Thunder prepare for return of key defensive players
Kendrick Perkins has begun practicing with the team. Thabo Sefolosha has made the last road trip with the Thunder.
The two are expected to get back on the floor sometime in the next few weeks, before the regular season ends and in time for the playoffs.
And although the team has been wildly inconsistent in the past month without its best perimeter defender in Sefolosha and without its best post defender in Perkins, some have benefitted from the absence while others have suffered.
Here’s a list of some of the players directly affected by the two injuries and who were winners and losers as well as their outlook going forward:
Winner: Andre Roberson
With Sefolosha going out, Roberson has stopped going back and forth to the D-League in Tulsa, Okla. Roberson has started nines and has gotten valuable minutes, averaging 15.6 in March after only getting 4.3 in February. What you’re seeing with Roberson isn’t a lot of offense, but his ability to defend the perimeter makes him the best bet to replace Sefolosha whenever Sefolosha ends his time with the Thunder.
Roberson has started the past nine games and is playing 17.6 minutes per game in this nine-game run.
Outlook after Sefolosha returns: Roberson will certainly go to the bench and his lack of offense will keep him from getting significant minutes.
Loser: Jeremy Lamb
Lamb has suffered the most since Sefolosha last played Feb. 28. It seemed like a natural fit Lamb would get major minutes and a major opportunity when Sefolosha went down, but instead it’s been Roberson starting and Caron Butler off the bench who have seen more run.
Lamb has played just 14.8 minutes per game since March 1, down almost eight minutes per game he played pre-All-Star break.
Maybe part of that is due to a shooting slump where Lamb shot just 31 percent on 3-pointers in January and 29 percent in February after being at 40 percent the two previous months. And maybe part of it is due to confidence. Since the Thunder got Butler (played his first game March 4), Lamb has played more than 20 minutes four times, including the past two where coach Scott Brooks rested starters in the fourth quarter. In that same span since Butler started playing, Lamb has scored in double figures only twice and averaging less than five points per game.
How bad for Lamb? He didn’t even play last week in an overtime loss at Dallas. Clearly Brooks is favoring Butler.
Outlook when Sefolosha returns: Bleak. Because of Butler, Lamb likely loses any minutes he had before Sefolosha went down with an injury. Lamb cracking the rotation once the playoffs start is a longshot.
Winner: Caron Butler
Couldn’t have been better timing for Butler, who joined the team just one game after Sefolosha went out with his injury. The Thunder had a spot open up and Brooks immediately trusted Butler to take it.
Butler, with his experience, ability to score and rebound is a great complement, but it’s his experience Brooks leans on. Similar to veteran Derek Fisher, Brooks will continue to give Butler minutes in clutch situations. Meanwhile, Butler’s ability to shoot make it worth it.
Butler has yet to play less than 22 minutes with the Thunder. He’s made 12 3-pointers in the last four games and was five-for-five against Utah on 3-pointers.
Butler was going to get minutes. Unlike late-season signee Ronnie Brewer a season ago, the Thunder didn’t bring in another player to sit on the bench. He’s an established scorer, so the fact Sefolosha got hurt only made the transition to Butler easier to make.
Outlook when Sefolosha returns: Butler has yet to start, so that won’t change and likely his minutes won’t be affected either. Sefolosha is going to chew up all the minutes Roberson is getting and Butler will come off the bench in much the same capacity. Don’t expect much to be different when Sefolosha returns.
Winner: Steven Adams
Tough spot for a rookie, but Adams has fared pretty well since picking up the starting spot from Perkins. Adams has started every game but one since the All-Star break.
In 14 march games, Adams has played an average of 16.2 minutes and is shooting 64 percent. He shot 36 percent in February. Before the All-Star game, Adams was a 47.7 percent shooter. He’s at 56.8 percent for the season now. In fact, Adams has been better as a starter, going for 60 percent shooting compared to 46.5 percent off the bench.
Undoubtedly, Adams will be the starter when Perkins is finished with the Thunder, so the extra minutes and starts he’s made this season have to be a bonus.
Outlook when Perkins returns: Bright. Adams will go back to coming off the bench and that’s a good thing. He can have some issues with fouls, so being a back-up will allow him to worry less about needing to stay in the game. With no Perkins, the center position was just Adams and Hasheem Thabeet, so while the Thunder did play smaller at times this season, Adams still had to be aware of his ability to stay in the game.
Adams averaged 14.4 minutes per game before the All-Star game and 16.4 after. He’s an energy player, so the chance for him to come off the bench again will likely result in increased productivity.
More good news for Adams: He averaged more points and more rebounds per game before the All-Star break then he has after as the full-time starter.
Even: Hasheem Thabeet
There’s no one more likable on the team than the hard-working, always smiling Thabeet. Most thought he was a longshot to make the team out of training camp, but Thabeet did and he’s played more minutes the past two games than any other games this season.
Thabeet has appeared in just 20 games this season, averaging less than 10 minutes per game, but he’s a capable, short-term answer as a back-up center. He doesn’t have the offensive skills Adams has, so when Perkins returns, we’ll likely see Thabeet going back to the position he was in before Perkins was injured.
Outlook once Perkins returns: Cloudy. Thabeet’s minutes played are nearly double after the All-Star break than before it. Expect the situation to reverse itself once Perkins comes back.
Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter: @andrewgilmanOK