Derek Fisher was supposed to be too old.
Jeremy Lamb was supposed to be too raw.
Steven Adams was supposed to be a stiff.
That's what the pundits and prognosticators pumped throughout the preseason, anyway, all in an effort to prove that the Oklahoma City Thunder bench would be bad this year.
But a funny thing has happened. Through the season's first five games, OKC's second string has been a surprising bright spot.
Among reserve units, the Thunder's ranks third in both field goal percentage (.485) and opponent field goal percentage (.376). It is in the top 20 in both rebounding (18.0 and assists (8.2).
The Thunder's bench is averaging 34.6 points, which ranks 12th, but of the 11 teams that are slotted higher at this point only Orlando, Phoenix, Dallas and Boston has scored more in fewer minutes.
Now, the same supporting cast that was so maligned a month ago suddenly is showing how it can be one of the team's strengths.
“Those guys are being aggressive and, to me, I think that group of guys have a chip on their shoulder,” said Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. “Everybody talks about how we don't have a bench and who's going to be this and who's going to be that. And I think, together, they're doing a good job of just playing basketball, making plays, doing everything that we need to do to win games.”
Many of the questions about the Thunder's depth, believe it or not, are lingering concerns that arrived when James Harden was traded. At the start of last season, few thought the second unit would be the same without its former sixth man. Harden's replacement, Kevin Martin, faced some of the same questions this year's group is facing. But now that Martin has moved on to Minnesota, many more questions have risen.
Entering the year, the Thunder faced valid questions about how the bench would score and which player would anchor that effort. So far, the answer has been a team approach that is showing potential of being as good, or better, than anything the Thunder has seen in the past.
“If you do it together, it's much better than one person,” Westbrook said.
In a nine-point win at Detroit on Friday, the bench was at its best. That unit scored 42 points with 20 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals, three blocked shots and only one turnover. Adams led the way with 17 points and 10 rebounds, his first career double-double.
In the first, second and third quarters, the bench either erased deficits and gave the Thunder the lead or maintained order while the starters got a break.
“Them guys are playing hard,” said Kevin Durant. “That's all we ask for.”
A key to the bench success, however, also has been its ability to play smart.
No one player tries to do too much. Unselfish basketball has led to equal opportunities and quality shots. As Fisher put it, no one goes into games with expectations or preconceived notions, particularly with regard to individual stats.
“I think everybody knows they have to rely on each other to be successful,” Fisher said.
As a result, Fisher, Lamb and Adams each have higher built higher Player Efficiency Ratings than starters Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
“Some nights it's going to be one guy's night to get a double-double. Another night it'll be somebody else,” Fisher said. “But we should play in a way that allows everybody to have that night. For guys on the bench, and even for the starters, if that's the mentality that we have where every night is different, it's not your night every night, it's the team's night every night, we'll be OK.”