Can Oklahoma City Thunder's Veterans Help Push Team over the Top?

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Can Oklahoma City Thunder's Veterans Help Push Team over the Top?
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder may have star power, but their NBA Finals hopes could rest on the shoulders of their veterans.

A reasonable person can argue that the Thunder are a bit top-heavy. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Russell Westbrook...and then what? Who is the Thunder's fourth-best player?

Is it Reggie Jackson? Thabo Sefolosha? Caron Butler? Or is OKC's fourth-best more of a concept than an individual?

The Thunder rely so much on their veterans. That's a mindset Scott Brooks has set up and hasn't let go of in his time as Oklahoma City coach. 

He loves himself some Derek Fisher. He'll support Kendrick Perkins forever. And maybe those are the types who have to step up for the Thunder to win their first championship since moving to Oklahoma. Maybe, for OKC to win it all, the Nick Collisons of the world just need to play effectively for 16 postseason wins.

 

Health

Harry How/Getty Images

When part of your championship hopes rest on the shoulders of older guys, you better hope you can keep them healthy.

That's part of why the San Antonio Spurs are so brilliant. It's not just about their roster composition; it's how they manage their players.

Gregg Popovich will sit Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan when they're healthy. He doesn't care about doing it for nationally televised games, just whenever works best for his team. And the Spurs are almost always healthy heading into the postseason.

That can't be a coincidence. It has to be more than chance that the best coach in the NBA implements a strategy to avoid injuries, and it works seemingly every year. That's just knowing how to manage health.

Conversely, the Thunder aren't fully healthy, and the injuries extend beyond the realm of Russell Westbrook.

Perkins hasn't played since Feb. 20 because of a groin injury, and there's a chance he doesn't return for the rest of the regular season. Thabo Sefolosha, who has been out with a calf injury, hasn't stepped on a court since Feb. 28.

Those may seem like menial players, but they're integral in their own ways. They're the veterans, the glue guys, the ones who Brooks insists on playing even if they don't always help as much as he thinks.

There's a reason the Thunder have allowed 1.3 more points per 100 possessions since the Sefolosha injury. He makes a difference on the wing, a bigger one than Jeremy Lamb and an off-the-ball Jackson if only because of his rotations and consistency. 

The Thunder, who are 9-7 over their past 16 games, may just be in a slump. It could just be an end-of-season lag, considering there hasn't been a difference in the defense schematically. But the absence of Sefolosha is hurting them, and they should be anxiously awaiting his return.

 

Defense

 

Defense is so much about familiarity.

That's one of the reasons the Memphis Grizzlies are consistently one of the toughest defensive teams in the NBA. They communicate, they have the personnel, but they also have the chemistry.

If you can have a couple of bigs who know how to defend with a key wing or guard, everything just seems a little bit easier, slightly more intuitive. And when those guys have played together for years, there's an almost telepathic sense of where to be on the court.

Memphis has Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the big men who always know exactly where each other are at all times. It has Mike Conley, Tony Allen and the rest of the Grit 'n' Grind crew. And it feels like all those guys have been together since Tennessee was boasting the popularity of Andrew Jackson and not "Ga-ZBo."

The Thunder actually aren't all that different. One of the reasons the OKC defense has gotten so much better over the past few years is familiarity alone.

Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Collison, Fisher, Perkins and Sefolosha all know each other so well at this point. The rotations make sense. They look better than they have in any other season.

Sure, Durant has improved with age. Ibaka has stepped up his game to such a point this year that you could argue he's one of the most improved defensive players in the NBA. That is, amongst those who believe it's harder to go from good to great than from average to good.

Once the Thunder get Perkins and Sefolosha back, the familiarity will start to return a bit. That's a way to find some sort of tangible value in a veteran vs. a rookie. Familiarity can be its own form of leadership, and the Thunder, amongst other teams, are helping prove that.

 

Spacing the Floor

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The corner three isn't just a good shot because it's 1'9" shorter than one from above the break. It also signifies something more.

A corner three is a catch-and-shoot attempt. It's almost always an assisted shot, one that teams get either in transition, on a drive-and-kick or on a swing around the perimeter.

It signifies proper scheme and execution with the ability to space the floor. And if you take and make a bunch of corner threes, you probably have an above-average offense.

The Thunder are actually an exception to all of this.

Oklahoma City doesn't take a bunch of corner threes, and it doesn't make many, either.

In the past, Sefolosha has been the camped-out-in-the-corner shooter. But he hasn't been as effective in that role this year, though he was massively improving before he got hurt.

That's part of why OKC had to bring in Caron Butler, who has sunk 42 percent of his threes from the corners over the past two seasons. It's a spacing issue, one that has to be remedied before the end of the postseason. 

So many teams employ these aggressive, heavy-trapping schemes on defense, and one of the ways to beat that sort of strategy is by getting the ball to the corners for the 22-foot three.

The Thunder have attempted just the 15th-most corner threes (subscription required) in the NBA. And they're making only 34 percent of them, third-to-last in the league.

If Butler, along with a healthy Sefolosha, can provide some help with spacing in the corners, that's only going to assist the Thunder in spreading the floor during the playoffs. And on a night when Durant may not be hitting all his shots and Westbrook can't play every minute (considering he may still have playing-time restrictions in the playoffs), OKC could use that extra way to get offense.

 

Too Many Minutes?

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It's the question that so many Thunder fans have wondered over the past few years: Does Scott Brooks commit to his veterans too much?

No one's saying that about Sefolosha or Collison. And Butler hasn't been a member of the Thunder nearly long enough to invoke any sort of playing-time narrative. Nope, in the end, it all comes down to Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins.

That's "in the end" of the argument and in the end of games, as well. There's so much Perkins and Fisher. Too much Perkins and Fisher.

Brooks has always shown a great propensity to overplay his vets, even after benching Perk for a short period in a game against the Miami Heat earlier this season.

It's not just about playing time. It's about crunch-time minutes. And Brooks is feeding Fisher fourth-quarter burn like no other.

 

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Fisher is playing 7.6 minutes per fourth quarter on the season and has played in the final period in all but six of his games played. That's more playing time than he averages in any other quarter. He's a legitimate closer. 

So if Brooks is going to let Fisher (and Perkins, on occasion) close games and help to decide the outcomes of Thunder playoff matchups, then there's a problem there.

Reggie Jackson gives OKC a better chance. Nick Collison or Steven Adams do, as well. It's about movement, athleticism, defense, decision-making. Pretty much everything.

We think of Fisher as the veteran leader, but how often does he chuck up a three that makes us cringe? We label Perkins as the same, but his inability to move laterally makes it generally impossible for him to defend any play that isn't directly around the paint.

Those guys have skills, which make them deserving of some burn, but at some point, they become overexposed. And that's the issue with the Thunder's vets. They can play a role, but sometimes, that role is too prominent.

Can Fisher heavily contribute to a playoff team for the amount of minutes Brooks expects? Can Perkins? And it's not like the Thunder coach is much of an adjuster in the postseason.

If the Thunder's elite players take over, clearly this team is good enough to win a championship. But if Brooks runs Fisher and Perkins even more in the postseason, then OKC may get in its own way too much to win the whole thing.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of March 27 and from basketball-reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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