor time.
The other problem is, believe it or not, Lamb's shooting. For all the talk about what a smooth shot Lamb has, he's never had an elite shooting season from outside. Even in college, Lamb never shot better than 37 percent from three, and if he can't hit from outside, he'll find squeezing into the Thunder rotation to be very difficult.
The good news for Thunder fans is that Lamb's problem isn't his stroke so much as it is his shot selection (okay, it's kind of good news). Lamb hijacks his percentages by taking a lot of poor off-the-dribble threes. That shouldn't be as much of a problem in OKC, where he'll do a lot more spot-up shooting as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant run the show.
Lamb has a lot of potential and could be a solid player for the Thunder this season if all goes well. But even at his best, he probably won't be enough to go head to head with...
2012-13 Per-Game Stats: 5.3 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists
Jackson's numbers last season may be underwhelming, but don't let that fool you. Jackson has legitimate Sixth Man of the Year potential. He's that good.
A lot of people assume that Jackson first broke out after Westbrook was injured against the Houston Rockets, but he was playing great ball ever since the February trade deadline. After Eric Maynor was traded and Jackson took sole control of the backup point spot, he averaged 15 points, six rebounds and four assists per 36 minutes (via NBA.com). So it's not as if he can be called a flash in the pan.
In fact, if there's one player on the Thunder roster whose game resembles Harden's, it's Jackson. He may not be the shooter or quite the playmaker Harden is, but they both do the bulk of their scoring in the exact same way—the pick-and-roll.
Last season, Jackson was tied for sixth best in the pick-and-roll in terms of scoring efficiency (he averaged 0.98 points per possession via Synergy Sports Technology). It's a relatively small sample size, but it's extremely impressive when you consider both the player he tied (Chris Paul) and the fact that he's actually ahead of where Harden was in his second year (0.96 points per possession via Synergy Sports Technology).
Like Harden, Jackson is a patient, probing pick-and-roll player who rarely settles for mid-range jumpers. He doesn't have Harden's ability to get to the line, but he makes up for it by hitting ridiculous percentages at the rim. Last season, Jackson shot 71 percent in the restricted area, the best mark of any guard but Andre Iguodala (per NBA.com). Jackson has fantastic body control and is very good at tricking bigs around the basket, as he does twice to Tyson Chandler in the clip below.
Much like it was with Harden, OKC's second-unit offense will probably be an endless string of Jackson and Nick Collison pick-and-rolls. Collison's a great pick-and-roll player, and he and Jackson could be a fun duo for the next few seasons.
Jackson could even play alongside Westbrook for short spans. Despite being a mediocre three-point shooter, Westbrook's a great off-the-ball player, and Scott Brooks would have a blast unleashing something like a Jackson-Westbrook-Thabo Sefolosha-Durant-Ibaka lineup.
Now, with all that being said, Jackson's also got some improvements to make if he's really going to shine this season. Like most young players, he has some work to do defensively, but if there's one thing he needs to improve, it's his jumper.
Jackson connected on just 35 percent of his jump shots last season, including a dreadful 25 percent from three (per Basketball-Reference). That's not so bad in and of itself, but if he can't hit jumpers at a respectable clip, there's nothing to stop defenders from simply playing under every screen in the pick-and-roll.
For what it's worth, it looked like he was sporting an improved jumper in the Orlando Summer League, and if so, defenses are going to find him tough to stop.
Pretty obvious, right? Barring massive improvement from Ibaka or Lamb, Jackson's the easy pick for Oklahoma City's third offensive option.
The Thunder will certainly feel Martin's loss, but this is the same team that headed into last year's playoffs with a massive win differential and a very good chance to reach the NBA Finals. With some help from Ibaka, Lamb and particularly Jackson, there's a good chance things won't look much different this season.