The Oklahoma City Thunder have a shooting guard problem.
OKC shooting guards posted just an 11.9 player efficiency rating during the regular season, the worst at any of the team's five positions, according to 82games.com.
Thunder shooting guards couldn't shoot or create on their own. Starting 2-guard Thabo Sefolosha had a down shooting season and looked more horrified than an ant beneath a shoe every time he had to take a shot. Jeremy Lamb, meanwhile, lost playing time as the season progressed.
After an even worse postseason showing, Sefolosha had to head to the bench, and once usual sixth man Reggie Jackson entered the starting lineup, Lamb wasn't much help as a reserve. And now, the Thunder need help at the 2 moving forward.
There's one leading question we constantly hear about Jackson: Can he be the guy who can step in at shooting guard?
The natural comparison to make is that Jackson has to fill the James Harden role. He's the guard off the bench who can play the 2, run the reserve offense at the 1 and provide scoring in a backup role. But can't we acknowledge that comparison is a little ambitious?
James Harden is, after all, James Harden.
So, the inquiry the Thunder need to ask is a modified version of the prevalent Harden one: Is Jackson most valuable off the bench, starting alongside Westbrook or as a tradable asset?
The third-year guard hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2015. And yes, that puts him in a very Harden-like position. (See how I can contradict myself?)
So, if Jackson is going to get paid next summer (how much remains to be seen), is he more valuable as an asset than as a piece for the present? That's something you can bet general manager Sam Presti has already asked himself over and over again.
But for the sake of argument, let's pretend Jackson is returning—considering we haven't heard any actual rumblings about his departure from Oklahoma City just yet. Is he the answer next to Westbrook?
We saw Brooks play Westbrook and Jackson together for 395 minutes during the regular season, and statistically, it worked. Incredibly well, actually. The Thunder outscored their opponents by 17.8 points per 100 possessions (registration required) in that time.
Brooks started to play that combination more and more in the playoffs—eventually inserting Jackson into the starting lineup against the San Antonio Spurs for the Thunder's final four playoff games. And lineups with the two of them thrived once again.
In 350 total postseason minutes, Westbrook-Jackson units outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions (registration required).
Having another ball-handler on the court opens up a completely new dynamic for this team. No Sefolosha means Westbrook doesn't have to feel like he has to create completely on his own if a defense is favoring Kevin Durant. With Jackson on the floor, the Thunder aren't playing three-on-five with Perkins and Thabo hindering them anymore.
Ultimately, even if Jackson is going to increase his minutes total up to 33-plus a night, OKC needs some pump off the bench.
One of the most telling stats about the team's bench this past season was that the Thunder went 32-4 in games when Jackson, who averaged 13.1 points per game on the year, scored 14 or more. If OKC wanted scoring from the reserves, it was going to be Mr. OKCtober or no one.
Next year, the Thunder can get some help with that. They may be over the cap heading into 2014-15, but they do have a mid-level and a bi-annual exception with which to work. That can bring in some quality talent—especially on a winning squad led by a likable coach and a reigning MVP.
Still, development is key...I'm talking to you, Jeremy Lamb.
Oh, Jeremy. What happened to you? And how many sheep puns do you really plan on inspiring?
There was a time this year when Lamb was a legitimate mainstay in the Thunder's rotation. The second-year shooting guard averaged 22.1 minutes per game before the All-Star weekend, but slowly started losing time, averaging 13.9 minutes and racking up four DNPs after the break. Now, Lamb may be a more important piece than anyone else.
But there are two keys: improvement and opportunities.
Brooks didn't necessarily need to faze Lamb out of the rotation, but at the same time, it's not like Lamb didn't do anything to deserve the demotion. The second-year guard is still learning how to complete his game.
There are some problems on offense even though Lamb has figured out how to move well off the ball. Mainly, it's as a shooter, where he sank just 41.2 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities this season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). But really, this comes down to defense.
If he wants to make his mark next season, he can't keep missing his rotations on the defensive end. Considering strong wing defense (both on and off the ball) was what Sefolosha—a free agent this summer—has provided for the past few years, OKC is going to need to get that defense back somehow.
So, if Jackson is best suited off the bench and Lamb isn't "ready," maybe the best place for the Thunder to turn is free agency or the trade market—where they can get a more reliable option to play the 2 and space the floor.
Don't bite too hard into this year's free agency list, though. The sourness may make your face start to scrunch up.
Floor spacing has to be a priority.
Oklahoma City could make a run at Vince Carter (who shot 39.4 percent from three last year and has become vastly underrated). Ray Allen's contract runs up with the Miami Heat, but he's looked inconsistent with age despite still clearly being effective. Jodie Meeks actually had a nice season for the Los Angeles Lakers by draining 40.1 percent of his long-range shots, and he could help if he got the bi-annual or part of the mid-level exception.
Nick Young and Evan Turner are free agents, and...actually, scratch that.
So, what do the Thunder do?
Go after one of those guys to play a significant role? Use the MLE to sure up other parts of the roster and go modest at shooting guard, trying to sign up an Anthony Morrow type to a small-time deal? Or do you look for a trade?
Jamal Crawford could reasonably be on the market, and his contract actually is not guaranteed for the final couple years of his contract.
The Thunder spoke to the New York Knicks about Iman Shumpert at the deadline and may circle back around to those talks again this offseason. And Arron Afflalo has been pretty publicly available for some time, now.
Acquiring someone of that caliber (Afflalo had an All-Star-caliber season in a down Eastern Conference and Crawford is a reigning Sixth Man of the Year) would completely take the pressure off Lamb (if OKC could keep him) and allow the Thunder offense to open up completely. Let's also remember the Thunder have that Kevin Martin $6.5 million trade exception that runs out July 11.
A deal that I wrote about at the trade deadline still seems perfectly plausible: Wouldn't Perkins, Lamb and a first-rounder for Afflalo make sense for both sides?
Lamb and Jackson should be able to fill a void at the 2, but sometimes theories never actually materialize. Sometimes, they just stay abstract. It would be prudent for the Thunder have to reach out and find some external enforcements.
In some way, OKC needs to fix its shooting guard problem, and Sefolosha probably won't be part of the future. If the Thunder want to solve the issues they had at that position last season, they may need to reach outside of the organization to do it.
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, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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