By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Demotions stink.
There’s no way around it, no matter the line of work. It’s impossible not to take it personally. But hey, that’s life, and a team player, a professional, is expected to bite the bullet and keep on keeping on. It’s particularly true in the delicate world of pro sports.
Welcome to Jeremy Lamb‘s world. For 60 games, the coming-of-age Oklahoma City Thunder wing had served in a 21-minute-a-game role as a reserve. Averaging 9.5 points a game on 43.7 percent shooting and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc in those games, the 6-foot-5, long-limbed Lamb had received praise from most precincts as a valuable member of the Thunder’s strengthened bench.
Only Lamb’s mostly been tied to the bench since early March. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, signed as a free agent after being released by Milwaukee, immediately walked into 28 minutes a game. Butler, 34, can deliver rugged defense, rebounding and a reliable corner 3-pointer — he’s shooting 39.7 percent from deep, if only 36.8 percent overall.
|Lamb before Butler||Lamb post Butler||Butler in OKC|
Perhaps it’s just a case of bad timing for Lamb, who was mired in a shooting slump over the last two weeks of February, going 9-for-38 from the floor (23.7 percent) and 5-for-21 from 3-point range (23.8 percent) over a six-game stretch. In the 12 games he’s played since the rotation change, his minutes have plummeted, his overall shooting percentage is 34.8 (and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc) and he’s averaging just 4.7 points a game. An 83.9-percent free-throw shooter, Lamb’s missed four of the six he’s attempted since Butler’s first game on March 4.
“Of course it’s not easy, but it’s doable to try to stay ready because I don’t want to get in a game and let my teammates down and let my coaches down,” Lamb said last Tuesday before the Thunder played the Dallas Mavericks. Lamb didn’t get off the bench at all in that game, recording his only DNP-CD of the season. In fact, it is the only game this season he hasn’t appeared.
“I try to stay ready, try to stay on top of my game,” Lamb said. “Coach [Scott Brooks], he still gives me opportunities, he still trusts me, but Caron is on the team now and he’s been playing good. It’s all just a learning experience for me.”
That’s what Lamb, 21, thought last season was all about when he played in just 23 games after coming to Oklahoma City with Kevin Martin as part of the James Harden trade shortly before the start of the 2012-13 season.There’s also an added ego hit to this. Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the Rockets in 2012, has seen his reduced role come at a time when starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder’s top perimeter defender, is sidelined by injury. Defensive-minded rookie Andre Roberson, long and active at 6-foot-7, has started the last nine games and averaged 17.6 minutes a game. He produces little offense, about only a third of Sefolosha’s 6.7 points a game, but in a starting lineup with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s larger need is at the other end.
“His minutes have been a little up and down but it’s not that he’s going to be a forgotten man,” Brooks said of Lamb. “He’s going to get opportunities. He just has to stay ready and stay confident, and that definitely is difficult for any player let alone a younger player. There’s areas he’s going to be able to continue to work on. He’s not on the bench permanently, he’s just going to have to be ready when his opportunities come.
“There’s times where in anybody’s career if you’re not playing you still have to improve and find ways to get better, and we’re going to continue to work with him and prepare him for opportunities to play. And he’s going to get them.”
In the last two games, blowout wins over Sacramento and Utah, Lamb played 33 minutes and 22 minutes respectively. Against the Jazz his minutes were split evenly between halves. Against the Kings he played 16 minutes in the first half.
But he’s also logged seven minutes or less five times in the Thunder’s last 13 games, including the DNP-CD at Dallas. Eight times he’s been limited to 14:20 or less. That happened just four times prior to Butler’s arrival.
“I definitely talk to Jeremy. He’s a confident young guy,” Westbrook said. “You always got to be ready, that’s all I can tell him. Just be ready, work on your game everyday and you never know when your number’s going to be called. He’ll be ready. My job is to help him do that, to stay confident and think positive thoughts about himself and his game.”
The Thunder have nine games remaining in the regular season with a home date against San Antonio next on Thursday. There remains no certainty of Sefolosha’s return or how a rotation will shake out from there. For Lamb, there’s only one thing he can do.
“My teammates they always encourage me. I just try to work hard,” Lamb said. “Coach still communicates with me telling me to stay ready, keep going. That’s what I’m trying to do.”Stay ready.”