The Oklahoma City Thunder have a starring line built to withstand the brightest lights, but their supporting cast holds the biggest piece to solving their championship puzzle.
But clearing that last championship hurdle can't be done on these six legs alone. The continued developments of players like Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones III will play a pivotal role in the franchise's future.
And that future begins now.
Predictably Mixed Bag
Oklahoma City's in a unique spot.
This team has title potential now. The Thunder are worlds removed from playing their best hoops, yet they own the third-best winning percentage in the Western Conference (.750).
Between Durant's bid for the fourth scoring crown of his career (28.6 points per game), Westbrook's returning rhythm (24.8 points on 48.7 percent shooting over his last four) and Ibaka's emergence (career-highs of 14.5 points and 10.1 rebounds), OKC is a nightmare matchup for opponents as it stands.
But the Thunder's ceiling is far from being set with so many young players pumping through the pipeline. So, too, is their basement.
Some nights that youth can be a blessing:
Other nights it's a curse:
These youngsters are going through typical growing pains; they just happen to be experiencing them in the midst of a title chase.
Their mistakes are magnified. Their moments of brilliance, blown out of proportion.
Somehow, all of the attention is justified. Their shortcomings are causes for concern. Their breakout efforts are reasons to celebrate.
Jones (10.4 minutes per game) is a bit of a wild card, but the other three will surely play prominent postseason roles.
Adams has hands, which is enough to make ground in this frontcourt rotation. He gives coach Scott Brooks a second shot-blocking presence (2.4 per 36 minutes). He's moved more on the offensive low block in his first 12 NBA games than Kendrick Perkins has in his 10-year career.
Jackson's a spark plug with an extra gear few NBA players can match. With his combination of speed and strength, he can terrorize opposing guards.
Lamb (36.6 three-point percentage) helps replace some of the floor spacing lost with Kevin Martin's offseason departure. He's churned out 1.18 points per possession as a spot-up shooter (39th in the league via Synergy Sports, subscription required). But his length (6'11" wingspan) and athleticism makes it impossible to put him in a specialist's box.
Yet, all three have their shortcomings.
Adams has trouble defending without fouling (5.4 per 36 minutes). Jackson's decision-making (3.9 turnovers per 36 minutes) leaves so much to be desired. For all of his offensive gifts, Lamb's been fairly limited (42.9 field-goal percentage) in how he can impact the stat sheet.
Lacking both ceilings and basements, these young guns have plenty of room to grow. But will they be ready to make those leaps when OKC really needs them?
What Lies Ahead?
The championship field is clearing by the day.
The Eastern Conference is already down to a two-team race. The West has depth, but may be more top-heavy than the standings would indicate.
The Thunder are one of the few teams excelling at both ends of the floor.
OKC can overwhelm with offense (104.2 offensive rating, tied for seventh) or frustrate at the opposite side (98.0 defensive rating, tied for fourth). The Thunder clean the glass (52.9 rebounding percentage, second), make regular trips to the foul line (29.1 attempts per game, second) and protect the interior (56.7 field-goal percentage allowed within five feet of the basket, 10th).
The title hopes that so many feared had ridden out of town on the end of James Harden's beard still exist. If Westbrook didn't go down with a torn meniscus in the playoffs last season, the Thunder would have been a Western Conference finalist, or something even greater.
The chance to realize that something greater is absolutely still in play.
But OKC's title hopes now rest with this latest youth movement.
Jackson doesn't have to be Harden, but he needs to be an impact player off the pine. Lamb needs to hold defenses accountable on the perimeter and punish them when help doesn't come. Adams must bring a consistent scoring threat to the low block, even if his floor time fluctuates.
This franchise, thanks in no small part to the masterful work of general manager Sam Presti, built a championship contender off patience and player development.
Both skills will be tested over the course of this season.
Head coach Scott Brooks has to extend a long leash for these players. Slip-ups are unavoidable, but the lessons these youngsters will learn are invaluable.
But a guiding hand must always remain at the end of those leashes. The freedom to make mistakes is hardly an asset without providing the tools to avoid those blunders in the future.
This doesn't have to become the most disciplined bunch. The Thunder win games with speed, not savvy, athleticism, not flawless execution.
That athletic edge is lost, though, if Brooks is forced to thin his ranks. Sustaining an up-tempo system without reliable depth is impossible. Even the world's best sprinters run out of steam eventually.
Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are the ones responsible for keeping this team in a full-fledged title pursuit. But their ability to hand over the reins to competent, consistent reserves will be the difference between celebrating in June or starting their vacations early.
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