Starting Lineup Strong, Collison Leading Second Unit

NBA rosters are ever-evolving organisms on a year-to-year basis with a combination of familiarity and newness washing over the team each new season.

For the Thunder, despite the recent trade that brings two new guards to the second unit, there is continuity in the starting lineup that Head Coach Scott Brooks can rely upon. Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have started games with each other since the spring of 2011, and has led the Thunder to one of the best records in the NBA during that time period. Not only does this team’s starting five have offensive and defensive skills, it has an identity and plays an effective brand of basketball.

“That starting five has done a good job over the years,” Brooks said. “I look at it as what our team is built on. It’s built on teamwork, it’s built on effort, and it’s built on competing every night. The last thing I look at is our talent… Our ability to stay consistent in our effort and be workers every day and good teammates every day is very valuable for what we do.”

Rotations, minutes and certain lineups may be different throughout the course of a game with the addition of players like Kevin Martin, Hasheem Thabeet, Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb, but for large chunks of the game – particularly at the beginning and end of halves, the Thunder will have a quintet that it can trust and that has faith in one another.

“We know we can play,” Sefolosha said. “I think it’s a good thing that we get to start the season with the same starting five and see where it goes from there. Definitely, I think it’s a good thing that we have some chemistry going and we know each other’s game. So that’s a big plus for us.”

Over the course of an 82 game schedule, the starting lineup’s effectiveness will only continue to grow while the team integrates the new pieces and molds its second unit. Led by veteran forward Nick Collison, the second unit looks to spell the starters and not simply maintain an advantage, but grow or re-gain the lead while on the floor. It will take time to mesh the new pieces within the Thunder roster, but with leaders like Collison, Durant and Westbrook, new players are welcomed immediately into the family.

“You can’t force it, but we have guys on the team that are really great at welcoming new players, just like they did myself,” Sefolosha said. “Russ, Kevin, Nick, all those guys, I think they do a great job welcoming new guys and making them feel a part of the team. The chemistry on the court will come. That is something that we have 82 games to play, so I’m sure it will come.”

Collison’s dedication to film study and comprehension of both the playbook and team ideals will be critical to the second unit’s success. By knowing multiple positions, not just his own, Collison is a rare type of forward who can give advice, direction and support to guards, forwards and centers alike.

“Anytime you have a guy that understands what we do is an advantage,” Brooks said. “Nick has a high basketball IQ… We challenge our guys, all of our players, to understand every position because we can play multiple lineups, mismatch lineups, small, big, super small, but we need everybody to know their roles when they’re in those positions.”

Along with Martin and Lamb, guards Eric Maynor and Reggie Jackson will be called upon to lead the second unit offense and find scoring opportunities for bigs like Collison, Jones and Hasheem Thabeet. The Thunder can also rely on a defensive spark from the versatile DeAndre Liggins, but the key for Brooks and his coach-on-the-court Collison will be to determine which five will be best suited to help guide the Thunder’s second unit.

“We’re going to have to work on it,” Collison said. “Practice is going to be big and we’re going to just have to figure out the best way to play. For me, I’ll try to be vocal. I have a good understanding of the sets we’re trying to run. I’ll try to talk guys through stuff and if we can figure out something on our own and in talking to individual guys on a certain play, I think that’s how I can help.”

Over the past two days in practice and in tomorrow’s session before the team travels to San Antonio for the season opener against the Spurs, the Thunder will be in full-on assimilation mode with the new pieces. It helps that Martin has a prior relationship with Brooks from both of their days in Sacramento, so the Thunder’s head man knows what Martin is capable of in backdoor, give-and-go cut, transition and catch and shoot situations. The next step for the Thunder is to translate Martin’s attributes into the team’s offensive and defensive system to create on-court harmony between all of the team’s pieces.

“K-Mart is one of the smartest guys without the ball in this league,” Brooks said. “He can score with the ball very rarely in his hands. He’s going to move the basketball quickly and make decisions quickly. We like that. Having him and Nick, they’re going to build a chemistry. When you have good players that understand roles and want to do the right thing, it’s going to work eventually. I saw it already today that it’s working.”