The Oklahoma City Thunder's most important position battle next season will be at shooting guard, where Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow and Reggie Jackson will compete for the chance to play alongside Russell Westbrook.
Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the 2012 draft and one of the key pieces of the James Harden trade, is still itching to break out as he enters his third season. The 22-year-old played in 78 games last season for the Thunder, averaging 8.5 points in 19.7 minutes and shooting 35.6 percent from behind the arc.
Like Lamb, Jackson is also a former first-round pick (No. 24 overall, 2011). He played in 80 games, including 36 starts for the injured Westbrook. In the playoffs, Jackson eventually replaced defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup. He contributed 11.1 points per game in the postseason, which was down slightly from the 13.1 points he put up during the regular season.
Lastly, there's Morrow, who signed a three-year, $10 million contract with OKC this summer after spending last season with the New Orleans Pelicans. Morrow is a lethal shooter from the outside. He shot 45.1 percent from three with the Pels, which was good for fourth best in the NBA.
Each candidate makes sense in their own separate way, but who is the best option of the three? To help answer that question, we will take a deeper look at all three players and break down what they would bring to the table as a starter.
Afterward, we'll pick the best man for the job.
Jeremy Lamb has the potential to be a solid starter in the NBA. He's quick and athletic. He has good range on his jumper, and he has great measurables (6'5" with a 6'11" wingspan and 8'6" standing reach, per Lamb's DraftExpress.com profile).
However, two seasons into his pro career, Lamb has yet to put it all together. Lamb's inability to live up to the hype so far isn't completely on him. The UConn product was starting to come along last season, averaging 10.6 points per game for the month of December and 10.7 points in January.
By February, his minutes started to dwindle and he was starting to become an afterthought in the rotation once Caron Butler came aboard in March. As with any young player, confidence is key. Lamb can't show the coaching staff what he can do if he's unsure about his role.
Joe Atmonavage of HoopsHabit.com shared the same sentiments in a recent article about Lamb:
I think the Thunder can expect Lamb to average around 10-12 points per game while knocking down 38-40 percent of his 3-pointers...A big part of putting it altogether and having that type of season for Lamb is his confidence. I think Brooks needs to let Lamb play through his mistakes and regain his confidence through his play. It is hard to gain confidence when you are not on the floor.
The flip side to Atmonavage's point is that Lamb has to give the franchise a reason to put its faith in him. He has to make the most of the opportunities he gets and prove himself worthy of more playing time. Inconsistency, at both ends of the court, has been one of Lamb's biggest obstacles.
Lamb's consistency woes could be attributed to a lack of confidence, but it's on him to motivate himself to play up to the high standards. When you look at the best players in the league, they don't rely on others to instill the competitive drive to be great. It comes from within.
Now let's take a look at some of the things Lamb can do and what he can offer the Thunder when he starts feeling confident in himself. This video is from Lamb's career night against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 29 of last year.
Throughout the highlight reel, you'll see Lamb's outside jumper on display. His ability to catch and shoot will come in handy for a Thunder team that finished 14th in both three-point percentage (36 percent) and three-pointers made per game (8.1 per contest).
The Thunder were 26-4 last season when Jeremy Lamb scored 10 or more points.— Joe Atmonavage (@Uncle_Joefus) August 27, 2014
That's not the only thing Lamb showcases here though. At the 34-second mark, Lamb shows off his wheels as he races down the court in transition to get the easy bucket. Two minutes in, Lamb brings the ball up and lobs a perfect mid-court pass for the alley-oop.
Games like this have been infrequent throughout Lamb's short career, which is a large part of the frustration for the organization and its fans alike. The talent is definitely there, but it's up to Lamb to provide the spark that will lead to a bright career.
Like Lamb, Morrow's best attribute is his ability to light it up from the outside. Morrow was silent for the first half of last season as minutes became scarce playing behind Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon in New Orleans. It wasn't until injuries forced him into a bigger role late in the season that the 28-year-old really came to life.
Morrow came alive in March and April, averaging 11.1 and 15.1 points, respectively, in the final two months of the season. He became a go-to offensively for a Pelicans team that wasn't left with much beyond Anthony Davis down the stretch.
The key was his shooting. He converted 42 percent of his three-point attempts in March. Then, he followed that up by nailing 44.8 percent of his treys in April. Was this scoring outburst a sign of future things to come, or was the Georgia Tech product motivated by his impending free agency?
