A few months ago, I was actually optimistic about the long-term health of the Oklahoma City Thunder after Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook went down with injury at the same time. As I wrote then, I figured it would be a good opportunity for the Thunder’s still-developing draft picks to establish more substantial roles for themselves on the team.
Well, things didn’t really work out that peachy. Oklahoma City has been a sparkling 14–5 during the 19 games in which both Durant and Westbrook have played, and 4–5 when only Westbrook has played. But without both superstars, and when that young core is featured, the Thunder have limped along at 4–10.
Oklahoma City is still within striking distance of the Phoenix Suns, who are currently the eight seed in the West. Given Durant and Westbrook’s combined star power, it would astonish nobody if the Thunder were able to leapfrog the still-developing Suns and enter into the playoffs. Of course, when a team enters the playoffs as the Western Conference’s eighth seed, the uphill climb has only just begun. If Durant or Westbrook miss even a week or two with injury from here on out—and, suddenly, these once-durable stars are looking quite brittle—that would probably spell the end of OKC’s chances at the postseason.
The people making up Oklahoma City’s roster have changed as well. On the fringes of the roster, Sebastian Telfair’s brief and improbable comeback into the NBA was cut short, and Ish Smith has replaced him. Lance Thomas, (who was a starter for 13 early-season games more or less just because he was healthy) and their 2015 first-round draft pick were traded in exchange for the mercurial Dion Waiters.
I’m not alone in being unable to figure out Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s motivations for making this trade. On the surface it makes all the sense in the world to trade for a 23-year-old lottery pick who is coming from a team that has very limited success in developing young players. It seems like the golden reclamation project.
But with Waiters in particular, the Thunder are getting a shoot-first guard—a guard who has assisted in a lower percentage of his team’s field goals (17.5 percent) than noted shoot-first guard Lance Stephenson (20.1 percent). It’s possible that Waiters could provide an offensive spark in a given situation, but one of the Thunder’s main issues as a basketball team is a lack of ball movement. Oklahoma City ranks 27th in the league in assists per game, at 20.1 a night. No other team with a winning record is among the bottom 10 teams in assists per game.
One way that the ball would move more for the Thunder is if Durant and Westbrook were surrounded by gifted offensive players that they felt comfortable passing the ball to. It’s hard to blame the superstars for not patiently integrating the young players into the game—this is a team that wants to win a championship last year, never mind right now. The extended audition that the Thunder’s young players received probably did little to inspire Durant and Westbrook’s confidence in their full team when the game is on the line.
A few months ago I looked at four young role players who I thought could cement themselves as valuable rotation players. Here’s what they’ve been up to:
- Jeremy Lamb has slid out of the rotation entirely. In the first games of the season, with the absence of Durant and Westbrook, Lamb was an every-night starter and received over 30 minutes a night. Since mid-December, though, Lamb has only appeared for brief moments—usually during blowouts, and not necessarily every night. This follows last year, in which Lamb was a rotation player every night before essentially being benched for the playoffs. If coach Scott Brooks is not able to find a spot for him in Lamb’s third season with the team, it’s highly unlikely that things will change in the fourth and final year of Lamb’s rookie contract.
- Andre Roberson has found a niche in the starting lineup even though his offensive woes effectively limit the Thunder to 4-on-5 at that end of the floor. Roberson is already a totally capable wing defender who can hang with the NBA’s best offensive weapons. But when it’s time for Roberson to play offense himself? Oh boy—opponents basically have free reign to send a double-team to any other player on the floor. After shooting 35 percent on 3-point shots in college, Roberson has somehow slid to 17.2 percent in the NBA, and his confidence in the shot sure looks like it’s already down the toilet. (Roberson was also just a 58.2 percent free throw shooter in college, and things haven’t really improved there, either.)
- Perry Jones III has also been in and out of the rotation, appearing in only 24 games so far. It’s easy to forget that Jones dropped 32 points on the Los Angeles Clippers all the way back in October. Here’s the list of the players Jones’ age or younger who have scored 30 or more in a game this season: Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, Derrick Favors, Brandon Knight, Kyrie Irving, Victor Oladipo, Jonas Valanciunas, Shabazz Muhammad, Anthony Davis, Tony Wroten, Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis. Not only is Jones the latest draft pick out of all those players (28th overall in 2012), but he’s the only dude who isn’t at the center of his team’s future plans.
- Steven Adams was and is the most successful young buck on the Thunder, and by a wide margin. He’s started all 42 of the team’s games this year, and finished most of them as well. As a brutally physical defender who is capable of passing and finishing, Adams is a vast upgrade over ol’ Kendrick Perkins. Since Adams doesn’t need plays called for him, or lots of touches in the post, he is a good fit with the trio of Durant/Westbrook/Serge Ibaka.
Since Adams is an obvious center, and an obvious non-fit at any other position, perhaps his physical stature helped dictate his role, a luxury that amorphous wings like Roberson, Jones, and Lamb do not have. A 6’11” guard like Jones should, in the right hands, cause havoc for the opponent’s defensive mismatches. Instead, it’s as if Brooks and the Thunder are the ones who are most confused by Jones’ tremendous combination of size and agility.
Maybe it’s just a matter of timing for these draft picks. Perhaps if Serge Ibaka, with his exact same transformative skill-set, made his debut in 2012–13 instead of 2009–10, we would be having this exact same conversation about him. It’s not as if Lamb, Roberson, and Jones are busts, or even below-average players: it’s more like their fit with Oklahoma City’s already-established superstars hasn’t been established. Their presence is not inching the Thunder any closer to an NBA championship.
As ridiculous as the “Durant to D.C.” sign-carriers might look, the reality is that Durant has only a season and a half left with Oklahoma City before he is a free agent. The Thunder’s best shot at winning a ring—and perhaps retaining Durant for the long-term—would be to trade away these still-promising young prospects in return for veterans who can help, now.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Jeremy Lamb as an Oklahoma City draft choice. He was in fact drafted by the Houston Rockets and later traded to Oklahoma City.