We know who Oklahoma City’s best three players are. We also know who their best 10 players are. We just know very little in between. Right now we just don’t know what Oklahoma City’s best lineup is. Neither do they, and as the regular season draws to a close, they’re going to need to commit to five players to finish playoff games.
Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka are going to be three of those players, but we don’t even know what positions they’ll play. Will the Thunder use a second point guard? Will they play two big men? Can they find enough spacing? Let’s go through their roster and find the two players best suited to finish games with Oklahoma City’s three stars.
I’ll give Waiters a modicum of credit. He’s actually trying on defense this year. Not particularly hard, not something you’d notice with a normal player, but it’s head and shoulders ahead of his defense in Cleveland. That’s the highest praise I can give him. The typical argument for playing Waiters is the boost he should logically give to an offense. But the Thunder have actually played better offensively with defensive stopper Andre Roberson on the floor (109.7 points per 100) than Waiters (109.4).
That’s pretty damning, and there isn’t a specific attribute Waiters offers that makes him playable either. Cameron Payne is a better ball-handler and Anthony Morrow is a better shooter. This doesn’t mean Waiters is a bad offensive player, but he’s not used properly on this team. He’s a high-usage player sharing the court with Durant and Westbrook. If Billy Donovan insists on resting those two together, Waiters should logically come off of the bench and carry the offense in their stead. That unclogs the starting lineup by taking out an isolation player and gives the bench a jolt. So Waiters still has use for the Thunder, but he shouldn’t be playing crunch time.
I want to stand behind these two lunkheads and ring a bell while shouting “shame” over and over. The 41-16 Thunder have a negative net rating when either of these two are on the floor. Singler’s is -0.7, Payne’s is -2.0. I’m not quite sure how this is possible. Literally every other Thunder player who has played at least 100 minutes and is still on the roster sports at least a net rating of +3.1.
Payne has something of an excuse. He has only played 174 of his 476 minutes with Durant, 162 with Ibaka and 86 with Westbrook. OKC’s offense dies when those guys aren’t on the floor, and Payne is a rookie point guard who at least shows a bit of promise through the eye test. He shouldn’t play crunch time, but he gets a pass.
But damn it Kyle, you’re supposed to be the adult in the room. He somehow has a point differential of -13 when on the floor with Durant. Do you realize how hard that is? It’s Kevin Durant! We could desecrate Catherine the Great’s corpse right now, stick it in a Thunder jersey, tell it make the occasional rotation and take open shots and it would have a positive point differential with Kevin Durant. Singler should have to play for the Kings now. That should be the rule when something like this happens. Unbelievable.
Quantitatively, all of Oklahoma City’s best offensive lineups tend to include Kanter. When he replaces Steven Adams and plays with the other four starters, for example, the Thunder have scored 129.7 points per possession (in an admittedly small 128-minute sample). It’s just fair to wonder how sustainable that is.
Spacing gets pretty cramped in the playoffs. Kanter generates very little of it as a shooter, and neither he nor Waiters does much to create it as passers. That lack of spacing could be mitigated by playing Anthony Morrow with Kanter, but both are dreadful defensive players. If the Thunder had a reliable two-way wing who could guard forwards, they could get away with playing Kanter late in games because the offensive boost he adds is that valuable. But Golden State would look for him on every possession defensively, and without the spacing to match shots with the Warriors that’s just not going to be enough.
Adams is a bit more palatable than Kanter. He can’t shoot either, but he’s an excellent defensive player who has offensive value in the right circumstances. If the Thunder wanted to spread a Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll with shooting, for example, Adams is enough of a diver to make it work. When Adams rolls, the Thunder score 1.11 points per possession. That’s before you factor in the boost of running such a player with someone like Morrow on the floor to increase spacing.
Adams is the likely center against a team like San Antonio, but Golden State’s quickness makes him a liability. Ibaka can probably guard Draymond Green, but is he quick enough to chase Andre Iguodala or Harrison Barnes? Even if he is, that’s a waste of his talents and creates another mismatch on Green. Adams isn’t a good enough offensive player to take advantage of his height mismatch with Draymond one-on-one, so the matchup swings heavily in Golden State’s favor.
So Adams probably is one of the Thunder’s five best players, but the specific match up with Golden State would make him unplayable late in games. With the Warriors representing Oklahoma City’s greatest obstacle on the way to the Finals, they have to find a group that can play their death lineup effectively.
Neither Morrow nor Roberson truly get their due. They are labeled as one-dimensional and buried in favor of Dion Waiters, yet pairing the two with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka likely creates Oklahoma City’s best chance at matching Golden State’s small ball.
Morrow makes the Thunder offense nearly unstoppable when he plays with starters. With Durant and Ibaka, for example, Morrow has an ORtg of 128.2. The small sample size (116 minutes) is relevant, but it goes to show how dangerous Oklahoma City’s offense can be with Morrow. And guess what else is a small sample size? The playoffs! Winning a championship takes a degree of variance, and having Morrow on the floor gives you a better chance of capitalizing on that variance.
But he has played less than half of his 720 minutes with either Westbrook or Ibaka, and only 184 with Durant. Billy Donovan’s hesitance to play Morrow with starters is due to his defensive deficiencies, but doesn’t pairing him with Roberson seem like a reasonable compromise?
The Morrow-Roberson combination has actually yielded very positive results in short stints. They’ve played 116 minutes together and have outscored opponents by 16.7 points per 100 possessions in that time. Morrow hides on the worst opposing scorer, and Roberson has grown enough offensively to at least force defenses to guard him. He may only be making 27.4% of his three’s, but he’s up to 35.6% in the corner. The Thunder can live with that as their worst case scenario offensively.
As talented as the Warriors are, they aren’t unbeatable. Morrow can be hidden on Iguodala under the assumption that he’s at least quick enough to keep up with him, and if the Warriors want to bet the season on Iguodala posting Morrow up the Thunder probably won’t complain. Durant, Ibaka and Roberson are all excellent defensive players and Westbrook can be when focused. Those four should be able to protect Morrow enough to take advantage of his offensive gifts. They may never be favored against the Warriors, but with positive shooting variance a Morrow-Roberson combination gives them a puncher’s chance at winning the West.