Injuries are an inevitability in sports. When you have bodies constantly in motion, there are going to come times when those bodies either collide or move in ways that cause injury. It’s the reason team sports have reserve players. In the wake of injuries, a team should have a healthy balance of veteran players and young, developing players. It’s the line that allows teams to sustain success while also building for the future. Have too much of either on the bench, and a team risks cutting into their current success or into their future success.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have always had a decent balance of veterans and young players on the bench. But with the James Harden trade, they decided to rely on youth instead of looking for veteran help in free agency. At the time of that trade, they received rookie SG Jeremy Lamb, a lottery pick from the Toronto Raptors (that eventually turned into Steven Adams), and an early 2nd rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats (that eventually turned into Spanish guard Alex Abrines, a Euro-stash). Along with that, the Thunder already had 2nd year guard Reggie Jackson and rookie Perry Jones III in tow. In essence, the Thunder have been grooming this new bench mob for the past season and a half.
Another addition to the Harden trade was veteran guard Kevin Martin, who slid into the 6th man role that Harden occupied. Last season’s bench was veteran-laden with Martin, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, and Hasheem Thabeet getting the lion’s share of the reserve minutes. About a third into the season, Maynor was replaced by Jackson and Derek Fisher joined the team after the All-Star break. The problem with our veteran bench last season was two-fold: there wasn’t any offensive versatility to it and it was inconsistent defensively. The scoring was either coming from Martin or it wasn’t coming at all. As his efficiency declined in the second half of the season, so did the bench’s offensive effectiveness. It got to the point where either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook had to be on the floor with the bench unit for it to be effective. Defensively, the bench struggled to match the athleticism of other younger benches.
On paper, the bench last season was a good mix of veterans and young players. But most of the young players spent their time in Tulsa and never got to test their mettle against NBA competition. Last season, Lamb spent 801 minutes (regular season and postseason combined) in the D-League and only 147 regular season minutes with the Thunder. Perry Jones spent 588 total minutes in the D-League and only 280 regular season minutes (plus 5 playoff minutes) with the Thunder.
Now, those two players, along with Jackson and Adams, are being asked to carry the second unit for a title contender. Veterans Derek Fisher and Nick Collison still play a prominent role off the bench, but the team is dependent on the young players to provide the team what the bench couldn’t provide last season, which was offensive versatility and defensive consistency. For the most part, the bench was starting to become one of the top benches in the league, before the Westbrook injury. After, though, it has been more inconsistent. And therein lies the problem with depending on such a young bench.
When the San Antonio Spurs suffer injuries to their starters, they can depend on veterans Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Patty Mills to come in and step up until those injured players get back. The same goes for the Miami Heat. When their line-up needs to be shuffled, they know they can fall back on the likes of Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis. Veterans that not only know their roles, but also have championship experience to boot. These players know how to work through slumps and how to affect games in ways other than scoring. These young Thunder players are just now learning how to do these things.
There are positive signs though. The last time the Thunder played the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Thunder were down for most of the game and Lamb was having a miserable game, shooting 2-7 FG with 2 turnovers. But he found ways to affect the game via his rebounding and defense, and made the plays necessary in the 4th quarter to help the Thunder win the game. Perry Jones has affected numerous games with his defense and ability to hit 3-point shots. And Jackson is showing signs of being a good combo guard, similar to Eric Bledsoe.
Reggie Jackson got his baptism by fire in the playoffs last season after Westbrook went down with his knee injury. But other than him, and 5 minutes of Perry Jones in Game 1 of the Houston series, none of the young bench players have any playoff experience. Could that come back to bite the Thunder in the rear during Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals? It could, but nothing teaches quite like experience. Here’s hoping that the growing pains of the regular season turn into the epiphanies of the post season.