By Rob Mahoney
Following Oklahoma City's functional exchange of James Harden for Kevin Martin, Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is tasked with making sense of two very disparate talents. Martin's role, in the abstract, won't be all that different from that of his Sixth Man of the Year-winning predecessor. Yet Martin simply isn't and cannot be all that Harden was for the Thunder; he lacks much of the efficiency and even more of the playmaking to be a passable Harden analog and, ultimately, can't be used to buoy second-unit offenses in the same ways.
But in Martin's first game with the Thunder, and the Thunder's first game of the season, Brooks had little choice but to go with what he knew. His substitution pattern mimicked the general structure of last year's rotation, beginning with the joint entry of Martin -- as a Harden surrogate -- and Nick Collison after about seven or eight minutes of play in the first quarter. It was a perfectly fair experiment, and one that highlighted a few of the rotational quirks that Brooks and the Thunder will need to address over the course of the season.
The early evidence suggests that the Thunder's all-reserve lineup is in trouble. The grouping of Harden, Reggie Jackson, Daequan Cook, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed was an every-game staple for Oklahoma City a season ago, and a set fixture to begin both the second and fourth quarters. As a result, it was actually the Thunder's fourth most-used lineup overall (per NBA.com) -- and for good reason. Despite the lack of firepower alongside Harden, OKC's bench platoon outscored opponents by a miraculous 14.6 points per 100 possessions while on the floor, which was more than double the Thunder's total net rating.
Against the Spurs on Thursday night, a parallel lineup -- featuring Martin, Collison, Eric Maynor, Thabo Sefolosha and Hasheem Thabeet -- was outscored at a harrowing rate of 49.0 points per 100 possessions. The sample size for that unit is tiny at the moment, as all data gathered spans just six minutes of court time. But the limitations of that bunch were glaring in their first stretches on the floor together this season, a fact that has as much to do with Martin as it does the rest of the lineup.
After all, the Harden deal isn't the only change to a Thunder rotation that often runs 10 deep. Swapping out a sharpshooter like Cook for Sefolosha and replacing an occasional scorer like Mohammed for the offensively irrelevant Thabeet puts even more pressure on the Thunder's backcourt creators. And with Martin still unfamiliar with the offense and parked regularly on the weak side, Oklahoma City ran Maynor and Collison through a stale, inefficient series of high pick-and-rolls ad nauseum. At some point soon, Martin will surely be able to assume a bigger role in the creation of the offense when both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are taking a breather, but for the moment, he's still a bystander -- even in lineups that he should be dominating.
Brooks is faced with an interesting proposition: Should he wait and bank on Maynor and Martin to attempt to forge some kind of Harden amalgam, or simply adjust his tried-and-true substitution patterns to stagger the minutes of Durant and Westbrook more consistently? The lineups featuring Martin and at least one of the Thunder's superstars produced fairly well on first attempt (excepting Martin's oddly ineffective substitution for Sefolosha into the de facto starting lineup), but it's debatable whether Brooks should be providing his newly acquired super-sub with training wheels. If the Thunder's ultimate determination is to use Martin as a stopgap to hold over star-less lineups in terms of scoring, then he has to be more involved. It's perfectly acceptable to go light on Martin's touches while he's figuring out how he fits into things, but at some point OKC will need to force the issue on its new-look reserve lineup in order to test its viability. As effective as Maynor and Martin are independently, there's a distinct possibility that they don't have the right mix as a tandem to carry limited lineups without the help of Durant or Westbrook. That's the reality of life without Harden. Oklahoma City has sacrificed broad talent for financial flexibility and a more specialized fit and, in a sense, challenged Brooks to handle precisely this kind of fallout. Forget the occasional struggles and matchup issues of the starting lineup; the play of the reserves is now at center stage, and seeing whether Brooks is capable of piecing together competent lineups on the fly should provide one of the more compelling subplots of the Thunder's season.