How much longer can the Oklahoma City Thunder keep Jeff Green at power forward?
The question is not a new one. But it's one that has suddenly gained much more relevancy as the Thunder attempts to blossom into an NBA power.
Shooters and centers have long been viewed as the Thunder's most glaring weaknesses. But Green's shortcomings at the four spot have emerged as a hefty handicap, standing out more this season than at any other point in his previous 3 1/2 years with the franchise.
Last Tuesday's loss at Memphis marked the moment the issue became unavoidable for the Thunder. Green was woefully outplayed in his matchup with Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, who out-rebounded Green 16-0 and outscored him 31-8. It was only the third time in Green's career that he failed to grab a rebound. It was the umpteenth time Green has been bullied on the block.
That's not an indictment of Green. At his natural small forward position, Green has plenty of value. But at power forward, Green walks into nearly each game out of position and over his head.
For a team seeking to establish a defensive identity, the Thunder has put itself behind the eight ball most nights by trotting out an undersized and, at times, overmatched player at power forward.
Yet there are two trains of thought on the matter. On one hand, the Thunder has proved to be a 50-win playoff team with Green starting 82 games at power forward. And the current nucleus continues to grow and get better. On the other hand, deep playoff runs could remain elusive as long as the Thunder maintains what's become its most unfavorable matchup.
Working in the Thunder's favor is Green's ability to apply pressure on bigger, slower big men. Green is at his best when forces forwards to defend him on the perimeter and uses his quickness to blow by them for easier buckets. But Green is shooting 42 percent from the field and 27.1 percent from the 3-point line, both career lows.
A slight shift in how the game is played also has allowed the Thunder, on occasion, to get away with playing Green at power forward. With a lack of bona fide big men, more teams are using natural small forwards at power forward throughout stretches of games.
Still, in the Western Conference alone, starting power forwards include Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, David West, LaMarcus Aldridge, Randolph, Luis Scola, David Lee, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Paul Millsap.
Green historically struggles to defend each of those players. Green, however, courageously continues to accept those challenges, calling the competition fun.
“People are confused about what my game is,” Green said. “I play the power forward. But when I'm out there, I try to use the advantages that I have against people, not necessarily just fitting into the title of a power forward.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks refuses to concede that Green's career-high 37.9 minutes — mostly at power forward — are a concern. But the coach comes off more as one who is unwilling to complain while playing the hand he's been dealt.
That leaves the burden of figuring it all out on Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
Presti has a pivotal potential contract extension for Green on his plate this summer. Several factors could determine whether a deal gets done, most notably the details of a new collective bargaining agreement and how much another team might offer the soon-to-be restricted free agent.
As a safety net, Presti has 21-year-old Serge Ibaka waiting in the wings, as well as steady veteran Nick Collison, who is now under contract for the next four seasons. Both are more traditional power forwards who can defend the post better than Green. But Ibaka and Collison lack Green's versatility, which could pose problems defending perimeter-oriented power forwards and point guards in pick-and-roll situations.
If Green wants to remain with the Thunder, everything will work itself out, whether Green accepts a reduction in minutes or a move to the bench.
For now, the Thunder continues rolling merrily along toward a second consecutive 50-win season. And that's satisfactory for the next 44 games. But at some point this summer, the Thunder must answer two burning questions.
What is Jeff Green? And what is he to this team as it continues to evolve?