Ever since the 2012-2013 NBA season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have walked a fine line between what is a good bench and what is a very weak bench. The 2012-13 season was a very good Thunder team. They had a +/- of +9.2; the best of any team since the 2007-08 Celtics and held up to be the best +/- until the Golden State Warriors came in and had their breakout season in 2015. To put it into perspective: the Houston Rockets won 65 games this year and had a +/- of +8.5, that OKC team that won 60 games was really, really good. So it brings me to the point of “bench play.” OKC could rely on guys in 2013 to hold down games for small stretches and not lose leads that they were given. They could play on an equal field and you didn’t have to sweat Russell Westbrook going off the floor for five minutes at a time. Kevin Martin was great in OKC, he was a starter that embraced his 6th man role and fit in well with the OKC culture. The group did not have a star, but played well together. Before Westbrook went down with his knee injury, the bench didn’t make us sweat every second they were on the floor. Scott Brooks also did a good job of staggering guys to help put a ball handler on the floor with Kevin Martin, whether it was Russ or KD.
Now let’s jump into the last five years. 2014 was really bad. So bad that in game 6 of the Western Conference Finals vs the Spurs only six players scored that entire game, the only one off the bench being Derek Fisher. Once Reggie Jackson got put in the starting lineup for Thabo Sefolosha, the bench crumbled. Caron Butler provided a small spark for bits and pieces of the season, but he eventually got phased out of the rotation and Scott Brooks played Westbrook and KD the entirety of games, trying to rely on their individual heroics. There were many teams that could work on, but proved fruitless against a Gregg Popovich led team. Derek Fisher was long past his best days and only out there because of his quick hands on defense. Otherwise, he was exposed which led into his failed coaching career.
2015 might’ve been the worst year of any Thunder bench. Decimated by injuries all year, guys were thrust into starting roles and you thought that would help them once the season went on. Reverting back to bench roles and armed with experience, the bench still struggled. Russell Westbrook had to play 40-44 minutes mostly every night to compete in games while Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters were thrust into a starting roles that they succeeded in ,but was not the plan OKC wanted. After the trade deadline and Kevin Durant pronounced out for the rest of the season, you’d be hard pressed to name who came off the Thunder bench each night, because honestly there wasn’t much there besides Anthony Morrow. OKC lacked a constant guy that could handle an abundance of minutes. Even Kyle Singler started the last part of the season. D.J. Augustin was brought in to backup Westbrook and he struggled with the unit alongside him.
2016 provided a lot of hope for the bench as Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter were back into their familiar roles. A lot of talk revolved around how OKCs deep bench could help them make a deep playoff run. Guys played decent at times, but the Thunder blew a lot of leads as Kanter became unplayable in the playoffs. OKC tried to continue their run of bringing in old players hoping to rejuvenate themselves on a contender by trading for Randy Foye, but the fit never worked out. Billy Donovan coached a great 2016 playoffs but continuing to leave Randy Foye on the court for large minutes at a time created a deficit that proved too big to overcome.
You don’t have to look to deep into the 2017 team to see a lack of bench help. Russell Westbrook got his MVP, but the bench devolved from the last season. Their poor play only got worse when Enes Kanter broke his arm punching a chair, and then couldn’t even be played against the Rockets pick-and-roll attack in the playoffs, Westbrook was gassed all year in games because he would leave with a 10 point lead and then come back five minutes later to an 11 point deficit. Norris Cole and Semaj Christon are no longer in the NBA, Kyle Singler spends every game dressed in a suit now, Enes Kanter - the only staple - is now recruiting LeBron James in New York, Doug McDermott is barely playing, and all that’s left is Jerami Grant and Alex Abrines.
So now we’re in real-time, the 2017-18 season where the Thunder bench has been very bi-polar. They have shown flashes of great play that will be key in the playoffs if OKC wants any chance at going far. My first instinct says OKC is going to run a ten-man rotation that will eventually be trimmed to nine once Billy Donovan plays the elimination game between two guys. Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton are the three locks to come off the bench. Beyond that I see Alex Abrines and Josh Huestis vying for that 9th spot and ultimately sticking with Alex Abrines if he is healthy. When the games slow down in the playoffs, spacing is key so the lane doesn’t clog. Alex Abrines provides that. Raymond Felton, Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson have started games in the NBA and have playoff experience. They will need to dig deep to find something in them to keep OKC afloat when stars need their rest.
I feel a lot more comfortable this year about the OKC bench then I did at this point last year. Russell Westbrook doesn’t need to play 48 minutes for OKC to win games. the difference between playing 42 to 44 minutes a night in the playoffs compared to the entire game is substantial. We sometimes take for granted what Westbrook does on a nightly basis because he makes it look so easy, but we also have to understand that even though he doesn’t seem like it, he still is a human being and he’s going to get gassed at some point. Westbrook just played 80 games at one of the highest minutes mark of his career, so it is very important that Billy Donovan monitors those minutes and the bench can provide a great spark. With all that being said, I am ready to see these playoffs kick off and I couldn’t be more excited to see if this OKC team can make a run this year! #ThunderUp
@42TDs - Game plan on stopping Donovan Mitchell?
Justin - Donovan Mitchell has been absolutely amazing this year, if he hasn’t hit a rookie wall by now, I don’t see him hitting it at all. With that being said, my game plan to stop him is simple, let him get all he wants, he can’t be a one man show. Make guys like Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio beat you, this is the playoffs where games slow down so I’m curious to see how Donovan Mitchell plays in that setting now.
@WentzBrook - Who do u think will be the biggest factor off the bench?
Justin - First off love your @ name, go Eagles! Second off I think the biggest factor off the bench will be Jerami Grant, OKC bench can’t light up the scoreboard every single night so they need to play good fundamentally sound defense and Grant can guard any position 1-5, so his defense will be really valuable to the unit. My guess is OKC will stagger Russ and PG, so that will be able to create shots for guys, they will need to knock them down but there was a reason OKC was probably the best defense in the NBA at the time of Andre Roberson being healthy and a big part of that was Jerami Grant being so versatile.
@tansan22 - Assuming Corey Brewer plays Sunday, will TFerg be the 9th guy off the bench, someone else, or could we possibly just run 8?
Justin - What’s up Tanner, one of my favorite people to interact with on Twitter! I think OKC will experiment game 1 with a 10 man rotation to weed out a player. Westbrook, Brewer, PG, Melo and Adams starting and then off the bench will be Felton, Grant, Patterson, Abrines and Huestis. That could change depending on the health of Abrines, but I just don’t see Billy putting Ferguson in there that early, I think ultimately Huestis gets pushed out and Abrines grabs the 9th spot. I will not say that I don’t see Ferguson not playing at all in the playoffs, I think if OKC needs energy he will make some appearances but right off the bat I see Abrines and Huestis fighting for the 9th spot and Abrines gets it because of his spacing he creates. To top it off I think this is the end of the weird OKC career for Huestis as well.
@Westbr00kMVP - If Brewer’s knee is an issue...who steps up?
Justin - I really hope Brewer’s knee won’t be an issue because we all saw how OKC played without Roberson and before Brewer got here. I don’t see anyone stepping up, they need Brewer point blank period, guys had the opportunity to step up and failed miserably.
Photo Credit: The Associated Press