With the Oklahoma City Thunder deep into the luxury tax following their decision to match the offer sheet on Enes Kanter, they couldn’t pass up on the chance to unload an extra contract, sending Perry Jones III to the Boston Celtics in a salary dump on Tuesday. He joins Jeremy Lamb as another young player who wasn’t able to live up to expectations in Oklahoma City whom they let go this off-eason for essentially nothing. When the two came in 2012, they were supposed to be part of a second wave of young players who would augment the Thunder core as they started making real money. That’s how fast the worm can turn in the NBA - from a key part of the future to yesterday’s news in a snap of the finger.
Talent was never the issue for either. For all the detractors the Thunder front office has picked up over the years, no one has ever questioned their eye for talent in the draft. Forget Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. They took Reggie Jackson at No. 24 and he just got a max contract from the Detroit Pistons. Even the guys who haven’t worked out in Oklahoma City, like Jeff Green and Cole Aldrich, have managed to stick in the NBA. Their only first-round pick who has busted out the league completely is Byron Mullens.
At 6’5, 180 with a 6’11 wingspan, Lamb had a spindly build but crazy long arms for a SG. As a freshman at UConn, he was the second option on a team that won the NCAA championship. As a sophomore, he was the primary option, averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 48 percent shooting. He was a volume three-point shooter with the ability to put the ball on the floor, create shots for others, fill up the stat sheet and score with ease off the bounce.
While PJ3 never quite put it all together at Baylor, he had an absolutely freakish combination of skills. At 6’11, 235 with a 7’2 wingspan, he had the size of a C and the speed of a PG. He was the rare 6’11+ player with the ability to play on the perimeter on both offense and defense - he could shoot and handle the ball like a much smaller player and he could switch out and guard guys like that 25+ feet from the basket. The combination of his college numbers not jumping off the page - 13 points, 7 rebounds and 1 assist on 50% shooting as a sophomore - and lingering questions about the long-term health of his knee pushed him all the way to the No. 28 pick in 2012.
On the surface, playing for a small-market franchise with a proven history of developing young talent and a commitment to the draft seemed like the perfect fit for both guys. The problem was that things had changed in Oklahoma City. They were trying to compete for championships first and develop young talent second. While the Thunder may have been willing to wait on the growing pains of under-22 players when they were a lottery team in the latter half of the 2000’s, they were throwing guys the deep end and saying sink or swim by 2012. As rookies, the two were shunted to the end of the bench and never really given much of a chance to earn a role in the rotation.
The pressure was always harsher on Lamb, who was thrust into the spotlight as part of the Harden trade. The other components were a veteran not expected to stay long-term - Kevin Martin - and two picks that became project big men years down the line - Steven Adams and Mitch McGary. Lamb was a lottery pick playing Harden’s position expected to eventually fill his role as a high-scoring 6th man off the bench. The controversy surrounding the trade meant the knives were out almost as soon as he arrived and spending most of his rookie season in the D-League meant many observers were ready to write him off immediately.
However, in all likelihood, the plan all along was that neither guy was going to play much right away. Where it gets interesting is in their 2nd year, when both showed flashes of being contributors when given playing time in the first half of the season. Lamb averaged 8.5 points on 43% shooting in only 19 minutes a game and he had a number of 15+ point games off the bench. PJ3’s playing time was a bit more sporadic but he showed the ability to shoot 3’s and defend multiple positions, most notably in a regular season game against Miami Heat when he guarded LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Not many basketball players in the world have the physical tools to do that.
The second half of that season is when things started to go south and the story gets a little murky. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear from the outside, they both fell out of favor with Scott Brooks. Once the Thunder picked up Caron Butler after a mid-season buy-out, it was over. Brooks went with battle-tested veterans over young guys who glided around the floor, made mental mistakes and never showed the type of intensity their coach looked for. The decision ended up backfiring on Brooks when Butler and Derek Fisher gave him absolutely nothing in the Western Conference Finals but he was a stubborn coach who was going to go down with guys he could trust.
Coming into their third season, Lamb and PJ3 were on the chopping block. While Butler, Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha were gone, the Thunder signed Anthony Morrow and they had another first-round pick on the wings - Andre Roberson - they wanted to develop. The real missed chance for both was getting injured right in the middle of the historic wave of injuries that sunk the team, not getting the opportunity to play the major minutes that would have been available for the first time in their tenure. When Oklahoma City acquired Kyle Singler, DJ Augustin and Dion Waiters in trades at mid-season, it was proof that not just the coaching staff but the front office as well had given up on them.
The argument for why Lamb deserves another shot is pretty simple. For all the knocks he received in terms of consistency, he consistently put up numbers whenever he got on the floor. His per-36 minute numbers were always good - 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 1 steal on 43% shooting in 2014 and 17 points, 6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1 steal on 42% shooting in 2015. It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg with younger players who can’t get consistent playing time because all they can really control is what they do when they do get to play. Maybe there was some reason why Lamb wasn’t getting time behind guys getting worse numbers or maybe there wasn’t. The NBA isn’t always a meritocracy.
After his per-minute numbers slipped, a lot of the argument for PJ3 comes down to the magical game he had in the first week of the season when he had 32 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 17 shots against the LA Clippers. Watch the clips from that game and you tell me if there isn’t some real talent there. He never got consistent playing time on one of the best teams in the NBA and he was never put in a position to succeed in a rudimentary offense that involved everyone else standing around and watching KD and Westbrook isolate. The real interesting thing is that offense isn’t even his main selling point - he’s a 6’11 guy who can switch screen-rolls and guard all five positions over the course of a possession.
Either way, it appears that neither was going to get another shot in Oklahoma City so it was best for everyone if they got a chance somewhere else. The Thunder certainly don’t need them. They’ve had a ton of draft picks over the last few years and there’s a numbers crunch just to get them all on the roster. They are bringing in two more rookie perimeter players this season in Josh Huestis and Cameron Payne and they’ve got a draft-and-stash guy in Europe - Alex Abrines - who is going to need a shot eventually as well. They’ve got two second round picks in Semaj Christon and Dakari Johnson who may never even get a real chance to make the 15-man roster.
Lamb should get a shot with the Charlotte Hornets but there’s certainly no guarantee of playing time. They are committed to Kemba Walker at point and they brought in Jeremy Lin to play a big role off the bench as a combo guard. On the wings, they just gave up a king’s ransom for Nicolas Batum and they spent a No. 2 overall pick on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Lamb will be competing for minutes as a spot-up shooter off the bench with PJ Hairston, a first-round pick in 2014, and Troy Daniels, a knock down shooter who has also been a victim of a numbers game in his first few stops in the league.
PJ3 walks into an even more crowded situation in Boston on a team stockpiling assets without a real clear plan for how they will all fit together. He could play at either forward position but PF is probably out because they have more big men than they can even use with Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, David Lee, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller. On the perimeter, they have money invested in Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder and first-round picks invested in Marcus Smart, James Young and Terry Rozier, which doesn’t even count Evan Turner. Even bad teams in the Eastern Conference have a ton of guys dying to get minutes.
Cream tends to rise to the top but there’s only so many chances a guy is going to get to even be in the conversation. Jeremy Lamb is 23 and Perry Jones III is 24 and the clock is already ticking. While a lot of guys need 2-3 stops in the NBA before they find a home and establish themselves as players, even more just wash right out of the league. If your first coach doesn’t play you, people won’t necessarily hold it against you. If your second and third coaches don’t, they will. And once you have been in the league a few years, there’s a whole new wave of young players behind you who need their own chances. Life comes at you fast in the NBA.