Before the start of the season, twitter was set ablaze with the question of “Has Oklahoma City’s time as contenders come and gone?” The evidence for this case seemed damning. The James Harden trade brought back little to nothing after one season, the opposing contenders in the West (Golden State, Houston, and the Los Angeles Clippers) made big splashes in the offseason, and Russell Westbrook’s offseason surgery didn’t go completely as planned, forced him to go under the knife for the second time, and resulted in Westbrook missing the start of the season. These three articles were seen as evidence to the cracks to the Thunder empire, and ultimately, the reason why Oklahoma City wouldn’t represent the West in the NBA finals in June.
Fast forward seven games, and Oklahoma City looks like….Oklahoma City. The defense is great (8th in the league with a 98.4 defensive rating, per NBA.com), Kevin Durant is playing like the second-best basketball player in the world, and Russell Westbrook came back earlier than subscribed, and in typical Westbrook fashion, scored 21 points and tallied seven assists in a victory over the Phoenix Suns in his season debut. Meanwhile, outside of Golden State, the Clippers still have work to do on the defensive end, and the Houston Rockets are still tinkering with the Howard-Asik frontcourt. Through seven games, the rumors of the Oklahoma City demise has been greatly exaggerated.
The hot start to Oklahoma City’s season eliminates the thought of them merely watching the rest of the West surpass them. And while the Thunder allow Durant, Ibaka, and Westbrook to gain them wins now, it’s how they began to deploy their younger talent with them that seems to be the most intriguing part of the Thunder season going forward. In the team’s first seven games, Scott Brooks has found playing time for Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, and rookie Steven Adams. While Adams isn’t slated to be a huge contributor this season, both Jackson and Lamb have solid roles in the team, and both are expected to contribute in the team’s playoff run.
Reggie Jackson showed us glimpse of his NBA offering in the playoffs last year, finishing with averages of 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in Westbrook’s absence. With Westbrook back, Jackson has claimed the role of backup point guard, and has contributed well in that role. Still, the problems persist with Jackson; he’s not a great shooter, and he isn’t a good point guard. Jackson is more of a caretaker for the ball, but doesn’t make his teammates better all of the time. Also, he’s currently shooting 14.3 percent from three, and shot 23.1 percent last year. At age 23, it’s tough to see him becoming a better shooter, but as an athlete who can handle the ball, quasi-run the offense, and attack the basket? Jackson fits that to a t.
As for Jeremy Lamb, much was expected from the lottery pick from Connecticut. He found himself sent from Houston to Oklahoma City in the James Harden trade, and from Oklahoma City to Tulsa, thanks to Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha holding down most of the shooting guard minutes. Then, when Martin exited for Minnesota, there seemed to be a spot for him, and so far, he’s showing the tools that got him drafted so high a year prior. In seven games, Lamb is averaging 9.8 points per game, and shooting 40% from the field. Along with the solid scoring numbers, Lamb doesn’t seem overmatched on the defensive end. In fact, Lamb’s defensive numbers -while small in sample- suggest that he could be a wing with high defensive upside moving forward.
Both Jackson and Lamb are nice building blocks that have upside, but still have flaws as well. Jackson isn’t a great shooter, and in a league that’s valuing the outside shooter more, that’s something that hinders his value. Not to mention, Jackson doesn’t feel like a point guard As for Lamb, he can score the basketball, but he isn’t great in catch and shoot situations yet. According to NBA.com’s SportsVU Player Tracking data, Lamb is found to shoot just 31 percent on catch and shoot attempts. Not ideal when you play with two big ball handlers in Westbrook and Durant.
The fear of watching a good team’s window of contention close is both an interesting one, and a sad one. Outside of the obvious ones, you never know when the window is closing. The 2007-2008 Suns were a memorable team, to me, because I felt like I saw their window close. Watching Horry check Nash into the scorer’s table, watching Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw run off the bench, it just seemed like it was coming apart at that moment. However, it doesn’t happen in front of your eyes, and it doesn’t happen with such vigor. The late 80’s Rockets, the mid-90’s Magic and Sonics, and the early 2000’s Kings, you didn’t know it was the end until it was the end.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder? It doesn’t seem like the end. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are all under the age of 26, they have the assets to trade, and they have the draft picks to continue churning out role players to relieve their big three. All of those positives usually add up to success in the NBA, and as Jackson, Lamb, and Adams continue to develop, it’s easy to say that the Oklahoma City Thunder will be contending for years to come.