The Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder are set to square off Sunday night and, as such, Orlando Pinstriped Post hooked up with Kevin Yeung of SB Nation's Thunder blog, Welcome to Loud City, to preview the game and discuss Oklahoma City in general.
Tyler Lashbrook, Orlando Pinstriped Post: Russell Westbrook returned a little earlier than expected from his torn meniscus, but he looks like he hasn't skipped a beat athletically. He's not shooting as well as years past, but he looks like the same old Westbrook. How would you assess his start?
Kevin Yeung, Welcome to Loud City: Westbrook's production hasn't looked too different from last season, and it's pretty impressive considering he was supposed to be returning to the lineup just around now. His numbers are almost the same as last season's, and he's out there on the court playing with the same energy as he always has. The injury hasn't affected his approach to the game, which is great to see.
His efficiency is down though, and there are two things that I've noticed relate to it. The first is that he's shooting a lot more threes this year than before. Considering he's shooting just 31.9% from three on the year, it's not surprising that it's dragging down his overall field goal percentage. The other thing I've seen is that he's finishing at the rim much worse than last year (down to 44.6% from 52.6% last year). Between his high volume of shots in that area and also a slight decrease in his free throw rate this season, a lower finishing rate could be a really worrying problem. However, I don't see any reason why Westbrook can't get back to being the finisher he was last season given some more time.
OPP: The Thunder are, pretty obviously, a great team, but they look a little different than year's past. Instead of a sixth man (James Harden or Kevin Martin), they use both Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson. How has this change affected the team as a whole?
WtLC: Having two good players replace one better player means more depth, and when concerning role players, I'd say it's usually preferential. Martin's tearing it up in Minny (and good for him), but we're getting along fine without. Reggie's carried over his phenomenal play from last season's playoffs and Lamb's been a pleasant surprise as a catch-and-shoot guy. Having Lamb replace Martin as the spot-up shooter has worked out as well as can be expected, which is important for a Thunder team that feels short of catch-and-shoot players otherwise. Both guys have been efficient, and there hasn't really been any regret over letting K-Mart go.
OPP: This year, OKC uses four or five first-, second- or third-year guys off the bench. It's almost like the Thunder are developing players off the bench while maintaining championship aspirations. How realistic are those aspirations when the team is depending on such a stable of youth?
WtLC: You do worry about how young guys will perform in the playoffs. They're playing great right now and they might keep it up for all of the regular season, but that'd be all for naught if they can't shake the nerves in the postseason. Still, I'm not doubting an 18-4 team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. There's relief in knowing that you have those two in any worst case scenario featuring young role players. The ceiling for this team is undeniably a title, and with things going so well right now, there's no reason to worry about inexperience yet.
OPP: Reggie Jackson, in his third year, reminds me of Jrue Holiday in his third year. His per-36 numbers (18 points, six rebounds, five assists) look a lot like a borderline All-Star's. What do you think his future is as an NBA player?
WtLC: Jackson is just a fun point guard to watch. Jrue's a great comparison, and you can really see where learning under Westbrook has helped develop his game. He's dynamic at getting to the rim and combines athleticism with touch for a variety of ways to finish, whether a dunk or one of his many different float shots. He can defend well, and is a very good rebounder for a guard. I'm sure the ceiling on him is somewhere close to where Jrue is at, and at the least he'll make for a good starting point guard if he ever leaves the Thunder. If he ever adds a consistent three-point shot, watch out.
OPP: It doesn't really look like OKC needs any help, but what need do you think the team should address before the playoffs? Does it even need to address anything?
WtLC: At 18-4, there's very little for this team to worry about. They're 7th in offensive rating and 5th in defensive rating. There was some rumor about Jeremy Lamb being shopped for a more experienced player (and certainly, now would be a sell-high opportunity), but the rumor originated from Sam Amico and I'd be surprised if anything came of it. A trade probably wouldn't hurt and the Mavericks' draft pick from the Harden trade is another sexy trade asset to package, but the way Lamb's played so far, I imagine the Thunder are satisfied.
What I'd like to see right now is for Scott Brooks to integrate Perry Jones III more to the rotation. PJ3 has played sparse minutes and has mostly looked good in them. He had a great game against the Jazz on 11/24, scoring 13 points in 19 minutes with three triples, but he hasn't played since. If there's any concern about inexperience going into the playoffs, it won't hurt to have another option (even if it's another young guy) on the bench.
Big thanks to Kevin for giving us his insight. You can check out his work, and the rest of the staff's wonderful work, at Welcome to Loud City.