It's Time for Jeremy Lamb to Land Key Role with OKC Thunder

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It's Time for Jeremy Lamb to Land Key Role with OKC Thunder
Chris Szagola/Associated Press

Jeremy Lamb is at a crossroads: The Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard will enter his third NBA season in 2014-15, one that should call for his improvement.

After getting into just 23 games during his rookie year, Lamb played almost every game for Oklahoma City last season, averaging 8.5 points on 43-36-80 shooting in 19.7 minutes per game. As the Thunder now prepare for the potential loss of a couple of free-agent or retiring guards, Lamb must step up more than ever.

Starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, who is coming off a down year, will hit the free-agent market July 1. Derek Fisher is now part of the New York Knicks whose president is a better coach than its coach, and whose coach is a better point guard than its point guard.

Even if Oklahoma City chooses to start Reggie Jackson at the 2, there's a pretty decent chance the team is going to need Lamb to step up next season. After all, he and Steven Adams are all the Thunder have left from the James Harden deal.

Lamb gradually lost playing time as last season progressed, beginning the year in the Thunder rotation and slowly—but noticeably—falling out of coach Scott Brooks' good graces. He averaged just 13.9 minutes per game following the All-Star break after averaging 22.1 minutes before it. From Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:

As his offense slumped late in the year, his playing time diminished. No longer shooting at an efficient enough rate, Thunder coach Scott Brooks couldn't justify leaving his defense on the court.

The positives on one end no longer outweighed the negatives on the other. Lamb was forced to sit back and watch. And as he did, the 22-year-old started to realize how important it is to be a two-way player.

The negative momentum worsened once the playoffs began, when Lamb did not play in eight of the Thunder's first 13 postseason games.

 

Shooting

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Lamb's shooting accuracy could've had something to do with his drop in playing time—he posted just a 44.5 percent in true shooting after the break, though you could argue that Brooks should've given Lamb more of a shot.

Actually I have argued that, considering how unprepared Lamb looked when he entered the Thunder playoff rotation after Sefolosha disappeared in the postseason. But Lamb didn't exactly help his own cause.

If the second-year shooting guard's role was to run off screens, run some second-unit pick-and-roll and figure out versatile ways to score, he wasn't really doing that. Mainly, Lamb wasn't exactly the best playmaker.

He ran the pick-and-roll on 16.9 percent of his regular-season plays, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required) and scored at a decent rate. He ranked as one of the 60 most efficient scorers out of the pick-and-roll, judging by points per play, but those stats are a bit misleading.

Pick-and-roll scoring numbers can reveal a player's ability to score off the dribble, but the screen-and-roll digs much deeper than that. It's about running an offense, spacing the floor and distributing the ball properly.

 

Pick-and-Roll Operations

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

At the moment, Lamb's decision-making isn't all the way there, but that's fine for a second-year player still in the developmental stages of his career. Still, he has a decent way to go before he is making decisive pick-and-roll choices.

This late-game play in a postseason blowout against the Los Angeles Clippers is an example of Lamb's indecision coming off the dribble. He walks into a potential trap and then picks up his dribble far too early, leading him to throw the ball away:

It's not just about dribbling to the wrong spots—occasionally, Lamb just dribbles at the wrong times. His worst habit is dribbling before his teammate comes over to set a pick, negating the screen altogether.

In this March play against the Los Angeles Lakers, that mistake forces Lamb to turn around and eventually give the ball away:

Even with the pick-and-roll issues, Lamb's offense was tolerable. If the Thunder wanted to give him a role playing completely off the ball, running off screens and making defenses move, it could've made more sense in the postseason for an offense that had movement issues.

Lamb was still capable in those situations.

15.2 percent of his plays ran him off screens, according to Synergy Sports, the most of any Thunder player, but that isn't an exorbitant number considering OKC doesn't run many plays that send off-ball shooters running around picks.

He did, however, post a respectable 57.6 percent adjusted field-goal percentage in unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to Synergy Sports.

It was a serviceable job, and something on which he could've built. Really, this all came down to the defense.

 

Defense

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Lamb has the tools to become a defensive-minded player. He should be able to guard on the ball with his 6'11" wingspan, but he is still too scrawny to body up bigger guards. 

They can still muscle Lamb however they want when he's moving. That's how he ranks as one of the worst isolation defenders in the league on Synergy, and why his 180 pounds tend to get hung up on screens far too often.

Specifically, watch Lamb guard Manu Ginobili on this fourth-quarter play from a January game against the San Antonio Spurs. He can't get around the off-ball screen from Tim Duncan. Ginobili ends up wide open for a three.

It's not just off-ball screens that hurt Lamb. The pick-and-roll isn't his best defensive friend, either. In this Western Conference Finals play, Lamb defends Ginobili as a ball screen comes toward him:

Courtesy of NBA.com

With the way the Thunder were defending the pick-and-roll here, Lamb should extend his arm and stay within a few feet of the ball-handler. Instead, he's a fly caught in the screen's spiderweb. Look how far behind Ginobili he is only a couple of steps later:

Courtesy of NBA.com

Some defenders who don't fight through screens fail because of a lack of effort. They die when they feel contact. That's not the case with Lamb, who plays consistently hard on the defensive end.

That's a change in mentality from when he first entered the league. "At first," Lamb later told Slater in The Oklahoman, "I didn't care about defense at all."

When you're that gaunt, it's going to present issues with physicality, but Lamb is intelligent. He's fully aware of his size issues, as he told Jason Friedman of Rockets.com regarding his motivation during an interview before his rookie season:

Like you said, it comes the most from the doubters. I'm not the biggest person, and all my life people have said, 'You're too skinny, or you're too this.' So I'm just trying to prove those people wrong.

He knows he can't fight through every screen, and he does actually attempt to compensate for it. Sometimes, though, that mentality leads him to gamble a little too much.

In this February play against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lamb anticipates a screen coming as he guards Jarrett Jack. Lamb jumps to his left in front of the screener, thinking he'll cut off Jack's lane to the middle. Jack doesn't cooperate, instead refusing to use the pick and going to Lamb's right—finding himself an easy lane to the hoop.

That's a rookie mistake from a second-year player, but all of these issues are fixable with development.

 

Moving Forward

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Just because Lamb has these struggles now doesn't mean they're here to stay. That's true on both defense and offense. He's only 22, and 22-year-olds tend to improve. 

Most of his defensive mistakes come because of strength-related or overcompensatory reasons. Lamb may never turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it's fair to anticipate him getting a little brawnier as he ages. With that, an otherwise intelligent defender will start to do away with plays like the one against Jack.

Oklahoma City has opportunities to upgrade at shooting guard this offseason, as well as other positions.

It owns the No. 21 and No. 29 picks in the draft and has both the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. Meanwhile, the Thunder could still easily re-sign Sefolosha at a cheap price in a potentially smaller role.

OKC needs some offense out of the shooting-guard spot next season. Thunder 2-guards were less productive than any of the other positions last year, posting an 11.9 player efficiency rating—under a 15.0 league average—according to 82games.com.

Lamb didn't help much on that, posting just a 13.4 PER himself. That can change next year.

The pick-and-roll ball-handling can get better. He can grow stronger as he runs off screens at one end and runs through them at the other. Mainly, this doesn't come down to shooting or efficiency numbers.

It's about defense.

If Lamb can become more capable on that end, it makes everything easier for Brooks and the Thunder.

 

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.

*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of June 20 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com

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