Billy Donovan changed up the rotation last night versus Dallas in order to keep Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook on the floor for all 48 minutes.
That wasn’t the only significant change. Newly acquired guard Randy Foye logged 22 minutes, while rookie point guard Cameron Payne logged only 5. Further, the Thunder could add yet another swingman by this time next week if he right candidate comes along in the buyout market (looking at you, Joe Johnson and Kevin Martin).
It’s all brought forth the question: is Payne about to fall into the same void that swallowed Jeremy Lamb?
Lamb, as you may recall, worked into the rotation in the 2013-14 season and showed promise. But as January turned to February, Lamb’s production began to drop. The Thunder eventually brought in Caron Butler after he negotiated a buyout with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Lamb fell out of the regular rotation. It wasn’t the death knell of Lamb’s Thunder career, but it was a significant setback.
Payne has impressed since taking over the backup point guard spot from D.J. Augustin in late December. In 25 games as the primary backup, Payne has averaged 7.4 points and 2.6 assists per game while hitting 39% of his three point attempts. He breathed life into the second unit and his pregame dance numbers with Westbrook are second to none.
However, like most rookies, Payne has struggled defensively. Opponents are scoring 1.3 more points per 100 possessions while Payne is on the floor. While he’s certainly not the sole reason for that, he’s part of the problem. On most NBA teams, Payne would be allowed to play through these issues. To the Thunder’s credit, he’s been given that opportunity. But leashes are shorter on teams with title hopes, and the margin for error shrinks.
Payne’s role may decrease down the stretch and into the playoffs, but it should be no indictment of his long-term fit in Oklahoma City. In 2011, rookie Reggie Jackson proved to be quite green when thrown into action after the team lost Eric Maynor to an ACL injury. The Thunder eventually added Derek Fisher to help address this weakness. That in and of itself wasn’t a bad move. Using Fisher for over 20 minutes per night in the playoffs over the next two years, on the other hand…
Remember, Payne is just a 21-year old rookie who has proven himself to the Thunder. Even if his role diminishes this season, his future in Oklahoma City already seems brighter than Lamb’s ever was. Like Jackson before him, Payne’s opportunity will eventually come.