By Ryan Costello
The Oklahoma City Thunder often makes moves in season. Two years ago it was Thabo Sefolosha. Last year it was Eric Maynor.
This year, the Thunder isn’t being mentioned much in trade news, and perhaps for good reason. Maybe the Thunder’s best move would be one made internally, specifically, a shift in the starting five.
Current starting center Nenad Krstic is a known commodity. He has a dangerous jumper up to 18 feet from the basket, and has a solid pick-and-pop relationship with both starting point guard Russell Westbrook and reserve floor general Eric Maynor. But Krstic’s effectiveness seems to decrease the closer he gets to the basket. Worse yet, he’s less than average performing some of the more traditionally expected roles of the NBA center. His screens tend to be weak, he’s not a strong rebounder for a seven-footer, and he gives up too much ground defensively in the post.
Krstic’s game doesn’t mesh particularly well with star Kevin Durant, a substantial portion of whose points come curling off of screens for open jump shots. And undersized starting four Jeff Green is himself a rebounding liability, combining with Krstic to explain both Durant’s dubious honor of a small forward that leads his team in rebounding and the starting lineup’s 49% rebounding rate.
Krstic absolutely has a spot in the Thunder’s rotation, but it may be on the second unit, which could use an additional scoring option to up and coming guard James Harden.
The seemingly obvious choice to fill Krstic’s shoes as a starter would be budding forward/center Serge Ibaka, but the rangy pro from the Congo may be better suited at the four, rather than the five. Ibaka’s fundamentals haven’t quite caught up to the boost of energy offers on the boards and the block, so it’s best that he currently be at coach Scott Brooks disposal at any point of the game, just not at the tip.
Which, barring the sudden unexpected development of project bigs Byron Mullens or Cole Aldrich, leaves sixth-year pro Nick Collison. The Kansas product’s presence in the starting five would seem to be exactly what the Thunder needs to shake off its habit of stumbling out the gates in games.
Collison’s 4.4 rebounds per game are even with Krstic’s despite playing two fewer minutes, and while his pedestrian 4.4 points are close to being doubled by Krstic’s 7.6, Collison picks his spots better, shooting 53% to Krstic’s 49%. Plus his screens, defense, and team-leading penchant to take to charges would likely make up for the difference in direct offensive output.
The numbers go beyond just individual achievement. As per 82games.com, the Thunder’s current opening unit of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Green and Krstic is the club’s second worst among the top-20 used combinations in sheer plus/minus with a minus-7. Insert Collison in Krstic’s place, and that improves to plus-1.
And it doesn’t stop there.
The starting unit with Collison at center is better in rebounding percentage, turnover rate, attempts more shots at the rim, allows fewer at the rim, and surrenders a lower effective field goal percentage, a stat adjusted to value three-pointers proportionately.
Collison’s performance in Saturday night’s win over the Sacramento Kings was the perfect example: zero points on 0-0 shooting, and just two rebounds. But he was a plus-21 in a 99-97 victory.
Thunder GM Sam Presti has seen the numbers, and has seen Collison make winning play after winning play for big blue, likely explaining why he locked the 30-year-old Collison through 2014 with an extension earlier this season. The same may explain why Krstic is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
No, there probably won’t be a new-comer playing the role of messiah in Oklahoma City this season, but sometimes, there’s no school like the old school.