OKLAHOMA CITY — Last year’s Oklahoma City Thunder entered training camp with too many conventional big men.
There was sixth man Enes Kanter, longtime veteran Nick Collison, power forward Ersan Ilyasova and center Joffrey Lauvergne to go with a starting frontcourt of Domantas Sabonis and Steven Adams. It was an intentional strategy for a team coming off a disappointing summer: Much of the NBA was going small, so maybe going big would help punish mini-squads.
The Thunder realized quickly that it didn’t. And they’ll enter this season with an opposite problem: Other than Adams, there is not a conventional center on the roster who received NBA minutes a season ago.
Rookie center Dakari Johnson doesn’t stand to receive minutes, and could spend much of his time in the G-League. Collison, meanwhile, got into only 20 games last year.
Career-long power forward Patrick Patterson stands to play backup center on most nights. Jerami Grant, who played a bunch at small forward after OKC acquired him last year, will see time at center, too.
It's today's NBA.
“There’s some more conventional teams that are playing with a conventional power forward and center, and there’s some teams with five perimeter players,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “The game has just changed.”
With Patterson missing the entire preseason as he recovers from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Donovan has cycled just about everyone possible into the backup center spot. Grant received the majority of the minutes there, but Johnson had his chance and even forward Josh Huestis, who bounced between the 3-spot and 4 in the D-League last season, guarded centers in a pinch.
It was some form of desperation meets situation meets modernization.
"First coming in, 3 was pretty much my designated spot," Huestis said. "But everything’s changing. The 4 is changing. The 5 is changing...I guarded [Denver Nuggets big man] Mason Plumlee. That’s just the way it’s going."
Of course, not every team has gone small to the extreme.
Some are still big, like the New Orleans Pelicans, who are trucking forward with co-centers Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Some, like the Indiana Pacers’ second unit with Al Jefferson, lack the dominance of the Pelicans bigs but still impose the brutish style which could put someone like Grant into a difficult one-on-one situation.
Donovan acknowledges the Thunder may have to double-team in the post more often than they did a season ago, but that doesn’t have to be routine.
Doubling on the block can open up stand-still 3-pointers — especially if the ball-handler down low is a capable passer. And the numbers show that even a player like Jefferson, who averaged an elite 0.98 point per post-up play a season ago, according to Synergy Sports Technology, isn’t nearly as efficient if he takes a one-on-one shot as he could be if he were assisting to merely league-average 3-point shooters.
Of course, there’s a reason the Thunder are made up of long, sometimes slender athletes: They can contest looks on the perimeter. Those types lend them the versatility to switch competently and often, a strategy they deployed during the preseason. It’s one that will continue.
“The one thing I like about our team is even though we maybe don’t have that traditional, enormously tall, big team, I do think we have a very long team,” Donovan said.
A greater issue than the 5-spot with the second unit may just be finding someone to fill in for Adams if he gets into foul trouble or has to miss a game.
Grant got a taste of that last season when Adams sat with a concussion, entering the starting the lineup, guarding the L.A. Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and getting physically dominated before Donovan made a move.
Jordan doesn’t post up. But he is one of the NBA’s best rebounders. Grant is on the other end of the boarding spectrum. So is Patterson. It means grabbing missed shots, not causing them, may actually be the largest issue with OKC’s backup center position.
“If he’s going be playing the 4 or the 5, I think just more of a mindset of when the shot goes up, find his man to keep him off the board,” Collison said of Grant. “As a perimeter player, that’s not always in your mindset. As a big, you really train to hit somebody on a shot.”
The Thunder will enter the regular season one short of the maximum 15 players they're allowed. At some point, they could absolutely sign a backup 5. They could bring one in on a two-for-one trade, too. The open spot allows for the flexibility. And they have a goal to improve there come the postseason.
But the playoffs are far away, and Adams sat for only 18 minutes a night a season ago. And for now, the Thunder believe they’re talented enough to make up for the flaws that come in those 18.
It’s why they have gotten so small with their second unit. It’s why the urgency to find a backup center won’t be present until they step closer to the trade deadline and buyout season.
The need is simply not that pressing in October.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as a host of the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.