It was only a few days ago when it looked like the Oklahoma City Thunder would be rolling back with essentially the same core and rotation this season. There were going to be some minor additions like Eric Maynor and possibly Perry Jones III but for the most part, it was the same team.
All that changed last Saturday night when the Thunder dealt James Harden, Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward to the Houston Rockets. That’s three players who were going to be getting major minutes off the bench for the Thunder and now need to be replaced.
The Thunder got in return from Houston Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb. Martin will definitely be playing major minutes while it is still to be seen what kind of contribution Lamb will have.
One thing we know for sure is that the starting lineup for the Thunder will remain unchanged from a season ago. It will feature Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha in the backcourt then Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in the front court.
Last year, Westbrook averaged 35.3 minutes per game and Durant 38.6. Durant always played the entire first and third quarters while Westbrook sometimes came out of those with a minute or two to go. Then Durant would re-enter the game before Westbrook sometimes as well.
There is a chance that this season with Harden now gone, head coach Scott Brooks will entertain the idea of playing Durant and Westbrook on the floor alone more often, to try and balance the offense. Both are still young enough that they can play a ton of minutes so this shouldn’t be too dramatic of a change.
Sefolosha averaged 21.8 minutes per game last season. There were a lot of instances where he did not sub back in a half after Harden came in for him. Especially early in the season, expect Sefolosha to play a few more minutes and come back in at the end of the second and fourth quarters. The Thunder will be playing a lot of small ball now so even if Martin is still out there, Sefolosha can come in and play the three with Durant at the four and Ibaka the five.
Ibaka and Perkins each played about 27 minutes per game last season. We’re all waiting for Ibaka to see an increase in minutes and this season seems like it will be the time. Expect to see Ibaka play more in the first and third quarters and return sooner in the second and fourth. Perkins will probably see the same amount of minutes if not a slight decrease, especially during the regular season.
Harden and Nick Collison were always the first two off the bench for OKC last season. Now it will be Martin and Collison. Harden played 31.4 minutes per game last season and Martin can expect maybe a little less than that to start. He won’t necessarily be coming in as soon as Harden would sometimes or be playing for the rest of the half when he does. If Martin fits in seamlessly right away, he could start seeing the same minutes Harden got last year.
Collison averaged 20.7 minutes per game last year and may get more this year. Remember Nazr Mohammed was the backup center last season and played 11 minutes per game. If Brooks isn’t comfortable with Hasheem Thabeet yet or Jones in small lineups, it may mean more minutes for Collison who by the way is always one of OKC’s best in terms of plus-minus.
Maynor won the backup point guard job and has the potential to be a huge asset for the Thunder this season. There is a lot of pressure on him now too to replace the playmaking Harden brought to the team last season. Derek Fisher averaged 20.4 minutes per game last season for the Thunder and Maynor should get about that as well. He will replace Westbrook first and should stay in even when Westbrook returns a lot of times, sliding Westbrook to the two.
The Harden trade opened the door for more minutes for Jones not only because Harden was dealt but also Aldrich and Cook. Jones was already threatening to take some of Cook’s minutes to start the year and now will certainly be Durant’s backup from day one. The better Jones plays, the longer Brooks will leave him in there even when Durant returns to the floor.
This leaves three players to take up the other 10-12 minutes that will be left over on some nights. By the playoffs, Brooks will probably shorten his rotation to nine men but during the regular season, 10 will play a lot and sometimes 11 or 12.
Thabeet, Lamb and Reggie Jackson are the final three who will be most often suiting up. DeAndre Liggins might sometimes as well and also Daniel Orton. Thabeet is the most likely to start getting minutes right away. He will get his chance as the backup center but is still so raw that it will be hard for him to stay on the floor. Brooks likes Jackson but good luck finding a reason to play him with Westbrook and Maynor ahead of him in the depth chart. Maybe Lamb will get a chance at some point but it is unlikely he becomes a staple of the rotation until later in the season or beyond.
We will get our first look at the Thunder in the post-Harden era tonight as they take on the San Antonio Spurs on the road at 9:30 p.m. EST. The game will be on TNT.