I’ll be honest: It’s taken me a while to come around on this discussion. I was never against James Harden starting, but I was never necessarily for it either.
I always sort of just sided with as long as Harden gets the bulk of the time at shooting guard and played 30 minutes, I’m good. And that’s been the case for a lot of the season, especially since the All-Star break. He’s played his minutes, been productive off the bench and done his job. What’s the big problem?
But against Memphis, things became a bit more clear. Game 7 said it all — OKC beat Memphis 70-49 with Harden on the floor and lost 41-35 without him. The reason? The Grizzlies defense could key entirely on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, stick O.J. Mayo on Westbrook and leave Mike Conley on Thabo. Not only that, but Marc Gasol even shaded over Durant most of the time because Kendrick Perkins is such a non-threat.
Really, the Thunder’s offense came down to Durant getting open coming off a screen, Westbrook having to create himself something or something for someone else, or Serge Ibaka scoring on a putback.
And you know that clever pick-and-roll the Thunder ran time after time against the Grizzlies in Game 7? That only works with Harden on the floor because Memphis was afraid to leave him alone. With Thabo, the Grizzlies can shade everything towards the pick-and-roll and forget about the weakside.
For the series, Harden was a +30 and Thabo was a -16. After Memphis made the adjustment to start Mayo and have him guard Westbrook in Game 5, Harden was a +48 to Thabo’s -23.
And the Mavericks are going to employ a similar strategy to protect Jason Kidd who will struggle staying in front of Westbrook. DeShawn Stevenson will start on Westbrook, leaving Kidd on Thabo. Again, more reason to have Harden start. It’s the same story all over again.
So with all that said, how does it make any sense not to start Harden? A lot of teams — Dallas being one — bring scorers off the bench. Rotationally, it just makes sense for some. Manu Ginobili did it in San Antonio for a long time. Because of a number of factors, having that bench punch is a good thing.
And it is. Having Harden to come off the bench and provide an offensive spark is a very good thing. But I think we can agree the starting five is one reason OKC lost Game 6 too. So why doesn’t Harden start? Scott Brooks isn’t dumb. He sees what we’re all seeing. Why doesn’t he make an adjustment?
I think your answer can be found in this quote from KD after the Thunder’s Game 7 win over Memphis.
“We came in to practice the same way, did the same things as always,” he said. “We just want to play our game and whatever happens, happens.”
The team repeats that phrase — “Just play our game” — almost ad nauseum. But they believe in that. They believe in what they have is good enough to win. The way every player talks, they’ve all bought in to “This is who we are and let’s see if you can beat us.” If Brooks went and started tinkering now, it would send quite a contradictory message.
This is the team the Thunder have had all year. Last season when they made a surprise run to the playoffs, Brooks started the same guys 82 times out of 88 games. This season, a couple of injuries and trades shook things up, but as long as his normal five were healthy, they started. There’s no playing with the first five, no adjusting there. That’s just who the Thunder are.
It’s stubbornness on behalf of Brooks, but that’s bullishness is part of what makes him good as a coach. His players love him for it and no matter what, he’s going to battle with the same troops every time.
They bring the same five, then stick to their rotation. Like in a critical Game 7, Brooks still stuck with his bench the usual amount to start the fourth. Now he adjusts at times mid-game, but as far as deviating from the gameplan in a big way, Brooks just doesn’t do that.
And like I said, it’s because the team has bought into it. They won 55 games and got to the Western Conference Finals just being who they are. While it might make sense to start Harden in terms of matchups and execution, Brooks doesn’t want to risk damaging the mental makeup of his group. And he’s right — at this point in the season, it’s stick with what got you here.
I’m a lot like Brooks. I’d hesitate to mess with a good thing. A playoff roster is a fragile thing and too much toying could upset something. And at this point, you probably don’t want to risk that, even if it makes a whole lot of sense to do it.
Obviously, the question will be asked again in training camp next year whether Harden should start. And that’s opportunity will be there for Brooks to do it. I kind of doubt he will though. The entire franchise is built around consistency and sticking to a plan. Brooks is sticking to his plan. Like it or not.