Prior to his explosion with the Pelicans, Morrow flew under the radar as he bounced around with several different teams. He hasn't averaged double-digits in scoring since the 2011-12 season with the then-New Jersey Nets, and he's never started more than 47 games in a single season throughout his six-year career.
Despite the lack of starting experience, Morrow clearly did enough to convince the Thunder to sign him during the offseason. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti spoke highly of his prized acquisition when asked why the shooter is such a good fit for the Thunder (h/t to Susan Bible of Basketball Insiders).
Anthony Morrow has demonstrated that he is amongst the most consistent and efficient three point shooters in the NBA over his career. With his body of work, we feel Anthony is a unique addition to a diverse roster, while also possessing the toughness and selflessness that we are consistently seeking in Thunder players.
In this video of Morrow's 27-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers, the veteran shows he's more than just a long-range specialist. While he shows off his ability to knock down open threes, Morrow does a nice job of mixing in some post moves as well as creating his shot off the dribble.
If Morrow can prove to be more than a niche player, he could be a nice fourth option on what is already a devastating starting rotation. Even if Morrow doesn't get the starting job, he provides depth for a team that needs scoring off the bench as well as a solid mentor for the prospects on the rise.
There are a number of reasons why Reggie Jackson would like to start this season. Jackson has played well enough, both as a reserve and as an occasional starter, to earn an increased role. Last season, he scored a career-high 13.1 points per game and raised his three-point percentage from 23.1 percent in 2012-13 to 33.9 percent.
A spot in the starting lineup would also increase Jackson's chances of securing a nice payday down the road. Jackson will be a restricted free agent next summer, which puts the Thunder in an awkward position since they don't have the money to lock up their super-sub this year.
The more Jackson plays, in theory, the higher his value becomes. As his value rises, so does his price tag. Teams with cap space and a need for a scoring point guard could make a run at Jackson knowing Oklahoma City's budget will be thin with Kevin Durant's contract expiring a year later.
As we've seen this summer with guys like Chandler Parsons, teams are willing to overpay for rising stars if it will also hurt a fierce rival as well. We've also seen how relationships between restricted free agents and their respective franchises can become strained when pennies start getting pinched (as in the case of Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns, per Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com).
Business aside, there are pros and cons to putting Jackson in the starting lineup. On the one hand, playing Jackson and Westbrook together gives the Thunder an interchangeable backcourt. Both men are capable of bringing the ball up the court or playing off the ball and creating offense for themselves.
On the flip side, playing two point guards together as opposed to the traditional guard pairing creates a size disadvantage (though Westbrook's insane athleticism would allow him to hold his own defensively).
There would also be a downgrade at the backup point guard spot going from Jackson to Sebastian Telfair. Quality depth was one of the Thunder's biggest issues last season and, while Telfair could be serviceable, he doesn't offer the same spark that Jackson does.
Speaking of the spark Jackson provides, watch how he torched the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. While Lamb and Morrow use their jumper as their bread and butter, Jackson's calling card is the ability to get to the hoop at will.
Time and time again, he penetrates the Grizzlies defense and attacks the basket. That's not to say that Jackson can't knock it down from deep. At the 1:04 mark, you'll see him dribble out of trouble, step back and nail a trifecta.
Jackson would finish with 32 points as he helped bring the Thunder back to earn the win and even the series up.
With Jackson getting better every year, the Thunder have an interesting decision ahead. The Boston College product will be motivated to play well. That could work to Oklahoma City's benefit or its detriment.
And The Winner Is...
Who should be the Thunder's starting shooting guard?
In truth, having three starter-quality candidates at one position is a good problem to have. Regardless of what direction head coach Scott Brooks goes in, he's likely to make a good decision. Based on how he's performed the past two seasons (especially in the playoffs), the popular choice would be to go with Jackson.
However, I think Lamb should get the nod. The time has come for the team to get a good look at one of its prized prospects, and it will be a boost to Lamb's confidence if he can finally have a defined role. If the only thing holding Lamb back has been what's between his ears, a little support could go a long way.
Furthermore, by relegating Jackson and Morrow to the second unit, Oklahoma City's bench becomes deeper and stronger. While both have shined as starters before, Jackson could excel as a sixth man and Morrow could thrive as a three-point specialist.
Meanwhile, this becomes a make-or-break season for Lamb. With the team trusting him with starter minutes, there's no more excuses for his failures. Either he puts all of his physical tools together and lives up to his potential or the team must move on.