OKLAHOMA CITY -- During training camp, there was a common theme emanating from the Oklahoma City Thunder practice facility.
This is the deepest team yet.
This is the most talented team yet.
The most important person of all, Kevin Durant, championed the sentiment as much as anyone. That's been the Thunder's master plan in re-signing Durant, to have a ready-made contending roster that still possesses plenty of youth -- and upside.
With Durant back healthy to re-join Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, the top of the roster was naturally set. And the secondary pieces appeared stronger than ever, too, with Enes Kanter, Dion Waiters, D.J. Augustin, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler, Mitch McGary and Nick Collison filling out a robust second unit.
Problem is, after two months together, that unit was tragically bad. The all-bench combinations were getting run over. Augustin, Waiters, Morrow, Collison, Kanter is the Thunder's third-most used lineup -- a minus 19.7 points per 100 possessions in 76 minutes. Suddenly, the supposedly deep Thunder looked more top-heavy than ever. Coach Billy Donovan countered by staggering Westbrook and Durant's minutes more, but the plan entering the season was to reduce their burden, not add to it.
Then, on Dec. 27 against the Nuggets, Donovan made a change. Rookie point guard Cameron Payne was finally inserted into the rotation, and the dynamic started to change. There were raves all offseason and training camp about Payne, the No. 14 overall pick in last year's draft, but with established veteran Augustin already in place, Payne was rooted on the end of the bench and even saw a couple different assignments in the D-League. It wasn't until it became obvious the bench was a problem that Donovan pulled that lever. Against the Nuggets, Payne had six points in 12 minutes. Two nights later against the Bucks, he had 16 in 16 minutes.
"Actually seen a lot better [from Payne], to be honest with you," center Steven Adams said of Payne following the Milwaukee game. "Not trying to put expectations on him, but he's good, man. He can play."
Next in line
The Thunder's second units have historically been very good, one, because they've had very good players on them, but also because they've centered around a creative, driving, attacking playmaker and scoring threat. First it was James Harden. Then it was Kevin Martin. Then it was Reggie Jackson. Before trading Jackson last season, the Thunder acquired Waiters, who was seen as a replacement of sorts. And while Waiters has made a clear effort to adjust his game, he's fallen well short of taking on that ownership role of the second unit.
So they shifted to building the bench around Kanter, a $70 million role player. The 24-year-old Turk is a monstrously talented offensive player, but unlike Harden or Martin or Jackson, Kanter is a 6-foot-11 big man who produces best in concert with the other four players on the floor -- most specifically with a creative pick-and-roll guard. With Augustin as the primary ball handler, Kanter was reduced to little more than an offensive rebounder. Add the fact the second unit was mostly inept defensively with bad on-ball defenders and no rim protector to clean up, and the Thunder bench was an overwhelming negative instead of the presumptive positive.
Payne, though, has started to unlock the Thunder's depth. Kanter is now the focal point of the second unit, with the offense flowing through him (he's currently eighth in the league in PER). The sharpshooting Morrow is getting more looks (12.6 3-point attempts with Payne per 100 possessions, up from 9.3 per 100 with Augustin). And now the often inefficient Waiters has less offensive responsibility.
"I think the hardest thing for any player when they go from high school to college or college to the NBA is when to shoot, and when not to shoot. And I think that's an area [Payne]'s grown in over the last month or so and gotten a better feel for that."Billy Donovan
Payne is a born scorer -- he averaged 20.2 points per game last season at Murray State -- but has clear feel in the pick-and-roll as a creator. His game has a familiar look to that of, and let's not say this too loudly, Harden. That could just be lefty stereotyping, but with the fast-and-slow rhythm, the body control, the 3-point set shot, the crafty rim attacks, there's at least a resemblance.
The challenge for Payne, Donovan said, is finding the balance between scoring and creating, which was the preventative that kept the rookie off the floor earlier in the season.
"He's been very wise in terms of his shot selection," Donovan said. "I thought earlier in the year he was looking to score maybe a little too much, and I think the best part of his game is his ability to find people and pass and his vision. He's has a really nice balance of when to shoot and when to pass.
"I think the hardest thing for any player when they go from high school to college or college to the NBA is when to shoot, and when not to shoot," he said. "And I think that's an area he's grown in over the last month or so and gotten a better feel for that."
Like Jackson before him, Payne is rangy and versatile, and he can easily slot alongside Westbrook, either on the ball or off. And as Donovan shuffles through combinations trying to find reliable closing lineups, Payne could find himself in some big spots as a rookie.
But against the Kings on Monday, the Thunder's depth imploded again. With Durant out with a toe sprain, the Thunder led 31-16 eight minutes into the game, but after Westbrook checked out for rest, allowed a 15-0 run and eventually were beaten 116-104. That's the thing with depth; it's all about interlocking the pieces together. Sure, it's supposed to bail you out when a star like Durant sits, but missing a player like Durant forces players into new roles. On the fly, that's difficult to adjust to.
Like so many things about the Thunder, the puzzle really only works with Durant on the floor. That's when the talent looks immense, the depth looks deep and the future remains bright. With Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder have their core, and it's top flight. But the secondary construction process has been intentional and specific -- to have the deepest, most talented team possible built around the stars, while staying young. So come next July, when Durant surveys the landscape, there's no better long-term fit than the team he's currently on.
That's the sell the Thunder will make over the next six months. And a player like Payne could be be front and center to help reinforce it.