Monday, October 13, 2014

Life Without KD

In by far the biggest news of the preseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced on Sunday that Kevin Durant would be out 6-8 weeks with a broken foot. The injuries are starting to pile up for the Thunder, who are currently without Reggie Jackson and Mitch McGary as well, although obviously KD is in a whole different stratosphere in terms of impact on the team. They don't have a lot of easy answers for what to do without him.

The first thing you have to recognize with an injury like that is that no one is going to replace KD - all the things he does will have to be redistributed to a number of different guys on the roster. Everyone's job is going to be different and OKC is going to be a much different team without him. That sounds obvious, but there's a key distinction to be made - Scott Brooks can't do the same things he normally does except with someone else at SF.

A good example of that is what happened to them two years ago, when Russell Westbrook went down in the playoffs. Brooks inserted Reggie Jackson into the starting line-up and didn't alter the rest of his rotation, which didn't really work. For years, the Thunder got away with starting two offensive non-entities (Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha) because of the presence of their 2 superstars, but that dynamic changes when there's only 1.

That's the first thing I'm wondering about this KD injury. Are they going to stick with Perkins at the 5 and Andre Roberson (who seemed to have the early edge in training camp to replace Thabo) at the 2? Those two guys can't score and it's going to be a real problem for whoever has to come in and replace KD at the 3. If 40% of your line-up are offensive zeros, you need that SF to be an All-NBA caliber player to keep your O afloat.

There's really a domino effect that goes on with the decision that Brooks has to make. If he keeps Roberson at SG, the only other SF on their roster is Perry Jones III, another guy who isn't a great offensive player. PJ3 can at least space the floor, but a line-up of Roberson/PJ3/Ibaka/Perkins would be asking Westbrook to do EVERYTHING. The other option for keeping Roberson in the line-up would be moving him to SF and opening up SG for someone else. 

In that scenario, there would be three options:

1) Reggie Jackson - assuming the wrist injury he suffered in Dallas wasn't bad (although I saw it live and he did come down real hard and leave the game favoring his shoulder), he's the most complete all-around offensive player of the three. Him and Westbrook would be an upscale version of Bledsoe and The Dragon in Phoenix, but that move would leave their second unit without their main scorer.

2) Jeremy Lamb - Everyone apparently decided he was a bum after he went 1-14 in his first pre-season game, but he looked really good on Friday. With Jackson out, Lamb was given the chance to dominate the ball on the second unit and he responded with 19 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 1 block on 6-15 shooting. He took a few forced shots, but he could stroke the ball from deep, he showed off a nice little floater game and he went to the line 9 times. 

3) Anthony Morrow - A pure shooter. He would give the Thunder another floor spacer, but he wouldn't do much to help Westbrook in terms of shot-creation and ball-handling.

I think you have to start Westbrook and Jackson together, if only because you are assuming both are going to be at 35-40 minutes a night. Then, if the first guy off the bench is Lamb, you could go with a three-guard line-up that features their three best perimeter scorers. No matter how you shake out the line-up, though, Lamb is the guy who is going to have to step up. He's going to get a lot more minutes, a lot more touches and a lot more shots.

The corollary of that is with less talented guys assuming bigger roles, you want the floor spaced as wide as possible. It's just much easier to score in the half-court when you have more room to operate. If Jackson and Westbrook are starting, you have to get three-point shooting from the SF position, which means Roberson is going to have to go the bench too. PJ3 hasn't done much in OKC, but he does have the length and athleticism to replicate KD on defense and the shooting ability to stay out of everyone else's way on offense.

Whatever OKC does is with their perimeter rotation - and I have the crazy notion that Brooks won't end up maximizing the players on hand - they will be getting substantially less offense from the perimeter until KD returns. The best way to compensate for that is to get more offense from another position and C is the obvious spot for that, since they got 3 points a game on 45% shooting from their starting C last season.

It was crazy watching them in Dallas on Friday, when Adams was in the starting line-up - there was a C in OKC who could catch the ball, score around the basket and move his feet! It's the pre-season, but I'm not sure Perk could get 19 points on 8-9 shooting in an empty gym. Having Adams in the game just makes life easier on offense for all of OKC's perimeter guys. 

Maybe you need more of a defensive QB in there to cover up for the mistakes of the younger players on the outside, but it's going to be real tough to have Perkins AND either Roberson/PJ3 out there on offense. Perk's defense and locker room skills might be a luxury OKC can't afford without KD. While they probably won't make too many changes right away in order to keep some continuity, Adams needs to be out there more than ever. 

PJ3 or Roberson will take KD's spot in the starting line-up, but when you break down the roster, the two guys who are going to have to step up the most are Adams and Lamb. That's why this may end up working out for the best for the Thunder - if they are going to win a title, they are going to need those two to handle bigger roles. For two of the youngest players on OKC's roster, school is out. It's time to see what they have learned.

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