Examine all obstacles carefully. With a little ingenuity, they can often be turned into levers. -- Grand Admiral Thrawn
With national coverage of the Oklahoma City Thunder this season focusing on the continued maturation of Kevin Durant and the relatively seamless transition from James Harden to Kevin Martin, the changes to the back end of their rotation have slipped somewhat under the radar. Oklahoma City, a small-market franchise with little interest in consistently paying the luxury tax, hasn’t had the “luxury” of adding established veterans to play around their young core. Instead, even as they’ve become one of the best teams in the NBA, they’ve remained remarkably faithful to their roots in drafting and player development.
The Thunder have the sixth youngest roster in the league, with an average age of 25.1 years. Nick Collison, their oldest player, is only 32. And while Collison and Martin have a combined 16 seasons of NBA experience, the rest of their bench is incredibly young. Hasheem Thabeet and Eric Maynor, in their fourth seasons, are wizened veterans in comparison to Reggie Jackson, DeAndre Liggins, Perry Jones III, Jeremy Lamb and Daniel Orton. Cost is the obvious rationale for this philosophy, but it’s the right decision strictly for “basketball reasons.”
They got a first-hand look at the real value of “championship experience” and “veteran leadership” last season. Oklahoma City picked Derek Fisher off waivers after the trade deadline, a move that was almost universally applauded. Not only did he fill the hole at the backup point guard position created by Maynor’s season-ending ACL injury, as the president of the NBPA, he was one of the most respected figures in the game. Presumably, his experience from winning five championships with the Lakers would rub off on some of his younger teammates.
From the outside, it’s hard to capture what he meant to them off the court. On the court, he was a disaster. The gruesome statistics -- five points per game on 34 percent shooting in 20 minutes, a 5.9 PER -- hardly do it justice. It’s one thing to hide a 37-year-old guard on defense if he’s having a Steve Nash-level impact on offense; it’s another to do so when he’s primarily a spot-up shooter. In Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Fisher played 22 minutes and went 0-1 from the floor, with 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 points, 1 steal and 2 personal fouls all while giving Erik Spoelstra a risk-free place to hide some of his worst defenders.
Almost any team, except the Mavericks apparently, would have cut ties with Fisher; the Thunder differed in how they chose to replace him. Maynor had proven himself as a backup PG before the injury, but Oklahoma City still needed some insurance in case his recovery didn’t go smoothly. However, instead of casting around desperately for a veteran PG, they trusted their pre-draft evaluation of Reggie Jackson, a combo guard they took with the No. 24 pick in 2011. They weren’t worried about his lackluster rookie season, not when he was originally drafted to fill a hole in their roster several years down the road, when Maynor hit free agency.
With Maynor struggling early in the season, Scott Brooks made Jackson his backup point guard in December. An athletic 6’3 210 guard with an outrageous 7’0 wingspan, Jackson has the size to play both backcourt positions on a second-unit. He was a standout scorer at Boston College who fell in the draft because of concerns about his ability to run point. In Oklahoma City, since he’s rarely the sole playmaker on the court, he has the chance to thrive as a “3-and-D” PG. This season, he has per-36 minute averages of 12 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists on 2.5 turnovers and 44/27/74 shooting. Not ideal, certainly, but a promising start for a 23-year-old with his physical tools.
Nor has Jackson been the only pleasant surprise north of the Red River. DeAndre Liggins, a second-year guard from Kentucky, has taken most of the remaining minutes behind Durant, Martin and Thabo Sefolosha on the wings. An athletic 6’6 210 guard with a 6’11 wingspan, Liggins was a role player in college who fell to the No. 53 pick in 2011. However, his athleticism and three-point shooting ability suggested he could become a solid “3-and-D” contributor on the next level. He rarely played as a rookie in Orlando and could have easily slipped out of the NBA, but the Thunder saw value where most teams didn’t.
Liggins and Jackson will probably see their roles diminish as the playoffs draw near, but they’ve eaten valuable minutes in a long 82-game season while showing potential for growth going forward. The 2011 draft, conducted in the shadow of the lockout, was the weakest in recent memory, yet Oklahoma City still managed to find two usable players. And while it’s easy for a young player to look good next to a superstar, even well-managed teams rarely take advantage of that opportunity. Miami keeps bringing in veterans on their last legs to play with LeBron, something which could cost them dearly in 2014.
In contrast, the Thunder have been making moves to set themselves up way into the future. I thought Jeremy Lamb, the other main piece in the Harden deal, was as good a prospect as Terrence Ross, Dion Waiters and Bradley Beal. He’s a skilled and athletic 6’5 180 guard with a great jumper, a monstrous 6’11 wingspan and the floor of an elite 6th man. Perry Jones III, whom they stole with the No. 28 pick, was a very polarizing prospect, but his talent is undeniable. He’s an extremely athletic 6’11 235 forward with the tools to play all three frontcourt positions on both sides of the ball. Like Jackson last year, Jones and Lamb are spending their rookie seasons shuttling back-and-forth to the D-League while learning from some of the best players in the NBA at practice.
Advanced statistics are great, but the ultimate “market inefficiency” in professional sports will always be the ability to scout and develop young talent. No NBA front office has done it better than Sam Presti and Co. over the last few years, and they could have another crack at a lottery pick this summer, if the Raptors pick falls between 4-14. 2013 may be a “bad draft”, but Oklahoma City might be able to grab Alex Len (Maryland) or Cody Zeller (Indiana) as an offensive-minded center to replace Kendrick Perkins down the road. If all goes according to plan, they’ll be able to turn at least one of Lamb, Jones and their 2013 pick into a Harden-type bounty in a few years, spinning the cycle forward indefinitely.
With “flexibility” the buzzword in the NBA’s new economic climate, the most sought-after players are those with surplus value -- true stars on max contracts and young players on cost-controlled deals. Those are the only players the Thunder have long-term deals with! None of the mid-level players -- Martin, Sefolosha, Collison and Perkins -- who've helped shepherd their young stars into the NBA have contracts that extend past 2015. Letting them walk won’t be great PR, but Oklahoma City can use the luxury tax as an excuse to not pay marginal veterans through the decline phase of their careers.