It’s Scott Brooks’ secret weapon of mass offensive destruction.
Brooks actually resists using the word “small” when he’s talking about it, because it’s actually not really small at all. It’s really just about transplanting positions. When the Thunder go “small,” it means Kevin Durant, typically a small forward, moves to power forward and plays alongside a single traditional big instead of two. But Durant is at least 6-10 (more like 6-11.5 with shoes) while OKC’s “bigs” are actually shorter than he is. It’s that old positionality thing.
Whatever you want to call it, the Thunder are crazy efficient and effective when going small. Per NBA Stats, the Thunder’s three most efficient offensive lineups have Durant at power forward, with either Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison or Serge Ibaka alongside as the 5. In about 42 minutes of floortime, the lineup of Westbrook, Martin, Thabo, Durant and Collison average 135.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s insane.
Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop wrote about big and small lineups in the NBA and had this to say about OKC:
The Thunder have established themselves as the league’s most efficient offensive team, so they don’t spend a lot of time contemplating wholesale change or worrying about an identity crisis. But the data continue to show that when Kevin Durant takes the floor with one big man — and this season it doesn’t matter who that big man is — the Thunder put up ridiculous numbers and suffer no ill effects defensively. Overall this season, when Durant is at the power forward, Oklahoma City’s net rating per 48 minutes is 24.9. That means they score 118.3 points and give up only 93.4. Piques your curiosity, doesn’t it?
Indeed it does. Particularly when the matchups dictate it. For instance, against the Heat, where Brooks has resisted matching up against Miami’s smaller, quicker lineups. Why? Only God and Scott Brooks know why.
Against the Mavs Friday though, Brooks went small for virtually the entire fourth quarter and overtime. His lineup of Westbrook, Martin, Thabo, Durant and Ibaka played for basically 15 straight minutes. It’s a lineup Brooks has used quite a bit to spark comebacks, one good example being the game in Detroit where OKC was down 10 in the fourth. In 62 minutes of floortime overall this season, that group averages 120.1 points per 100, but get this: They hold opponents to 88.6 points per 100, making it by far OKC’s best defensive lineup, at least in terms of regular rotation lineups.
In other words, that’s a good lineup. More please.
But the Thunder’s most commonly used lineup is their starting five and while it’s not as impactful of some the smallball groups, it’s actually improved quite a lot this year. In 464 minutes, the starters have a net efficiency of 4.9 (105.4 offensive to 100.4 defensive). Nothing special, but solid enough. Certainly not bad enough to really raise major cries for change.
As long as Brooks remains flexible with those small groups, he can start whoever he wants. There’s a certain reality that Perk haters have to understand and that’s that he’s going to be needed at some point. Whether it’s against Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson or someone else, the Thunder are going to need that brute physicality in the post.
So here’s the catch: Brooks knows his team and his players better than anyone and clearly understands you can’t pay Perk $8 million a year and stuff him at the end of the bench and then expect him to give you his heart and soul when you call upon him against four times a year against Howard. So Brooks is being diplomatic. He’s giving Perk his time, keeping him involved and making him feel needed. Because face it: Perk means a whole lot to this team. He really does.
Basketball is a game played by humans. Not by metrics or stats. And while those things are very important to help us learn and understand things better and more clearly, intangible, mysterious things like chemistry and leadership are very real. Because humans have emotions and feelings. And again, basketball is played by humans.
Perk’s voice is one of the loudest on the team, and he’s a player everyone in the locker room loves and respects. As one Thunder player told me recently, Perk is one of the only guys that will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear, and has a way of doing it so that you don’t take offense. I genuinely think a lot of Serge Ibaka’s development is tied to Perk mentoring him. The Thunder’s locker room is as tight and together as ever, and a lot of that starts with Perk who is sort of Papa Thunder.
I was told a story recently by an inside NBA person about Ben Wallace in Chicago and how he absolutely hated Scott Skiles and wouldn’t give him anything (it started because the first thing Skiles told Wallace he couldn’t wear a headband). The Bulls needed Wallace’s rebounding and defending, so a couple players — Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — took it upon themselves to make Wallace feel needed. Their method was to give Wallace, an awful offensive player, a couple touches early at the beginning of each half. Make him feel needed, included and necessary. And that’s all that it took. He was all theirs.
Another story was about Marcus Camby, who was nicknamed “Touches” when he was in Denver, because he was always talking about how he needed him some touches. I think that sort of thing relates to Perk, but his touches aren’t actually touches — they’re minutes. He can’t feel like he means anything to the team simply as a towel waver.
You could lose some of that spirit and emotion if you bench him or take away Perk’s minutes. Players like Perk want to feel wanted, want to feel needed. And like I said, at some point, the Thunder will need him. Think back to the Western Finals against the Spurs. Playing with a torn groin and a busted wrist, Perk rebounded from two subpar games had four straight splendid defensive efforts, locking up Tim Duncan in San Antonio’s pick-and-roll. Real talk: The Thunder don’t come back in that series without Perk. It’s the truth.
I get it. Perk looks bad. He rumbles up and down the floor like he’s got a group of three-year-olds hanging onto his legs. He looks like an AT-AT that’s been wrapped by a harpoon and tow cables. He doesn’t finish, he doesn’t have a post game. And he doesn’t stuff the box score. On all fronts, playing him seems like madness. But smart basketball people insist on it, and the Thunder have won a whole lot of games with him part of this team. Perk says check his win percentage. And he’s right: It’s pretty damn good.
Anyway, back to the lineups and what works. Small is better for OKC, and it’s not like Brooks doesn’t get this. But what he has to manage is trying to ween the Thunder off of big while still keeping Perk included and involved. As the season goes along, I think you’ll see more and more of what the Thunder did against the Mavs Thursday. More Nick Collison in the second half, more small lineups. And sometimes, that small group will include Perk as the lone big, where the Thunder are still pretty good (in 22 minutes, 127 points per 100, but 109.8 points allowed per 100). In the postseason, Brooks may barely use Perk, but he still needs him to be involved because it’s not like you can just dust him off and say, “Hey, I know you didn’t play at all the second half of the season, but can you defend Dwight Howard 30 minutes tonight?”
The Christmas game against the Heat featured Brooks’ stubbornness in sticking with his bigs against Miami’s smalls, when the Thunder’s smallball group made clear sense to everyone in the world, except apparently to Brooks. Which makes me wonder if he was going for something deeper. Trying to show his team he genuinely believes in all of them. Trying to throw Perk a bone. Because reality is, this was a fairly meaningless December game. But if OKC could win playing the way it wanted, with Perk on the floor, then there would be a new confidence there.
If the Thunder and Heat are to meet against in the Finals, that’s no time for deep messages to your players. It’s about winning. And Brooks is going to know the data, he’s going to know the matchups, he’s going to understand what works. He’s got to.
The future of Perk is unknown, because it’s an intriguing thought to wonder what OKC could look like as almost exclusively a smallball team. Use Collison and Ibaka as your bigs, maybe use your lottery pick from Toronto on a big that can be productive and then get creative. I think that’s the direction things are trending. But the Thunder aren’t there yet.
For now, they need Perk. They need his heart and spirit, and against a few teams, they need his body. Which means you’ve got to deal with the in between. Lucky for the Thunder, they’re good enough to win in spite of that.