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The Ambiguously Great Duo

Hey, you…

…with the tights jeans and the Alan Henderson jersey under your green and black flannel shirt…

…come here…

…I want to pull back this WordPress curtain and show you something.

You see, we basketball-blogger types are not always the hyper-efficient, creativity-dripping content machines we appear to be. Many of us (excluding myself lately) produce a steady stream of digitally published words, a steady stream that belies the twists and turns, abrupt stops and restarts that happen out of view. Behind every great basketball writer is a towering accumulation of half-formed ideas and unfinished drafts.

Often, simple chronology is the enemy. A great idea, unfinished in whatever tiny pocket of time presents itself, becomes contorted or wiped away entirely by the steady march of the NBA season. What was there today may not be tomorrow, at least not in the context it originally sprouted. But sometimes if you leave one of these short-circuited ideas long enough, quietly and out of view, it becomes something else, unexpected and worthwhile.

I first saved this piece as a draft on Thursday, January 30, at 5:53 in the morning. The night before had seen the Thunder emphatically pull apart the Miami Heat. This was the tail end of Kevin Durant’s two-month Sherman-esque campaign of destruction (the Civil War General, not the Seahawks’ cornerback (that joke was splendidly relevant when I first thought of it, six weeks ago)). Spewing fire and hurling thunderbolts, Durant had spent the previous few weeks systematically laying waste to the better part of the National Basketball Association. This victory in Miami was an undetermined ratio of icing and cake for Durant, but I was more tickled by the performances of Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones — two of the Thunder’s young assets who had looked utterly useless the season before.

The game ended late. I had just an hour to write about Jones and Lamb before work and, at about 600 words, the idea ran headlong into the brick wall of my day job. Something else came up the next day, and the next. Relevancy slowly slipped away.

The original idea was to talk about the enormous offensive load Durant had to bear in last year’s playoffs with the absence of Russell Westbrook. He performed admirably under the circumstances, dragging his team through a series victory over the Houston Rockets before finally succumbing to the combined grindy-grittiness of the Memphis Grizzlies. The whole thing was a emphatic argument for both the importance of Westbrook and the power of team. As great as Durant was (and is) he couldn’t single-handedly win a playoff series with a certain level of competence (actual or implied) from his teammates.

I was going to talk about how Perry Jones hailed from the Anthony Randolph School of Inflated Potential — an institution with a surprisingly large student body, but precious few distinguished alumni.

I was going to talk about how mobile, athletic big men with even a hint of perimeter skills do something extraordinary to our imaginations. They become conflated with myth and prophecy — the basketball player capable of anything and everything. But too often “could be great at everything” translates to “not so great at anything.” It’s the curse of vaguely-defined versatility — when that broad range of possibilities is presented, often the focus on development begins at the edges instead of the core. These big men find themselves working on their three-point shots and handling the ball on the perimeter instead of perfecting box outs on the defensive glass and figuring out what angles to take when defending the pick-and-roll. The implication of an inside-out game leads to outside-in player development and the whole affair collapses in on itself.

From there I was going to weave a thread through Jones’ development — how last year he played just 284 minutes, a reflection of how little he had to contribute and how un-imperative it seemed to the Thunder to get him on the floor, pointing out that he shot under 40 percent from the field and in general did nothing in his limited minutes to state the case for more. But in that game against the Heat that caught my eye, Jones played 24 minutes for the Thunder in the second half. If chronology is not your thing, that works out to the whole ball of yarn. Much of the 4th quarter was a garbage time exhibition, but he started the second half in place of Kendrick Perkins and the Thunder stretched their lead from five to 14 before either team went to the bench. Jones’ numeric contributions were meager — three points, a pair of rebounds, five fouls — but in one of the biggest games of the year he played solid defense and didn’t cause the Thunder’s offense to irreparably disintegrate — both were exciting developments.

