Kendrick Perkins made his return to the Thunder lineup late last week, sending Steven Adams back to the bench.
Then Thabo Sefolosha finally returned on Tuesday night, shipping Andre Roberson from the starting lineup to the inactive list.
And so it goes for the Thunder’s two rookies, with Adams expected to get spotty playoff minutes and Roberson expected to get next to none.
But before we spin this season ahead to the two months that will define it, let’s first look back at the interesting month-plus stretch that just preceded it. It was a hold the fort period for OKC, with two starters out and a third often joining them. But it also came with some collateral progress, particularly from the youngsters, with the Thunder becoming the first above-.700 winning percentage team in more than 20 years to start two rookies more than two games.
And really, that’s a stat that speaks to its rarity. Elite teams don’t play first-year players, particularly in meaningful games.
The Pacers and Heat don’t have a rookie in their rotation. The Spurs don’t have one on their roster. But from late February to early April, the Thunder had a pair in its starting lineup.
Overall, the results were expectedly inconsistent. But the experience could be invaluable.
“They've been in every situation this season,” Kevin Durant said. “As far as overtime games, winning by a lot, losing by a lot, close games…It's definitely going to help us down the line, and we're glad we have that youth on our team to help us and give us that depth.”
Every season, most of the NBA’s best rookies play on the league’s worst teams, a trend aided strongly by the draft process.
Michael Carter-Williams gets 35 minutes a night for the 17-win Sixers. Victor Oladipo averages 32 for the 23-win Magic. Durant started and starred for a bad Sonics team. Russell Westbrook did the same for a bad Thunder team.
“It was different for me,” Durant reflected, when asked to relate his experience to that of Adams and Roberson. “We were terrible. We won 20 games.”
And it could be argued that most rookies find those situations to be more comfortable. There’s more opportunity, more freedom and less stress. The final results are secondary to the individual development.
But it’s always on a case-by-case basis. And in the case of Roberson and Adams, being thrown into this kind of fire is likely best.
Neither projects as a future All-Star. Neither would thrive in an offense that would rely on their production. But they’re both the rare type of rookies who already understand, it seems, that their career in the NBA is as defensive-minded role players.
And the Thunder remains an organization that both cultivates and supports that type of attitude.
“We love what they are,” Durant said.
And in their time in the starting lineup, Roberson and Adams did an admirable job filling the Perkins/Sefolosha void, allowing the Thunder to maintain a defensive identity.
In 62 minutes played together, the five-man lineup of Adams, Roberson, Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka allowed only 78 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them among the league’s elite. They grab 78.6 percent of available rebounds, also a mark high above league average, and have outscored opponents 136-98.
Adams remains a work in progress, an athletic 7-footer still trying to hone his raw skills. And Roberson’s lack of an outside shot can disrupt offensive flow. But when surrounded by superstar scorers, the weaknesses can be masked and the strengths shine through.
And because of that, the Thunder won at a steady enough rate to maintain one of the league’s best records. OKC is 7-3 this season with both rookies in the starting lineup and 9-7 with just one of the two.
An impressive rookie season and recent stretch for both Roberson and Adams, where they clearly weren’t the stars, but proved to have an early ability to soundly play their roles.