Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard
It took a trade to make Thabo Sefolosha became a permanent starter for the first time in his career.
Drafted by Chicago, Sefolosha started occasionally in his two-and-a-half seasons with the Bulls before getting traded to Oklahoma City at the 2009 trade deadline. Even after the trade, the Thunder made him wait one more game before Head Coach Scott Brooks put him on the floor for the opening tip.
"I remember meeting the team in San Francisco," Sefolosha said. "The first game was in Golden State. I didn't start that game, but the very next game, (Brooks) put me in the starting five."
In a game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooks needed a defensive stopper to match up with Kobe Bryant, so he turned to Sefolosha. It worked for a while: Sefolosha limited Bryant to 10 first-half points. But Bryant caught fire in the second half on his way to 36 points, and the eventual NBA champions pulled away from a Thunder team that went on to finish with a humble 23-59 record that season.
Brooks must have seen promise, though, as he left Sefolosha in the starting lineup – and it worked. Sefolosha started the next 367 regular-season games. The Thunder compiled a won-loss record of 271-123 over the next five seasons with a team that featured Kevin Durant at forward and Russell Westbrook at point guard. For the first three of those seasons, James Harden came off the bench as a scoring sixth man.
In making Sefolosha the regular starting small forward seven games ago, the Hawks were looking for something similar – and it has been successful for them too. Not only has Sefolosha produced marvelously, but the switch also worked out for the player he replaced.
"We're pleased with what (Thabo) brings, really, on both ends," Head Coach Mike Budenholzer said. "Everybody seems pretty tuned in and aware to how good he is defensively, but he's helping our offense too. He moves well without the ball, he cuts, he slashes. It's another way to put pressure on the rim and create rotations (in opposing defenses)."
Budenholzer also heaped praise on Kyle Korver for his play as a reserve.
"Overall we feel pretty good, and (like) what Kyle is doing off the bench," Budenholzer said. "Hopefully, net-net, it's a win for the group but also for those guys individually."
Sefolosha is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and steals while playing fewer minutes per game than he did in most of his Thunder seasons -- and doing it while drawing the brutal assignment of guarding the opposition's best perimeter scorer.
Korver has both taken and made more three-point shots since the move. In seven games, he has made 19 of 41 threes (46.1 percent) and averaged an improved 11.0 points per game while dabbling with a new position: power forward.
In fact, Sefolosha and Korver have both spent time at power forward "4" spot this season, and they sometimes split the offensive and defensive responsibilities of that role when they share the court together as Budenholzer tinkers with various small-ball lineups.
"Usually Thabo or someone plays the offensive 4, but I usually get caught on a big guy (defensively)," Korver said before breaking into a smirk. "I just try to not let him get offensive rebounds."
For the record, Korver is a much better defender of interior players than merely trying to box out, and he has drawn assignments as large as 6-foot-11 Charlotte forward/center Frank Kaminsky.
"Big Frank is tall," Korver said. "A lot taller than me."
Below is an example of Korver playing power forward on offense. In a lineup with Paul Millsap, Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney, and Tim Hardaway Jr., Korver makes his defender choose between guarding the corner three-point shot and being the big-man help defender in a pick-and-roll situation. It's not an easy choice.
Sefolosha has spent even more time than Korver at power forward. He said that he is getting more comfortable with the role, which allows both him (30.4 minutes per game) and Korver (29.0) to stay on the court more and play starter-level minutes.
"It's still fairly new to me," Sefolosha said, "but I've been with the system long enough that I know what the 4 (power forward) and 5 (center) are doing, so in a way it's easy because I've been here long enough, but at the same time it's a new role. It's definitely different. I try to understand what works, what doesn't work, and what they need me to do while I'm playing the 4."
With a 4-3 record since the move, including road wins at Toronto and Oklahoma City, both players have proven that they can adjust and thrive in their new roles while learning whatever parts of the power forward role that the team needs from them.