Addressing OKC’s Demons: On Russell Westbrook, Scott Brooks And The Thunder Youngsters


There is a fine line between being a good and being a great team in the NBA. The worst thing that a team could be in in the NBA is a middle-of-the-pack team, more so than any of the other major sports. The Oklahoma City Thunder in its short time together has experienced life on both sides of the line. They’ve been a good team that no one expected much from and then ascended to a perennial contender that has risen to the top of the Western Conference. Now as the NBA season gears into its most exhilarating stretch on the road to the playoffs, the Thunder are left with several issues that should be noted.

Maintaining a strong bench presence

We all know that the Thunder will live and die by how well Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and, quiet as it’s kept, Serge Ibaka perform. With that said, there needs to be a strong commitment in utilizing their backup players in roles that fit their abilities. In the 27 games that Westbrook missed, Reggie Jackson was forced to step into a starter role that allowed OKC to continue operating at a fluid pace. Jackson not only excelled as the starting point guard, but his play restarted the outrageous “get rid of Westbrook” nonsense that seems to come into play every so often. While Jackson is certainly no Russell Westbrook, he is a solid rotation player when he’s in his comfort zone.

That said comfort zone has been out of whack since the return of Westbrook to the starting lineup. Jackson has played poorly since being relegated back to the bench and just seems lost when he checks in. That’s an issue that also seems to be plaguing Jeremy Lamb, whose sole purpose is to provide an offensive spark off the bench. The second-year player has seen his role increase dramatically this season, and while he has shown promise at times, Lamb for the most part isn’t fooling anybody. Derek Fisher might return to old form with big-time shots come playoff time, but nobody expects to see that consistently. Lamb and Jackson have to get out of their own way so OKC isn’t left looking like slim pickings when the starters are in need of extended rest.

A healthy Kendrick Perkins is a necessity

OK, from a basketball standpoint it’s obvious why no one really wants to see Kendrick Perkins on a court. Offensively he doesn’t provide much of anything, and on the other side of the ball he definitely isn’t the acclaimed defensive stopper many believed he was once upon a time. In fact, most people would find it hard to really say what it is that Perkins does in fact bring to the Thunder. Well if nothing else, he brings familiarity. Good team chemistry is just as important to a championship-contending team as the talent within it. There is a reason why Perkins remains a starter on this team, against all of the criticism (and there is indeed an abundance of it) against him.

Perk is a proven leader for OKC and allows everyone who plays around him to perform in his natural role. He’s a reliable presence in Scott Brooks' system, something that a player like Steven Adams hasn’t been able to provide. Adams' style of play hasn’t only been raw and considerably inexperienced, but almost detrimental at times. Perkins isn’t going to secure a win for the Thunder, but he doesn’t do anything that will lose the game for them. He is well-aware of his limits and doesn’t overcompensate by any stretch. As of now, he most likely won’t be back from injury until the beginning of the playoffs, and if this current three-game stretch without him is any indication, OKC is going to need him. The Thunder have not won since Perk got hurt, and no combination of Steven Adams and Hasheem Thabeet could replace the presence of Kendrick Perkins. Come on now, Hasheem Thabeet?

Will Scott Brooks finally surprise us for once?

Scott Brooks has been a great coach for the Thunder, but he’s also been a pretty predictable one. With Perkins out of the lineup for an extended amount of time, we finally get to see just how creative Brooks can be.  As mentioned, Steven Adams is more detrimental to this team than anything else, so I truly believe Brooks will experiment here.  Perhaps he will create more small-ball lineups that feature Ibaka at the 5 with Durant at the 4 and a Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones on the wing. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to test out and would break the redundancy that Brooks has used his entire time in OKC. Neither Reggie Jackson nor Jeremy Lamb are in the same mold of James Harden, so expecting them to consistently dazzle in the sixth-man role might not help in the grand scheme of things. Thabo Sefolosha is a vital defensive player in the starting lineup, but I’d be more curious to see how well Reggie Jackson and Westbrook could perform together if they both started. As mentioned before, Jackson hasn’t adjusted well to coming off the bench lately, so perhaps letting him dictate the start of games is an alternative. Of course, Brooks most likely won’t get that creative, but the options are all there.

Let Russell Westbrook adjust at his own pace

The fact that there are still people who truly believe the Oklahoma City Thunder are a better team with Russell Westbrook amazes me. He’ll never be the quintessential “pure” point guard that traditionalists seem to love so much, but honestly, would you really want him to be? Westbrook is a top 10 player in the NBA not just because of what he does, but how he does it. At times he struggles to get out of his own way, but his shortcomings are usually always a result of him making an effort to make the right play. Those that think he brings the OKC chemistry down, please take note that prior to his injury they were 21-4 with Westbrook this season. Not to mention, if they are going to have any sort of deep playoff success against a loaded West, then having Westbrook at full health for the postseason has to be a priority. You just can’t game plan the same when he and Durant are both on the floor.

Ibaka will flourish

The defensive wrecking ball that is Serge Ibaka is having his best season offensively, and that is essential to the Thunder's success. He has proved that he can be a reliable third scoring option, and the fact that he provides this mostly in his vastly improved mid-range game and down in the post is what OKC needs. I’ve already said that while Perkins doesn’t do anything to lose games for the Thunder, he still doesn’t do anything that advances them in anyway on the offensive side. OKC couldn’t afford to have two frontcourt players that struggled on that side of the ball, and Ibaka is finding a way to exceed all expectations.

What about Kevin Durant?

What about him? There is really nothing more to say about Durant at this point in the season. His MVP-worthy numbers have been the best in the NBA, and while LeBron James will put up a fight, I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. He is the most important piece on this team, and anyone who casually observes basketball could tell you why.

As of right now the Thunder are sitting atop the West, poised for an inevitable playoff run. At the time of this writing, it was announced that Caron Butler intends to sign with them. That move would not only bolster their bench, but it would also answer questions on how much faith OKC has relying on a Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones to help.

Only time will tell if the Thunder are ready to achieve the greatest honor an NBA team could hope to attain in the Finals, but I’m confident they’re at least ready to embrace that possibility.

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