Roger: Look, Anita! Puppies everywhere!
Anita: There must be a hundred of them!
Nanny: One, two, three and four. Seven, eight, nine.
Roger: Two more. Nine plus two is eleven.
Nanny: Thirty Six over here!
Roger: Thirty Six and eleven? That’s forty seven.
Anita: Fourteen. Eighteen, Rog.
Roger: Uh, eh sixty five!
Nanny: Ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen!
Anita: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Six more.
Roger: Well, let’s see, now. That’s eighty four and fifteen plus two. A hundred and one!
Anita: A hundred and one? My, where did they all come from?
Roger: Oh ho, Pongo, you old rascal!
This is a quote directly from the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians. But it could also serve as a microcosm of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s depth chart. A glance at the Thunder’s roster reveals one rookie (Mitch McGary), one “red-shirt freshman” (Grant Jerrett – 2nd year in the system, but technically a rookie with the Thunder), two second year players (Steven Adams and Andre Roberson), both of whom are starters, and three third year players (Dion Waiters, Jeremy Lamb, and Perry Jones). That’s nearly half the team with less than 3 full seasons of NBA experience under their belts. In addition, they have a fourth year player (Reggie Jackson) that is in the “late teen/early adult” stage of his NBA career, and is ready to leave the nest for what he portends to be greener pastures. And, the Thunder’s big free agent get (Anthony Morrow) is in his 7th season and has yet to sniff the playoffs. If this was the roster of a team the resided in Philadelphia or Minnesota, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But this is the Thunder, a team that envisions itself as a championship contender.
Even with all the issues the Thunder have suffered through in the first half of the season, the general consensus is that the Thunder have enough time to turn it around, get into the playoffs, and be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. While injuries have played a huge role in the Thunder’s early season struggles, inexperience within the roster may be another factor aiding in the Thunder’s struggles.
Last season, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, and Thabo Sefolosha played huge roles in getting the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals. That’s three playoff-tested, grizzled veterans that knew their roles, played to their strengths, and avoided their weaknesses whenever possible. Between them, those three players brought 41 seasons worth of experience to the table. In addition, Kendrick Perkins (along with Sefolosha) was the defensive anchor of the starting line-up. While each of those players had their warts and flaws, their “years of service” allowed them to either be useful in most situations or not make critical mistakes in other situations.
With the departure of those aforementioned three players and the demotion of Perkins to the bench, an experience vacuum developed in the offseason. There were times in the past two seasons where the rallying cry for Thunder fans was more playing time for the young players. But now that that time has arrived, it’s easy to miss the days of having veterans with defined roles who didn’t crack under pressure. What I see out there on the floor now, is a team that is dependent on young players to fill in the spaces around Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka. While it may work some nights, most nights will include developmental lapses and common “lack of experience”-type mistakes.
When you factor in the injuries and the hole the Thunder dug themselves early in the season, you get a picture as to why the Thunder are struggling to build any type of momentum. The Thunder are trotting out players that have never had to deal with this kind of pressure. Think about how Durant and Westbrook must feel when the game is on the line. When they look around, they see inexperienced players who have never had to fight for a playoff spot and have never had to win games in the playoffs. They see Waiters, who toiled two and a half seasons on the post-LeBron Cavs, and is a volume shooter on the perimeter. They see Morrow, who is more experienced, but has already played on 6 teams in his 7 seasons in the league, with the average win total for those teams being 31. They see Roberson, who is already an adept perimeter defender, but also an extremely raw offensive player (and that’s putting it nicely). They see Jones or Lamb, who have the talent to be consistent scorers in the league, but lack the mental fortitude to put it all together. They see Jackson who has been wildly inconsistent this season as he deals with his future and his contract situation. Is it any wonder why the Thunder’s crunch-time offense devolves into Durant and Westbrook isos? The only people they trust is themselves.
While the coach and the players are easy targets to fault, the lion’s share of the blame needs to go on general manager Sam Presti and how he has constructed this team. The architect of the Thunder has built a top heavy organization that is largely dependent on a few players, while filling in the gaps with cheap young talent in hopes that the young talent will develop in a 2-3 year time span. It’s a great idea in principle, but a risky idea in practice. Come up empty on a couple draft picks, and the team is left scrambling looking for other options that may be more expensive and detrimental in the long run. If you look at the elite teams around the league, the Thunder and the Warriors are the only ones constructed in this manner. Most other elite teams have a rotation that is full of veterans.
And all signs point to the Thunder continuing this manner of operation when it comes to roster building. In addition to their 15-man roster, the Thunder are also keeping close tabs on about 5 players who are all within the scope of their organization. Josh Huestis, the first round pick from the last draft whom the Thunder convinced to delay the signing of his contract in order to further his development with the Thunder’s D-League affiliate, will likely join the team next season. Huestis’ Blue teammates Semaj Christon and Talib Zanna are also candidates to join the team next season or be late season call-ups this year, depending on how the team looks after the trade deadline. Over in Europe, the Thunder have been keeping close tabs on their Eurostashes, Tibor Pleiss (who will likely join the team next season) and Alex Abrines (who is likely a season or two away, but is one of the top 3-point shooters in his league).
The hope is that the experience gained over this past season will begin to bear fruit later on in the year for these young players. If this was any other normal season (you know, no injuries or contract disputes), then experience likely doesn’t become a factor until the playoffs. But this season, with the injuries and the hole the Thunder dug for themselves, the lack of experience on this team is definitely rearing it’s ugly head. The Thunder have PhD dreams, but have elementary aged children doing some of the heavy lifting. That is usually not a recipe for success.