The battle for 15th
More than maybe any other team in the league, the Thunder are consistent. They don’t change their starting lineup, they don’t really change their personnel, they don’t really make big alterations.
So in the preseason, there’s really not a ton to dissect and break down. You know Kevin Durant is good. You know Russell Westbrook is good. James Harden, Serge Ibaka, good and good. The biggest questions coming in were probably who would take over the backup center role and where Perry Jones III might fit. On both those fronts, it seems like we’re pretty close to having our answer.
But one position battle is still very open. The 15th man.
“It’s tough,” Scott Brooks said about choosing. “It’s not going to be an easy day because there’s going to be somebody disappointed, and somebody who played well enough to make the team. As I said, but you can’t keep 19 guys. It’s a tough business. This is a tough league to make and it’s a tough league to stick, and we have that right in front of our eyes.”
Brooks said last night that this is the best group of non-guaranteed players he’s had yet as coach, which is a good thing, and a difficult thing. Monday against the Bobcats, all of them made an outstanding case for making the team. Andy Rautins, who was seen mostly as a longshot, came out and really established himself scoring 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Daniel Orton looked very solid. DeAndre Liggins started and continued his quality play. Even Hollis Thompson and Walker Russell looked decent, despite getting limited minutes late.
“We definitely have a lot of good choices,” Brooks said. “We have guys that can do things that the other guys can’t.”
That’s the question though: Is Brooks looking for a guy that could fill a specific need or is he just looking for the best player?
“No, because I think we have a team full of guys like that. It’s whoever plays the best,” Brooks said.
So let’s put odds on who wins the spot, which likely means spending half their season on the Turner Turnpike heading back and forth from OKC and Tulsa.
Walker Russell: 50/1
The fact he’s seen the least amount of time on the floor is certainly one sign he’s a longshot, but it’s more about the fact that the Thunder have absolutely no need in a fourth point guard. Westbrook is bionic, Eric Maynor is back and Reggie Jackson is capable. Russell looks like a bulldog and plays very hard, but he doesn’t have a unique skill that makes it conceivable he would contribute.
DeAndre Liggins: 4/1
It’s hard not to root for Liggins. He’s a very intelligent player, one that works hard, plays tough and makes smart plays all over the court. He rebounds his position, plays solid defense, hustles everywhere and tips passes. He’s sort of a Thabo-lite. I’d happily trade Liggins for Lazar Hayward right now.
But it’s really about if Sam Presti and Scott Brooks want another hard-nosed player on the roster that probably won’t contribute anywhere but in practice, or if they’re looking for someone that can help further down the line. That’s not to say Liggins couldn’t climb the ladder eventually, but he doesn’t exactly qualify for the future holes OKC’s going to potentially have. He’s not a shooter and he’s not a big guy.
Hollis Thompson: 10/1
Coming in to camp, I kind of assumed the 15th spot was pretty much Thompson’s. I have no idea why, but it stemmed mostly from the fact Thompson signed a three-year deal, but all are non-guaranteed.
He fills a potential future need in that he’s a shooter. He’s got size, length and athletic ability. On paper, he seems to be the fit. But he’s played pretty sparingly thus far in preseason and hasn’t really grabbed big attention in his minutes that he’s been afforded. There are still four preseason games to go, which means there’s time, but Thompson appears to have some ground to make up.
Daniel Orton: 4/1
I know I got ahead of myself last night about Orton, but, he does look more prepared to contribute in a pinch that Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet is more of a project, something the Thunder hope to draw out whatever talent is inside that 7-3 frame. Orton is the kind of player that can just be productive and do a job.
He has holes. He’s not attentive to defending the pick-and-roll, he got lost in his coverages multiple times and seemed to struggle finding his place on the floor. But he can clear space, set good screens, rebound and add a level of physicality to the game. He has the potential to be a really solid post defender. And there’s some solid polish to his game offensively. He catches the ball, finishes and has a little touch around the basket.
If amnestying Perk is a realistic future option, the Thunder are going to be in the market for bigs. Which means Orton could one day have a value and be a decent shot in the dark.
Andy Rautins: 7/1
Two weeks ago, I would’ve had him on the Walker Russell side of the odds. But after his shooting gallery Monday against the Bobcats, it’s obvious Rautins can play. He wasn’t shy, took his chances and made his shots. The question is if he can do that in spot duty as a specialist and if so, maybe he replaces Daequan Cook after this season (Cook is a free agent next summer).
I was pleasantly surprised by Rautins on the defensive end too. He’s not going to be near as versatile as Thompson would be in that Rautins is effectively a shooter and shooter only. He doesn’t bring the same energy and “little things” kind of play Liggins does. He’s not tall like Orton. But he can very clearly and obviously shoot the deep ball.
The next four games will be huge for Rautins. If he can keep the momentum going, he could sneak into that 15th spot.