The Western Conference is as wide open as it’s ever been but the Oklahoma City Thunder are armed with an assassin in Kevin Durant. While their fearless leader has put up monstrous stat line after monstrous stat line, the reserves have learned how to play alongside him extremely effectively.
The Thunder are tooled with a competent bench complete with a mix of youth, athleticism and veterans with deep playoff roots. Young guys like Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb have been thrust into contributing roles this season as part of their NBA maturation, but also in large part due to veteran injuries.
Jackson has started 32 games for the Thunder. He has alternated from super sub to the lead guard position as a result of Russell Westbrook’s chronic knee troubles this season on two separate occasions. As a starter he is a poor man’s Westbrook with averages of 14.3 points, 4.9 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 31.4 minutes. Still, Jackson is best suited in a reserve role, where his shooting averages spike across the board, making him more efficient and a leader in OKC’s second unit.
Lamb hasn’t developed as quickly as they would like but he’s only in his second year. He has gotten regular minutes (20.2 per game) and gives the Thunder a solid shooter to space the floor knocking down 34.5 percent of the 3s he takes. OKC may not run a post-heavy offense but they do thrive on drive-and-kicks which makes Lamb’s ability to score from the outside extremely valuable.
Collison is almost like a guy you expect to see on the San Antonio Spurs because he’s a great system player who doesn’t do anything to hurt his team on either end of the floor. He’s accepted a reduced role as Serge Ibaka emerges as the Thunder’s third best player. The former Kansas Jayhawk is only getting 16.8 minutes of burn per game and is taking a career-low 2.9 shots. But he’s an intangibles guy whose value shows in his team’s fifth highest plus/minus rating at plus 4.3.
Fisher is a 17-year veteran that never says die. The Thunder respect his voice in the locker room and he is often a mainstay on the floor in the closing minutes due to his big shot making ability. The mere threat of his shooting, especially from 3 (38.9 percent), overshadows his matador defense on quicker guards.
The final piece to the puzzle (or so the Thunder hope) was added on March 1 when Caron Butler joined the team. As an intense two-way player, he gives OKC flexibility in their lineup. They can play big with Butler at the shooting guard or he can play small forward if Durant slides to the 4. The latter of those two lineups speeds the Thunder up and creates all sorts of “not nice” mismatches for their opponents.
In totality the Thunder’s bench is 14th in scoring at 31.6 points per game. However, they have the fifth-best difference in terms of efficiency percentage compared to their opponents at plus 7 according to hoopsstats.com. It’s important for any team to not have significant drop off when their starters are off the floor. But title contending teams like the Thunder need their bench to provide some sort of boost and that sometimes can come in the form an emotional one as well as statistical. This group seems to understand and accept the challenge placed upon them as a unit.
As Oklahoma City hunts their second Finals appearance in three seasons, it’s clear that they are better than ever. Durant’s MVP-like season is the driving force, but the reserves assembled on this roster are the perfect blend needed to give this team a chance at not only playing but winning in June.