Thursday, May 16, 2013

Oklahoma City's Eric Maynor Playoff Problem

Eric Maynor's game isn't possessed, but he could have made a difference for the Thunder. (Mark D. Smith/USA Today Sports)

While the Oklahoma City crowd cheered on the home team for the last time of the 2012-13 season, chanting "O-K-C" even as it became increasingly evident that the Memphis Grizzlies were advancing to the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder's series-long struggle ended in an 88-84 Game 5 loss. Since losing Russell Westbrook to a torn meniscus in Game two of the first round, the Thunder's largest margin of victory was nine points in a 103-94 road win over the defense-optional Houston Rockets.

For a team built around two of the NBA's best players, the dynamic shifts dramatically when the main ball-handler of the two, and of the team, is sidelined by injury. Westbrook rose above the "upside-trumps-mistakes" and tag that hung on his profile and, for that matter, the narrative that a number Westbrook's looks at the basket should be used by Kevin Durant. Those were the storylines that followed Westbrook over the past couple years and he came into his own this season, successfully playing alongside Durant and helping lead the Thunder to a better winning percentage than when James Harden was Oklahoma City's sixth man on the way to an NBA Finals berth last season.

That's why it was so devastating when Westbrook was removed from the Thunder's equation for playoff success. It thrust reserve point guard Reggie Jackson onto a big stage in just his second year as an NBA player. Serge Ibaka assumed the role of primary sidekick for Durant, but failed to connect on enough of his beloved long jumpers to raise his offensive production to match that of his defense. Meanwhile, Jackson performed admirably, averaging 3.9 assists and 15 points on a 53.4 effective field goal percentage (which adjusts for three-pointers as being worth more than other field goals) per 36 minutes during the playoffs, all of which contributed to his a .126 Win Shares per 48 Minutes, well above the league-average .100 mark.

Had he still been on the Oklahoma City roster, James Harden would have filled many of the minutes left from Westbrook's departure from the postseason, though that would have changed the course of the Thunder's entire season, especially considering their matchup against the Harden-led Houston in round one of the playoffs. It is another, smaller move made by the Thunder one that would not have had such a drastic change on OKC's season or the NBA landscape at large — that could have changed the course of the Thunder's performance against the Rockets and Grizzlies in the playoffs. On Feb. 21, just before the NBA's trade deadline, Oklahoma City acquired the rights to Georgios Printezis and a trade exception from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for back[pup point guard Eric Maynor.

Maynor was, as a friend texted me the day of the OKC-Portland trade, "damaged goods" after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in January 2012. He fell behind Jackson on Oklahoma City's depth chart, playing just 10.6 minutes per game with the Thunder. Printezis' rights have been held by five NBA teams, including the Thunder, and his potential contract is a mere bargaining chip as the Greek big man is unlikely to ever see playing time in the Association. By obtaining his rights and trading Maynor in February, Oklahoma City saved a small fraction of the $2.3 million on the point guard's contract this season and in turn, Maynor became the second-string option behind Damian Lillard, who played more minutes (3,166) than anyone else in the NBA on the way to winning Rookie of the Year. 

Injuries are hard to predict. Westbrook had not missed a single game in five years, including an additional 45 playoff games. Would Maynor have been a better fill-in option than Jackson for the Thunder at this point in the year, with an entire season on the line? Jackson showed potential after his depth chart promotion and in the playoffs while Maynor's production was reflective of a player struggling to regain what he once had. There is no definitive answer and if there was, it would ultimately look more like an opinion based on what a person values in a player. Maynor has postseason experience, having previously played in 23 playoff games with the Thunder including a seven-game series in which OKC bested the Grizzlies to move onto the 2010 Western Conference Finals. That all happened pre-injury, though. Maynor was rehabbing his knee during the Thunder's run against the Miami Heat last summer. Jackson, on the other hand, was with the team but never saw any playing time.

Per 36 Minutes:
Reggie Jackson 2012-13 5.4 11.8 .458 0.9 3.8 .231 1.9 2.2 .839 0.8 5.3 6.0 4.4 1.1 0.5 1.9 3.0 13.6
Eric Maynor 2012-13 4.0 10.5 .377 1.3 3.6 .354 1.7 2.3 .726 0.3 1.4 1.7 6.8 0.8 0.0 3.0 2.1 10.9
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 5/16/2013.

It is a case of experience versus youth; dinged-up although not entirely devalued versus untested but possibly more able. Maynor will be a free agent this summer and, had he been retained by the Thunder, a big playoff performance would have increased his value on the open market. As things happened, he is a 25 year old on  his way to journeyman status after suffering a knee injury early in his career, having already been on three teams. 

While keeping Maynor around may have benefited Oklahoma City in the short term, letting Jackson take the reins to this extent was the correct move in the long run. He received valuable experience that will pay off for the Thunder in the future, possibly soon. As a perennially successful team, the Thunder are essential shoo-ins for the playoffs as long as Durant and Westbrook are capable of sustaining the explosive performances that make them two of the league's premier players. With Jackson now having been tested against a defensively great Grizzlies team and squaring off against an improving offensive point guard like Mike Conley, Jackson now has a rudimentary understanding of what playoff competition is like that suggests he will be able to perform at a higher caliber than most reserve point guards with potentially two years remaining on their rookie contract.

No game in the OKC-Memphis series was decided by more than six points. Without Westbrook, the Grizzlies were able to control the overall tempo. The Thunder functioned without Maynor and, in the future, could likely function without Jackson, too. Portland has its point guard of the present and, barring basketball tragedy, the future. The Trail Blazers could pick up Maynor or another team will offer him a contract in free agency. Either way, Maynor will find his way, and Jackson is on the path to making a solid career for himself in the NBA.

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