Media day Friday, training camp Saturday. Here are the big questions as the 2013-14 Thunder season kicks off:
Who is Russell Westbrook?
Westbrook is still without an official timetable and it’s actually unknown when he’ll be on the court. Don’t panic. That’s not a bad thing. That’s just the Thunder being the Thunder, trying to tamp down expectations. Announcing Westbrook would be back on a certain day or proclaiming him fit to start the season would bring with it the assumption that he’s ready and back to 100 percent. He’s not.
He’ll be ready to play almost assuredly for opening night, but he’s going to need time to work into shape, to rediscover his form, to get back to being himself and to gain confidence on a surgically repaired knee. Remember: This the first significant injury Westbrook has ever dealt with. These guys aren’t robots or players on a video game. When they’re cleared to play, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to play. Give him some time. Don’t panic, don’t freak out when he lays in something below the rim rather than finishing with power.
Where does Reggie Jackson fit?
Last season, I asked Scott Brooks if he saw Reggie Jackson as more of a backup point guard, or more of a combo guard. And Brooks said that Jackson was the backup point guard.
Let’s hope that’s not the case anymore.
During the regular season, Jackson played mostly as Westbrook’s backup, logging 14.2 minutes a game, almost all in support. Late in the year, Brooks started seeing the fruits of playing Westbrook and Jackson together in small lineups, as that duo spent 161 minutes on the floor together. To put it in perspective how little that actually was, the two-man lineup of Perry Jones and Jackson played 221 minutes together last season, DeAndre Liggins and Jackson 198 and Jones and Hasheem Thabeet 178.
But there were real flashes of success with two primary ballhandlers on the floor together, especially in crunchtime where the Thunder offense has a tendency to bog down. I’m not saying Reggie Jackson is going to be what James Harden was, but I do think he could be at least similar, in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way. A secondary handler/scorer/creator that can spell Westbrook (and Durant) and potentially be the featured player on the second unit.
Jackson proved in the postseason he can not only play, but he can excel when presented an opportunity. He needs to improve his jumper (something that looked much better in Summer League) and he’s got to get the feel of running a team a bit better, but the Thunder are gambling on Jackson. They didn’t sign anyone this summer not because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t really want to. They believe in Jackson in that role and think he’ll prove them right for standing pat.
That’s the question. It’s just “Jeremy Lamb question mark.” Is he really ready to step up and perform in a major role on a contending team? Can he really provide not just the necessary offensive support off the bench, but can he fit with Westbrook and Durant in the way Kevin Martin did, going extended stretches without a shot but then being available to knock down a big one? Will opposing defenses care at all about him so that it frees Durant and Westbrook?
The thing about Lamb is that he doesn’t have to be James Harden. He doesn’t even have to be Martin. He just needs to be effective at what he’s asked to do. If that’s spotting up, if that’s being a featured offensive player for three minutes in the second quarter, if that’s scoring 8.6 efficient points a game, the bottom line is that the team just needs to win. So many have already written Lamb off as the Harden trade is cornered as one of the worst trades ever, but we should all know by now: Give young Thunder players a shot. They can sometimes surprise you.
Will Perry Jones ever find a spot?
It was a rough summer for Jones who wasn’t able to participate in Summer League because an infection in his mouth that required surgery. That prevented him an opportunity to make an impression, or more importantly, possibly get better.
We all know about the raw measurables with Jones. He’s a freak athlete with an incredible wingspan, great size, and good skills. He can dribble, pass, shoot and score. But the questions are in how he fits, his desire and his defense. When he fell to the Thunder two drafts ago, he was seen as an incredible steal, but everyone knew about the potentially short lifespan of his career because of some bum knees. With one year of that already down, what are the Thunder really getting out of Jones?
With some turnover happening on the bench, it would seem there’s an opportunity there. Smallball lineups with Durant at power forward should open the door for Jones to find some time possibly on the floor, but the question is if he’s ready, and if he can make a positive impact. I’m not sure of that, at all.
And then a question to go within this question: Does signing Ryan Gomes mean the Jones experiment is already over?
What about Steven Adams?
Will he spend all season in Tulsa? Or could he stick on the bench some, or even push for backup minutes against Thabeet? A player on the team texted me earlier in the summer after working out with Adams and raved about his physicality and presence. Context, of course, seeing as there’s some bias there. But it builds on what we all saw in Summer League. Adams is an impressive specimen that just needs a lot of seasoning and development.
He might look fantastic in a workout, but how will he look on the floor in a fast-paced NBA game? I would expect him to play in Tulsa a decent amount, but I certainly wouldn’t write off the potential that he pushes Thabeet (and Daniel Orton) in training camp. Adams blew people away at the draft combine which forced his stock to rise. And now he’s impressing at voluntary workouts. It seems that he’s, you know, getting better. A full training camp with preseason games and maybe he could continue to trend upwards enough to warrant some consideration on the floor.
Because let’s face it: Center is not exactly the most stable position in Oklahoma City.
What kind of player does Kevin Durant want to be?
Last season, he was focused on being a better distributor and creator, along with an obsession of efficiency. What’s his goal this year? Does he want to build on last season and be a 55-45-90 shooter? Does he want to be more of a power forward and double-double machine? Does he want to take a step back scoring and try and get his assists up over five or six a game? Durant’s game is like blooming flower that just keeps getting prettier and prettier, never wilting. So what’s he gonna do next?
Any structural changes?
With the questions around Westbrook and how long it’ll take for him to be Russell Westbrook again, will that force Scott Brooks to approach offense in a different manner? Will he have to expand past, “Get it to Kevin and Russell” and actually implement an offensive structure?
I’ve said this before, but the Thunder offense functions a lot in the same way a high school would. That’s not a slight or a bad thing, because I think it was just Brooks trying to maximize the potential of the talent he has. But the Thunder approached offense as having a handful of set plays and functions with the main idea being to let Durant and Westbrook be themselves within the offense and play with freedom.
If Westbrook can’t be that dominant offensive player we’ve known the past few seasons, does that mean something has to give? Because without Westbrook in the playoffs, it was apparent that the Thunder needed something built in to aid the entire function of the offense. Without their shot creator and the pressure cooker that is Westbrook, the Thunder offense shriveled as opposing defenses keyed on Durant and forced players like Martin and Ibaka to pick up the slack.
After cutting DeAndre Liggins, the Thunder currently have 15 players under contract, not including Grant Jerrett. But it’s likely the Thunder might bring in a couple players for training camp and with Orton being non-guaranteed (as well as Hasheem Thabeet) and Gomes being only partially guaranteed, is there an opportunity for Jerrett, or someone else, to make an impression?