This team’s turnaround from cellar dweller last year to playoff hopeful this season ha s been nothing short of amazing. Most of us were there for the 3-29 start last year and saw lots of stinky basketball, but it wasn’t all bad. Most every game there was lots of inspired play, and great effort, but in the end, most games ended in despair.
Most surprising to me is the improved defense. I read all the articles and saw the video clips after the season about how Coach Brooks number one priority for this season was to improve the defense. Brooks was talking about it in exit interviews. Presti was talking about it in Summer League. I thought to myself two things: 1)”yeah right” 2) why not fix the offense, it’s worse than the defense. In my experience most coaches talk all day and all night about getting better on defense. I’ve heard it a million times. And I’ve heard it from more than a handful of coaches who’ve coached this franchise, yet for all the talk, I can’t remember ever having seen a team turn around a defense as quickly and completely as the Thunder have with virtually the same roster that was playing terrible defense at the end of last season.
This team right now is a top 5 defense. It’s not a fluke. It’s been consistently top 8 or above all season long. eFG% allowed is number 2 right now, sandwiched between defensive powerhouses Boston and Orlando.
You’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical. I’m one of those long suffering converted Sonic fans who just hasn’t been witness to any stellar defense in quite a long time.
Going backward from today, Coach Brooks didn’t do much of anything to improve the defense during his 69 games as the head man last year. In fact, after P.J. Carlesimo was fired the defense actually got worse under Brooks. P.J. had the team playing a lot of zone and Brooks had the team playing straight up. The defensive rating during Brooks’ first 20 games was 111.7 points per 100 possessions. The team finished up the year with a defensive rating of 109.4, but it was 106 under P.J.
Prior to that when the team wore Green and Gold the team’s defensive rating in the previous five seasons was 109.5, 110.3, 114.4, 109.6 and 108 (we are currently at 103.1). You have to go all the way back to ’02-’03- the year Gary Payton and Des Mason were traded to Milwaukee for Ray Allen and Flip Murray- to find a year where we were even “decent” on defense, and they were only the 17th best defense in the NBA that year. Those years of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were not just bad defensively, they were historically-close to all time bad.
We’ve had some very good defensive squads, but that was back in the mid ’90’s with George Karl at the helm and Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. It was like a lifetime ago. I obviously liked those teams very much but I don’t remember liking them for their defense. As a much younger basketball and Sonic fan I loved the offense and the big play. Now I see the game differently and I see how a team really only has a good season or makes the playoffs as sort of an outlier or anomaly without at least a decent defense.
When you examine this Roster of ours it’s pretty clear that Sam Presti was in the laboratory cooking up this very recipe. When I saw Kevin Durant at Texas shooting long jumpers with ease, Presti must have been thinking how those long arms could really play the passing lanes on defense. He went out and actively got Thabo and Weaver in trades because of defense. He drafted Westbrook for a lot of reasons, but the Pac-10 defensive player of the year was part of it (Weaver was on the Pac-10 all defense first team with Westbrook the previous year). Ibaka protects the basket, Collison is the only guy still here from 3 years ago and coincidentally he’s a good interior defender.
Presti had obviously surveyed the landscape of the NBA and realized that great defense gets you and keeps you in the game. If he was going to blow up and remake the team piece by piece he needed to get guys who could accept that it had to start on defense. He did that very thing. And Brooks has to be given a ton of credit.
I didn’t really know this, but looking it up I found that Brooks had been a part of great defensive teams before-albeit a bit part. His last two stops as a player were in Cleveland with Mike Fratello and the number 1 defense in the association that year, and prior to that with the Jeff VanGundy Knicks and the number 2 defensive squad in the league. He was also on those Rudy Tomjanovich Houston teams which were top three defensive squads. He also coached with Coach Karl in Denver.
So my hat is off to Presti for getting the pieces, but especially to Coach Brooks and his staff (Ron Adams has gotten a bit of praise for being the “architect” of the defense) for making it work in an almost overnight fashion.