At this point in the NBA season, title contenders typically have their rotations set and the players have an understanding of their respective roles. The arrival of mid-March means 80 percent of the season is gone and about 15-18 games remain for teams to fine-tune their products.
But that's not the case in Oklahoma City. Instead, the banged-up Thunder still appears to be in evaluation mode.
Things were simple during the 2012-13 season. OKC's five-man combination of Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins appeared in 76 games together. That unit appeared in more games than any other five-man combination in the league. What unit was second? Well, the Thunder had that, too. Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins appeared in 70 games together – six more games than the third-placed unit from the Pacers.
That led to continuity and familiarity. It led to consistency and experience. This season though? It's been a very different story…
There have been 34 five-man units that have seen more games than any Thunder combo. Reggie Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins is the Thunder's most-used group but has appeared in just 29 games.
This is a problem for coach Scott Brooks – a good problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Oklahoma City has six five-man combos that have played in at least 20 games together this season. Guys like Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones and Caron Butler have given Brooks options he didn't have last season. Not to mention a full season from Derek Fisher.
And when you factor in Westbrook's injury, things shifted even further. Jackson took over at point, while Fisher shifted over from the 2 spot and served as his backup. Lamb became the Thunder's sixth man, while Jones shifted into Lamb's spot as the second wing off the bench.
Things were further complicated by the recent acquisition of Butler, who has been nothing shy of brilliant since his arrival. Butler's 8.4 points and four rebounds per game are highlighted by his 36 percent 3-point shooting and defensive versatility. His performance and experience give Brooks no choice but to give him minutes.
As a result, we've seen Lamb's role change. The second-year wing hasn't scored in double-figures since before Valentine's Day and has averaged just 3.9 points on 27 percent shooting in OKC's past 10 games. Lamb played just three minutes against Houston on Mar. 11 and only seven minutes (all in mop-up time) in Thursday's blowout against the Lakers.
"Right now, he just has to be ready to play," Brooks said of Lamb. "We have a lot of good players. Sacrifices have to be made all throughout the team. And right now, he's not playing as many minutes as he has in the past, but he's a player that we love and we're going to keep working with, and he just has to stay ready. There's opportunities down the road and he has to continue to do what he's done all year and step in and be ready when call upon."
There was a time this season where Lamb was viewed as a rising star, so his fall from grace comes as a bit of a shock. But Brooks hinted that Lamb's demotion may not be permanent.
"He's confident," Brooks said after Thursday's win. "He hasn't shot the ball well, but I love what he does. He's a young player in this league and we're gonna continue to work him. He didn't play much tonight but he's not out of our sight."
As Lamb has disappeared, Roberson is apparently back in the fray. Just days after another call up from the Tulsa 66ers, Roberson started against LA and played 24 minutes. He scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds and provided terrific on-ball defense.
And then there's Jones. With Sefolosha injured, Brooks tabbed the 6-foot-11 forward to start six straight games at the 2 spot for the Thunder. But there's still questions surrounding where Jones should play. His length and athleticism allows Brooks to utilize him at multiple positions, but he's too big to guard some of the quicker wing players and not bulky enough to bang with many true big guys. Jones has a good mid-range jumper and can bury a corner-3, so when you combine those traits with his defense, it's understandable that Brooks wants to find a spot for him.
The roles for Jones, Lamb, and Roberson will be a focus point during the Thunder's final 17 games. It will essentially be a month-long tryout for the postseason rotation.
Here's what we already know: Sefolosha is the starting 2-guard. Assuming he comes back healthy for the playoffs, that won't change. Also, Butler and Fisher are in the rotation to stay. These guys have rings and big-game experience; two things Brooks loves.
In last season's playoffs, Brooks used a nine-man rotation. He has more depth this season, but because the playoffs bring an increased minute load for key guys, there will be fewer extra minutes lying around.
Butler spoke about the changes in the Thunder's rotation, saying that no matter who's in there, not much should change.
"When we come to a huddle, you say all in," Butler said, emphatically. "No one's straddling the fence, so whatever is required, everybody's all in. Whether it's five minutes, 10 minutes, 25, 30 – all in. We need everybody's help, who knows when your number's gonna be called?"
The Thunder has 13 candidates for what will likely be nine or 10 spots.
So if Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins, Jackson, Fisher, Butler and Nick Collison are locks for the rotation, that's nine guy right there.
Which leaves potentially one spot remaining for Adams, Lamb, Jones and Roberson.
"I look at it, we have 15 guys and they're all stars," Brooks said of his enviable depth. "There's 240 minutes in an NBA game at all positions, and you can't play all players. It's not an equal-opportunity, everybody gets the same minutes, everybody gets the same shots, everybody gets the same touches."
Brooks is right – nobody on the Thunder is getting a participation trophy.
It's tryout time.