OKC Thunder's Supporting Cast Will Decide Team's Contender Status in 2013-14

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OKC Thunder's Supporting Cast Will Decide Team's Contender Status in 2013-14
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kevin Durant is the second-best basketball player in the world. Russell Westbrook might be in the top 10. But they'll need more than just each other to be real contenders for an NBA title this year.

Their organization—the Oklahoma City Thunder—pretty much held steady during a summer in which several other teams made big moves in an effort to move from barely registering on Miami's radar to imminent threats.

Actually, it wouldn't be that hard to argue that OKC took a step back.

The front office allowed their third-leading scorer, Kevin Martin, to head for snowier pastures in Minnesota, while the Clippers, Nets, Rockets and Warriors (just to name a few) loaded up through trades and free agency.

Do OKC's management and coaching staff know something we don't? Maybe Martin taking his 14 points a game elsewhere isn't too big a deal because youngsters Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III and Hasheem Thabeet have made huge strides this summer. Maybe Steven Adams has a lot more to offer than his college averages of 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds suggest. Maybe Serge Ibaka is ready to become a reliable third wheel on offense.

For the sake of Durant and Westbrook, I hope one or all of the previous statements are true—because Derek Fisher and Nick Collison aren't getting any younger and Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins aren't getting any better.

 

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Old Cast

Much like the decrepit stars in Sylvester Stallone's magnum opus Expendables series, some of the old standbys on OKC's roster are good for little more than unintentional humor at this point in their careers.

Fisher and Perkins definitely fit that billing.

One is a 39-year-old point guard who's had a terrible time staying in front of the league's up-and-comers at his position for the better part of a decade. His offense is heading over the same cliff—both his scoring average and player efficiency rating have dropped in each of the last five seasons.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The other is Perkins, whose decline has been about as steep with the Thunder. Since he was traded from the Celtics in 2011, it's become increasingly clear that he has next to nothing to offer on offense. Last season, he shot just 46 percent from the field and well over two-thirds of his attempts came within 10 feet of the rim.

Sefolosha and Collison may still have something in the tank, though not enough to replace the production Martin provided.

Let's start with Sefolosha. Sometime during the 2011 offseason, he somehow managed to make a broke-looking jump shot effective from three-point range. Over his first five years in the league, he hit 30 percent from downtown. Over the last two? 42 percent.

Collison improved last year as well. In less than 20 minutes a game, he averaged over five points and four rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the field. Just compare this paragraph with the one regarding Perkins to see why Collison needs a bigger role in OKC's supporting cast.

While these four were all contributors on the Thunder team that lost the 2012 Finals to the Heat, that was a year-and-a-half ago and OKC had James Harden then.

It's going to take more than further marginal improvements from Sefolosha and Collison to legitimize this supporting cast.

 

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Potential Replacements

The Thunder have picked up a number of interesting young assets over the last few years. And general manager Sam Presti must have a lot of faith in their potential, because he's let the team's third-leading scorer depart during each of the last two offseasons. In James Harden's case, Presti orchestrated the move.

One of the players OKC received in return for Harden was Jeremy Lamb, the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft. A number of factors made Lamb a lottery pick: size (6'5" is average for a shooting guard, but his 6'11" wingspan makes up for that), athleticism (he registered a 38-inch vertical at the combine) and natural scoring ability.

He hasn't had much of a chance to show off his skills in real NBA action, but Lamb has dominated the D-League and summer leagues over the last two years (21 points a game in the one, 18.8 in the other).

Shooting guards Kevin Martin and James Harden were the previous occupants of Oklahoma City's sixth man and offensive spark off the bench role and Lamb seems like a natural heir apparent.

Reggie Jackson may be another option. He's shorter (just 6'3"), but he and Westbrook are both combo guards who could share responsibilities in the backcourt.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jackson has already shown the ability to score against NBA defenses. After Westbrook went down during the playoffs last year, Jackson stepped in and averaged 13.9 points in 11 postseason games.

The problem with that potential combo is spacing. Westbrook's career three-point percentage is 30 and Jackson's is just 22. Both like to attack the basket, but they may find that more difficult without a rangy shooting guard to make opposing defenses respect the three-point line.

Perry Jones III is another possible addition to the supporting cast this year. Though he may not be able to fill the aforementioned role vacated by Kevin Martin, the 6'11" forward still has a lot of untapped potential.

A year before he was drafted, Jones was a consensus top-five pick. In fact, some thought he could go No. 1. But a lack of dominance in college and a troublesome knee were red flags that caused an enormous draft-night slide. The Thunder snagged him after he fell all the way to No. 28.

He got almost no time as a rookie for the Thunder last year, but was solid in 15 D-League games, averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds.

One of the reasons he had a hard time getting on the court for NBA action is his status as a tweener. The list of college bigs who've tried and failed to convert to small forward over the last few years is getting longer and longer (Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Morris twins, etc.).

Instead of making him yet another casualty of this trend, OKC should move Jones to power forward full time. 

It's there that he would cause nightmarish mismatches. He has a wicked combination of size and athleticism, with a wingspan just under 7'2", a 38.5-inch vertical and legs that conjure up the cliched image: "runs the floor like a gazelle." 

For that reason, one of the most intriguing frontcourt combos to me is Jones and Ibaka. The slight duo may struggle against bruising bigs like MemphisMarc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but I can't imagine many forwards and centers being able to keep up in the open court.

 

Brett Deering/Getty Images

Serge Ibaka

Speaking of Ibaka, he is perhaps the best option to pick up the slack on offense and is already an important part of the rotation.

He showed a vastly expanded offensive game last season. Both his number of attempts and field-goal percentages from all ranges went up. Check out the difference between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons:

At Rim 3-10 ft. 10-16 ft. 16 ft.-3PT Line 3PT
+2% +3% +14% +4% +2%

 

These heat maps from Basketball-Reference further illustrate the point. The more red in a spot, the points were produced from there.

The map on the right is from the 2012-13 season and shows Ibaka's expanded perimeter game.

The biggest addition to his game is the corner three. The plus-two in percentage seen in the above table doesn't come near telling the whole story. In season one, he took just three attempts. Last year, he went 20-57. If he improves again, he can be a great floor-spacer for Durant and Westbrook.

 

Defense

I've focused a lot on offense throughout this article, but a great supporting cast is obviously about much more than that.

Jackson, Lamb and Jones all have the size and athleticism to be defensive weapons at their positions, but they're unproven on that end. Perkins and Sefolosha are known assets defensively, but liabilities offensively.

Ibaka comes in here as well. He's led the league in blocks per game for each of the last two seasons, and he does not slow down the offense.

 

Do the Thunder Have a Good Enough Supporting Cast to Compete for a Title?

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Because of a lackluster offseason, plenty of people seem to be underestimating the Thunder right now. Their biggest signing this summer may have been Ryan Gomes, who wasn't even in the league last year and averaged 2.3 points for the Clippers in 2011-12.

But underestimating Sam Presti doesn't make a ton of sense. He comes from a Spurs organization well-known for reclamation projects and its ability to develop young talent from within.

I wouldn't put it past him to have a few tricks up his sleeve. And I wouldn't put it past two of the best players in the world to elevate a supporting cast to new heights.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

 

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