There is no denying that the Oklahoma City Thunder fell short of their lofty expectations this past season. After making a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals, they have failed to get back there in the past two seasons. Their first campaign was foiled when Russell Westbrook injured his knee and was out for the playoffs and the most recent tilt fell short of the mark as the ran into a full strength San Antonio Spurs outfit and were hobbled with a half healthy Serge Ibaka.
So, back to the drawing board then? Not exactly.
The Thunder franchise pride themselves on their “model”. A sustainable success model. A draft and develop model. They re-sign the players they drafted and they spend their money wisely. They draft according to need but also won’t let talent slip through the cracks and it is working. Now it seems that the Thunder are going to look to this talent to get them over the hump.
While OKC are armed with two first round draft picks in what some are calling a “loaded” draft, there is little to suggest that the secret to winning an NBA title sits in the late first round (the Thunder have picks 21 and 29). While there will be talented players available, none seem ready made to crack the rotation and make an immediate impact.
However, with a young bench full of talent and just yearning for opportunity, the answers might come from within. Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are two very talented young players that have yet to truly crack the Scott Brooks rotation. Whether it is because of defensive or offensive limitations or just the inability to play consistent basketball, these young “stars in the making” just haven’t been able to deliver.
Caron Butler might not return, Derek Fisher is now the Head Coach of the New York Knicks and it appears as though Thabo Sefolosha might have seen his last action as a member of the Thunder. So there are gaps in the new rotation that might just open up for Lamb especially.
Lamb played extremely limited minutes in his rookie year but was a level above in the Development League. This season he saw more action prior to the All Star break and even showed flashes of the prodigious talent he possesses but once Butler was introduced into the lineup, Lamb found himself relegated to the bench again.
The Thunder truly lack a couple of key elements to their game. They don’t have enough offensive production from the bench and they can’t hit the outside shot with any form of consistency. This filters down and causes a myriad of other issues, but they are clearly the glaring weaknesses.
Since the season has ended, Lamb has spoken out about his intention to improve defensively. If he can manage to do so (he has all the physical attributes to be a solid defender at the very least) then he might be able to carve out a spot within the rotation. If he can get some extended time on the floor in proper game situations with some frequency, we might see him develop into that special player we all think he can be. This would add some defensive pressure as his length will disrupt the passing lanes, and will also add offense and outside shooting. Lamb has a beautiful offensive game that continues to grow which could be what the Thunder are banking on.
The other player waiting in the wings, is Perry Jones III. He is a physical specimen but has only shown his athleticism in spurts which is a worry. In a similar situation to Lamb, Jones is talented but hasn’t been given any solid opportunities. He has had a good game here or there but nothing to force Scott Brooks to play him. Unlike Lamb, it seems as though Jones lacks the mental toughness or aggressiveness to be a star in the league. There is definitely a role for him to play if he can get his head right and grab the opportunity. He has worked hard to add the corner three point shot like Serge Ibaka which will be a very useful tool, but now the challenge for Jones is to “want” a spot. An above average defender with great size, elite fitness, strength and the basis for a solid offensive game – Perry Jones has it, he just needs to develop it and show it – consistently.
Steven Adams had a terrific rookie year and looks to be forcing his way into the rotation earlier than expected. He will be even better again next season and this small improvement will add to the flexibility of the Thunder roster and game plan. He is trending upward on a curve that doesn’t appear to have a ceiling yet and that is just what the OKC franchise ordered. If he can add a little more offensive polish to his game, find a go-to post move and improve his defense so as to not foul or fall for pump fakes – he can be a difference maker as early as next season.
When you couple all these factors to the star trip of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, things look pretty positive in OKC. Durant will be better again – you better believe that even after an MVP season, KD is looking at adding more weapons and more consistency. Westbrook has showed flashes of the maturity and well rounded game that critics wondered if he would ever find and he will no doubt continue to improve, and then you have Ibaka who has gotten better and better each year he has played in the league. What a scary thought.
As the San Antonio Spurs dynasty appears to be nearing its final chapter, the torch is ready to be passed and there are just enough positives in OKC to suggest that the Thunder are ready to reach out and grab it with both hands.