Is OKC's Supporting Cast Good Enough To Contend?
By: A. Suave Francisco
When thinking of a championship team, typically there are a couple star players, sometimes three. Looking through time, every championship team had an elite bench as well. The question is, does Oklahoma City have the bench it takes to be one of those teams?
Many believe that OKC doesn't have a satisfactory bench, let alone an elite one and that's the reason they won't hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy at the season's end.
It's true, the Thunder don't have the deepest bench in the NBA and are very top-heavy talent-wise. But who's to says they can't use their weakness as their strength and succeed while doing it? Although it's a bit unorthodox, Billy Donovan has evaluated his team's deficiencies and that's why he's opted to leave at least one of the big three: Russell Westbrook, Paul George, or Carmelo Anthony, in the game at all times, even with the second team. That way, there will be at least one elite scorer playing with the bench and sometimes two, depending on the lineup.
The bench may not be extremely deep on paper, like the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets, but there are a few Thunder bench players that can be very beneficial if utilized correctly.
To be specific, guys like Alex Abrines, Jerami Grant, and Josh Heustis can really be effective pieces on a bench that already features an accomplished veteran in Raymond Felton. Patrick Patterson is a beneficial piece as well and continues to improve game-after-game, following an offseason injury.
As mentioned, those bench players can be effective pieces on this Thunder team if used correctly and if they're willing to learn from a very accomplished starting five, those chances will increase.
When thinking of the most dominant team currently in the NBA, the Golden State Warriors, you can't help but think about their deep and productive bench play that mostly consists of Andre Iguodala, who averages 5.5 points per game this season, but serves as the hard-nosed old-timer this team needs. Shaun Livingston, another old-timer that only scores 5.1 points per game, but produces a ton off the bench for the Warriors while sustaining the offense while Stephen Curry gets a breather. David West, the eldest player on the Warriors who's in his 15th season still averages 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game off the bench. The new addition of Nick Young adds another tier to their shooting repertoire off the bench, averaging 6.4 points per game this season on 41.3 percent shooting from long distance. JaVale McGee also adds depth in the paint off the bench and notches 4.1 points per game.
Individually, none of these player's statistics are necessarily impressive but collectively, these five average 27.9 off the bench and that doesn't include the combined 10 points from Jordan Bell, Patrick McCaw, and Kevon Looney who have 3 years combined experience. That's 37.9 points generated from their bench alone.
In OKC's case, there's 12-year veteran Raymond Felton, who's averaging 7.4 points per game and Patrick Patterson, in his eighth NBA season, averaging 3.1 points per game. Jerami Grant is much-improved from last year, averaging a career-high 9.1 points in his fourth season and has provided spectacular play defensively. Especially against Kevin Durant Wednesday night. Alex Abrines is another young guy who's in his sophomore NBA season, averaging 4.6 points per game and possibly could develop into an elite scorer off the bench for OKC. After those four players, things get dicey and inconsistent. Dakari Johnson has shown signs of promise but how ready is he right now to compete with championship-contending teams? He averages 3.6 points, 1.4 rebounds per game and shows signs of being an elite defender in the paint. Josh Heustis, in his second year, has also shown a lot of promise, but the sample size is so small that no one knows his true potential. He is averaging 2.3 points per game.
Collectively, Oklahoma City's bench averages 30.1 points per game and that's not including guys that don't receive much playing time in Nick Collison and rookie Terrance Ferguson.
Offensively, OKC's bench turns out to be acceptable, but still lacking a tad bit offensively. Someone needs to be that X-factor and step up their production, whether that's Jerami Grant improving his already improved point total or Alex Abrines fully becoming what everyone seems to expect of him.
It's also the defensive intensity that seems to leave them slightly behind, as well as inconsistency. The defense isn't necessarily bad, they just don't maintain the same intensity that the starting five started the game with. Also, collectively, they need to step up as a unit. One or two players may have a big game and the remaining won't contribute much. Each player has to find their niche and find a way to make a positive mark more consistently in games, whether that's offensively, defensively, or simply providing energy that the team needs to get past their opponents. Believe it or not, basketball isn't all points. There's an emotional aspect to it that's vital in a team's success.
Nevertheless, Wednesday night the Thunder defeated the Golden State Warriors convincingly, 108-91 and their bench only scored 12 points, but defensively, they did a spectacular job holding Golden State's bench below their season average, as well as holding Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry to just 54 points.
The season is young, still less than 20 games in and the Thunder are showing signs that they have what it takes to be among the best in the league at everything they do. The win against Golden State was beneficial in that the bench learned what's it's like to play against one of the NBA's best teams of all-time and persevere. There are still questions about whether they'll be able to continually play like they did Wednesday night but it was definitely a start.