Scott Brooks is finding early success with a new roster. Why?
There’s good news and bad news for the Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook is playing out of his mind—playing so well, actually, he’s probably the best player in the NBA at the moment—but his compadre Kevin Durant is out yet again, after doctors decided to readjust some screw or something to make KD’s booboo hurt less. This news drops just days after one of the busiest trade deadlines in recent memory, which featured several hours of chaos that seriously rearranged Oklahoma City’s roster. In summary, the Thunder are in flux. Despite a recent hot streak, nothing is certain; whether or not the trade will succeed, and to what degree it will fail or succeed, is up in the air. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start to ask what this will mean on a micro level, in terms of rotations, minutes distribution, depth and scoring. So let’s go.
What the trade means for the frontcourt. Scott Brooks suddenly has new toys to play with. Not only did Michigan man Mitch McGary emerge out of nowhere days before the All-Star break, but OKC cornerstone Kendrick Perkins was swapped for a young, promising player in Enes Kanter. Despite his dubious defense, Kanter is infinitely more dynamic with the ball in his hands than Perkins, especially coming off a pick-and-roll. Kanter has started his new season with two straight double-doubles.
The frontcourt is really where Sam Presti has improved this team, both now and for the future. By getting rid of Perkins, OKC now—when healthy—boasts four solid players who are all decent or better with the basketball, two of whom (Ibaka and Adams) are more defensive-minded and two of whom (Kanter and McGary) are more offensive-minded. If I were Scott Brooks, I would start Kanter at center with Ibaka. Not only are those two the more talented of the four, but it pairs the best offensive frontcourt player with the best defensive frontcourt player. Kanter rolling to the basket, Ibaka popping out for space. Pretty dynamic.
That would mean bringing Steven Adams and Mitch McGary off the bench. Both those guys are high, high energy players. That seems like an enviable situation. To top it all off, Nick Collison is playing some hilariously good basketball these days. (Except would someone please tell him to stop shooting three-pointers?)
What the trade means for the backcourt. Replacing Reggie Jackson with D.J. Augustin may seem like a serious regression in talent, but on the court it seems to be a much better fit. Even watching the Thunder beat the Hornets a couple nights ago, you could see the slight differences in Augustin’s game. He seems to have his head up a little bit more. And, actually, his PER is almost identical to Jackson’s. Augustin and Westbrook playing together looks much more fluid so far than Westbrook and Jackson, and that’s after, like, two days in practice. More than any of this, though, was the obvious difference in effort: Augustin wasn’t moping, sighing, or slumping his shoulders.
In summary, you’ve got a pretty good backup point guard who seems excited enough, is playing with a much better team, has been reunited with an old friend—Durant and Augustin played a year together at Texas—and who seems like a better basketball fit.
At the shooting guard position, the story will remain the same. Start the defensive ace Andre Roberson with the volatile Dion Waiters coming off the bench. This is still a bit of a sore point for the Thunder, but Durant and Westbrook can cover a multitude of sins.
Likelihood of success. You have to acknowledge two things about the trade, at the very least: First, it rid the team of a player who did not want to be there. Jackson was, emotionally speaking, done with the Thunder. Second, it rid the team of one of its two one-dimensional players. Brooks simply couldn’t play Roberson and Perkins at the same time, because they’re both so, so bad with the ball. He’s freed up quite a bit now.
The most palpable change is the depth. If healthy, here’s how OKC looks—
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Andre Roberson
SF: Kevin Durant
PF: Serge Ibaka
C: Steven Adams
PG: DJ Augustin
SG: Dion Waiters
SF: Kyle Singler / Anthony Morrow
PF: Mitch McGary / Nick Collison
C: Enes Kanter
Extra: Steve Novak, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones
Oklahoma City has never, ever had this kind of depth. That’s 12 deep strong. It’s not as if everything is all roses and fairy dust from here on out—as is made obvious by Durant’s continued absence—and there are still some serious concerns, the most notable of which is the Dion Waiters situation. Waiters seems like a young version of J. R. Smith, and is that really what OKC needs? Probably not. But when he gets hot, he can be a decent weapon to have. (Although his year in Cleveland was pretty rough, there were a couple games where, without Waiters, the Cavs seemed doomed.)
But the bigger point is that now Oklahoma City should have the depth to maneuver around Waiters having a bad game. They’ve got lots of weapons, and lots of different kinds of weapons. Maybe most importantly, they’ve now got the ability to score in the frontcourt. They’ve always had a decent scorer in Ibaka, but Air Congo is only so-so on pick-and-rolls and terrible with his back to the basket. Kanter gives them something they’ve never had.
So, the moral of the story is this: At least on paper, this is going to work out. Let’s see if the basketball matches the analysis.