Those developments have continued. He’s still an embarrassingly poor rebounder and overwhelmingly one-dimensional on the offensive end. But he’s flashed a reliable three-point shot and seemed comfortable as a spot-up threat. The Thunder have been asking him to begin testing the limits of his perimeter skills by making open shots, not knocking down contested ones or creating them for himself or anyone else. They’ve let him make his perimeter skills an offensive endpoint, not an intermediate one. He’s also playing actual defense, moving his feet and generally closing off space in the pick-and-roll. While blocks and steals are the staccato punctuation of great defense, playing a role in the team structure is a much more important responsibility. By bringing him along in small doses the Thunder are giving him a chance to grow into that space.

After throughly fleshing out those points I meant to highlight that while Jones has been creeping towards an actual place in the Thunder’s rotation, Jeremy Lamb had quietly been there most of the season. Although his minutes have shrunk as the team’s gotten healthy, Lamb is still averaging 20 minutes a night and finally flashing the sparkling jump shot that had everyone giddy leading into the draft. He was often talked about as an off-ball threat in the Richard Hamilton mold (driven in part by the maddening alma mater molds that conflate draft projections). But he’s also showed the potential to be a dangerous shot-creator in the pick-and-roll and has been surprisingly reliable as a pull-up shooter.

All that is why I originally started this piece two months ago, to let you know that right now, Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are better then you thought they were and possibly headed for being as good as you thought they could be.

But while that idea was languishing on the HP server, abandoned and crying out for completion, I began to see a larger context fit in around it. What began to intrigue me about the youthful depth of the Thunder was not just the particular developmental paths of Lamb and Jones, but the staggered entry points for the entire group.

Sam Presti is held up as a paragon of general managerial virtue — for his foresight, for his shrewd evaluation of talent and his encyclopedic knowledge of CBA intricacies and, by the more cynical, for his luck. He found himself a star and surrounded that star with not just complementary talent but the assets and wiggle room to adjust that complementary talents as the needs of his team change. But the most impressive (and lightly celebrated) of his accomplishments may be the way he has made sure the complementary talent and assets are not tied exclusively to this time and place. He has filled up a vast sea with potential, a choppy sea of rising primes, crashing in waves on the shores of the future.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both 25, two years away from the hypothetical, statistically modeled 27-year old prime of NBA players. Serge Ibaka is just a year younger, at 24. A year behind him is Reggie Jackson, 23. Retreat one more year and you’ll find Andre Roberson and Perry Jones at 22. Jeremy Lamb is 21. Steven Adams is 20.

The exact dimensions of the Thunder’s youth get lost in multiple directions. Durant and Westbrook are now thought of as veterans. Everyone else is, collectively, youthful potential. But they are not a solid block of age and therein lies the beauty of what Presti has put together. He has not just found players of stunning possibility, he has managed to separate them by age and experience so that there will be a continuous rising tide of development behind his team. The more typical model is to find a youthful star, or stars, and then cram well-defined veterans around them. Veterans come with less potential but with more easily recognizable contributions, sharp edges that make it easier to assemble the puzzle. This model works but it ties the arc of team success to the career arc of that single youthful player. When that player declines the team usually goes with them.

This is where you see teams like the Dallas Mavericks, watching their star slide down the backside of his prime and frantically trying to stretch that out as long as possible, overpaying for slightly more accomplished veteran talent (Jose Calderon) or rolling the dice on flawed potential (O.J. Mayo and Monta Ellis). The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers fought the same battle the past two seasons, before finally being forced to throw in the towel and bottom out.

By making youth and player development not just a single linear progression but a multi-dimensional organizational value, Presti has guarded against the need for the dramatic rebuild. Not every one of his young players will reach their ceilings and not every one one of those ceilings will be as dramatic as our idealized fantasies. It’s also very likely that many of these players won’t even play out this entire journey in a Thunder uniform. But a roster stacked to ensure that most of its members will be on an upward trajectory means the team will continually have opportunities to improve on the floor, while also holding the kinds of tantalizing appeal to make myriad transactions happen.

The next era of Thunder basketball is probably not the Perry Jones era or the Jeremy Lamb era. But they are the bridge to the future and their age and talent make sure it’s an uphill drive.

That’s what I would write about if I had the time.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.