OKLAHOMA CITY — Thunder coach Scott Brooks doesn’t get the sudden fuss over his bench.
“We’ve always played 10 guys. I’ve done it for many years,” Brooks said. “All of a sudden we’re all getting credit that we’re playing 10 guys. It’s baffling that we’re all of a sudden talking about it.”
The fuss isn’t so much over the number of guys coming off the bench, but rather the numbers those guys are putting up. For a team so reliant on its two superstars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder bench is scoring more this season than at any time during the Big Three era with super sixth man James Harden, as well as last season when Kevin Martin replaced the Houston-bound Harden.
This Thunder bench (according to hoopsstats.com) ranks 11th in the league in scoring (33.8 ppg) and is statistically blowing away past incarnations in a number of categories: Sixth in rebounding (17.1), eighth in offensive rebounding (4.7), 11th in assists (7.2), third in field-goal percentage (47.4) and ninth in minutes (19.2). That’s a top-11 ranking in six key categories.
Last season’s bench ranked in the bottom 11 in five of those categories (field-goal percentage, 45.2, being the lone exception).
Outside of stalwart forward-center Nick Collison, this is largely a new-name bench. Third-year point guard Reggie Jackson has been excellent and his ascension from 14.2 mpg last season to 24.8 mpg this season was somewhat predictable after his 2013 playoff breakout as Westbrook’s stand-in. More doubts centered around 6-foot-5, second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and his ability to handle a hefty bench role for the first time in his career. Averaging 9.8 ppg and shooting 41.1 percent from beyond the arc in 20.7 mpg, so far, so good.
Add 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams, OKC’s at-the-time unheralded 12th pick in the Draft, spot minutes for 2012 first-round pick Perry Jones and a still-healthy dose of court time for everlasting point guard Derek Fisher, and the Thunder’s bench is producing at previously unseen levels. Three-point percentage (33.9), ranking 20th in the league, is the only lacking category.
The emergence of Adams (4.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.0 bpg in 16.1 mpg) has allowed Brooks to limit starting center Kendrick Perkins‘ minutes to 18.1 a game. Jackson, averaging 12.2 ppg and 3.4 apg, and Lamb (plus Fisher’s 13.4 mpg), have kept Westbrook down to 33.0 mpg coming off knee surgery. That’s about two fewer minutes per game than last season.
When the Thunder advanced to the 2012 Finals, Fisher was the most heavily used reserve guard beyond Harden. In the previous seasons, Harden was flanked by Eric Maynor (averaged 14.6 mpg in 2010-11) with Daequan Cook adding inconsistent minutes (and production) at shooting guard. This is the first time Brooks has trusted his personnel enough to regularly employ two young and athletic reserve guards.
“The trust came with all the work that he put in last season,” Brooks said of Lamb, who is shooting 48.7 percent overall. “When you don’t play as a rookie, you have a choice to make: either pout or get better. And he chose the one that we helped him choose. But it’s on him. He wanted to get better.”
No doubt that the 22-year-old Lamb was the wild card for a highly functioning bench. In Sunday’s win over Orlando, he played in his 23rd game of the season to equal his rookie total. He went 7-for-10 from the floor for 16 points, his 12th game in double figures and fourth in a row. He was 2-for-3 from beyond the arc, giving him 30 made 3s on the season, the number he attempted all of last season.
In his last three games, Lamb is averaging 15.0 ppg and is 6-for-10 from downtown. Even at his impressive clip, Lamb said he’s not happy with his long-range accuracy (30-for-73).
“I haven’t been hitting the 3 like I want to. I don’t know (a specific percentage), but I’ve missed a lot of wide open shots, some big shots. Those have to go down,” said Lamb, a 34.8-percent 3-point shooter during two seasons at Connecticut. “There’s been games where I’ve had open shots in overtime; open shots whether it’s the first quarter or overtime, I want to make them.”
Lamb and Harden are both 6-foot-5, but inherently different players. Lamb, lanky and with exceptionally long arms, is a pure shooting guard, while Harden, stockier and listed 35 pounds heavier than Lamb, is a rare backcourt hybrid. Harden possesses extraordinary skill to drive to the basket, and therefore to get to the free throw line. Still, Lamb is measuring up well to Harden’s rookie season with OKC when he averaged 9.9 ppg, shot 40.3 percent overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 22.9 mpg.
With Lamb on the floor, the Thunder’s offensive rating is an excellent 110.1 (points scored per 100 possessions — only Portland has a team offensive rating better than 110.0; OKC’s is 105.9) and their defensive rating is a solid 99.0 (points allowed per 100 possessions — only six teams have ratings below 100.0; OKC’s is 98.0). When Lamb is on the bench, their offensive rating dips to 102.9 and the defensive rating is quite comparable at 97.3.
“Last year I had to change my mindset,” Lamb said. “I came in thinking, ‘OK, I’m going to get some minutes.’ But once I realized that I wasn’t going to get any minutes, I just tried to stay positive. I decided to keep working because I knew at some point I was going to get that chance, and when I got that chance I wanted to be ready.”
So, coach, that’s what the fuss is about.