Serge Ibaka deserves to see a few more minutes at the 5 this season.
Scott Brooks hasn't always been the greatest of coaches, but give the man some credit. He's done a good job this season.
Brooks has thus far shown a willingness to experiment that he never has before, fiddling around with an 11-man rotation, embracing more small ball and giving rookie center Steven Adams the bulk of the minutes over Kendrick Perkins. These are surprising, but welcome changes for Oklahoma City Thunder fans, and they're a big part of what's made OKC's 8-3 start so promising.
It's still early in the season though, and there are a few lineup adjustments to be made in order to really maximize the Thunder's potential.
A Little Less Derek Fisher
This is intended as no slight to Derek Fisher, who—despite some pretty pedestrian base numbers—has been a valuable contributor for the Thunder this season. Fisher's averaging just over three points a game on 51 percent true shooting (including just 14 percent from three), but he's played three different positions and has done a good job defensively at all of them.
Still, Fisher is playing nearly 15 minutes a game. That's not ideal for a 39-year-old who figures to factor into OKC's playoff plans, especially considering that he has two talented young guards sitting behind him in Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb.
Jackson hasn't played quite as well as he did in last year's playoffs, but when he's on the court, the Thunder are killing teams. It's that simple. OKC is nearly 19 points per 100 possessions better with Jackson on the floor, per 82games.com. Of its most-used five-man lineups, Jackson is a part of every one that has outscored opponents, per NBA.com. Every single one.
The Jackson and Russell Westbrook backcourt has been particularly scary, torching opponents on both ends, per NBA.com. Jackson's a terrific pick-and-roll guard, and he frees Westbrook up for hard cuts to the basket (or vice-versa when Westbrook handles the ball).
On the other hand, Lamb is the Thunder's best three-point shooter (he's hitting 39 percent of his threes) and is averaging nine points per game with decent efficiency. Lamb doesn't do much creating on his own, but he's been good off of pin downs, spotting up from three and in transition, per Synergy Sports Technology.
In no way should Fisher be completely cut from the rotation, but giving a few of his minutes each game to OKC's younger guards could pay real dividends now and in the future.
More Serge Ibaka At The 5
Fortunately for Thunder fans, Serge Ibaka's dreadful start—he averaged nine points on 29 percent true shooting in OKC's first two games—has given way to some of the best basketball of his life. Since Westbrook's return, Ibaka has been absolutely fantastic, averaging 15 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game on 63 percent true shooting, via NBA.com.
The numbers look great, but what's most encouraging about Ibaka's season to this point is how well he's played at the 5.
The Thunder are outscoring opponents by a whopping 25 points per 100 possessions when Ibaka is at center. They're defending at an elite level and scoring at a far greater rate than the top offense in the league, per 82games.com. Ibaka's also posting a 31 PER in those lineups while holding opposing centers to a PER of just 8.8. In short, he's been really freaking good.
Brooks has traditionally used Nick Collison as his small-ball 5 (slotting Ibaka into the 4 any time they play together), but Ibaka's been good to the extent that he deserves some of those minutes. Collison's a very, very good role player, but he's not the two-way force Ibaka is, and lineups with Ibaka at the 5 and Kevin Durant at the 4 have the potential to be lethal (and have been thus far this season, per NBA.com).
Ibaka ranks eighth in the league in pick-and-roll efficiency, per Synergy Sports Technology, in part because he's started to diversify the looks he gets out of the pick-and-roll.
Ibaka used to operate almost strictly as a mid-range shooter out of pick-and-pop sets, but he's made a concerted effort this season to roll hard to the basket more often. That's made him an even bigger handful for defenses, especially when the Thunder choose to do stuff like this.
The problem is, it's tough for Ibaka to be a pick-and-roll force with someone like Perkins or even Adams (who's worlds better than Perkins on the offensive end but still eats up a lot of space) in the game. The best-case scenario for Ibaka would be Durant at the 4 and as many shooters as possible filling out the other positions. There isn't a defense in the league prepared to handle that.
Brooks has understandably given a hefty chunk of minutes to Adams (who's significantly more polished than advertised), but it'd be worth finding ways to get Ibaka more burn at center, regardless of who's docked minutes. The Thunder are crushing teams when he's out there, and he's showed off an improved all-around game, including (could it be?) flashes of back-to-the-basket competence.
Don't Cut Perry Jones Out Just Yet
Brooks can't run with an 11-man rotation (as he was doing to start the season) forever, and it's beginning to look like Perry Jones is the odd man out. After averaging 11 minutes through the Thunder's first eight games, Jones has played just six minutes total over the past three.
This isn't a huge deal—Brooks was bound to cut someone out eventually—but Jones has played well and deserves at least a few more looks. The Thunder have been great (particularly defensively, per 82games.com) with him on the court, he's guarded a variety of positions and has knocked down a few corner threes—including a big one that helped spark a comeback against the Washington Wizards.
Jones will almost certainly be resigned to the bench at some point, but he's earned a few more minutes.
Stick With The Starters...For Now
This isn't technically an adjustment, but it's something to watch moving forward. It's unlikely that Brooks will make any changes to his starting lineup—since Perkins arrived, he's only done so due to injury, per The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel. But if they continue to play poorly, they might just force his hand.
The OKC starters are being outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions, nearly the exact mark they were outscoring teams by last season, per NBA.com.
They're unlikely to play this poorly for the entire year as a lot of small-sample weirdness—Westbrook's inability to hit at the rim, Thabo Sefolosha's terrible three-point shooting, etc.—have been big contributors toward such a terrible number. Still, Perkins' continued decline is troubling, and if something doesn't change, the Thunder could wind up staring at a lot of early deficits.
For now, the best move is probably to stick with the starters but put them on a shorter leash than before.
Even if Perkins continues to look awful and Sefolosha has magically lost his three-point touch, the starters are unlikely to be outscored by that degree once Westbrook has shaken off all the rust. And if things do continue to go badly, Brooks can then make his move, which will almost certainly be replacing Perkins with Adams (though starting small isn't totally out of the question).
Adams is still raw and sometimes gets confused in the pick-and-roll. But as mentioned earlier, he's significantly better than Perkins offensively, and at a certain point, that matters. You can see in the clip below that defenses are blatantly ignoring Perkins no matter what he does, making it difficult for the Thunder wings to get into the lane when he's out there.
There's a decent chance the starters eventually turn things around. They were almost too good last season not to. But if they keep struggling, Brooks will have to make a change.
All stats accurate as of 11/23/2013 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.