Jump balls haven’t been the only thing the Thunder have had issues with at the beginning of games. It’s that the lineup on the floor after it hasn’t been very good either.
In 2011-12, which of course featured the Thunder’s best season because of a Finals appearance, the team was excellent but had an obvious postseason flaw — the starting lineup wasn’t productive. During the season, it was really good, allowing just 92.9 points per 100 possessions, while scoring 100.5 for a quality net rating of 7.6. In the playoffs, it flipped as they allowed 105.4, while still scoring about the same (100.4) for net of -4.9. A lot of people wrote about how Scott Brooks needed to change, but stubbornly, he stuck with the same group.
Last season, the starters were really good again, even sorting out a few offensive issues to put up an offensive rating of 109.3 with a defensive of 97.0 for a net of +12.3, making it one of the Thunder’s four best lineups. And it played together almost 1,000 more minutes than the next closest group.
This season though, they’ve reverted back to that 2011-12 postseason form. Last night’s game against the Pacers was a big boost for them, and maybe a turning point, but overall, they’re a -10.2 net per 100, mainly because they’re horrible offensively (93.1 points per 100, 103.3 allowed). They’ve played 198 minutes together, 138 more than the next closest unit. And you could make a case it’s been OKC’s worst overall lineup this season.
“I think as a group we started off the season not shooting the ball well,” Scott Brooks said before Sunday’s game against Indiana. “I don’t know the exact the numbers from last season, but Kevin had an incredible shooting year last year. He’s starting to pick it up, Russell’s starting to pick it up. Thabo hasn’t had a good start shooting the ball. Serge has picked it up. I think that probably has something to do with it. I think that’s definitely on the uptick and hopefully continues to trend upward. Like I said, I like what our guys do and my job is always to tinker things around whether that’s a change in the starting lineup or not or just changing minutes around trying to find the most complete offensive and defensive team we have.”
I do think Russell Westbrook’s rusty return may have some influence on it. Westbrook was one of the league’s best early offense players last season, averaging 7.0 of his 23.2 points per game in the first quarter. He averaged 6.7 in the third, the other time the starting lineup played most together. In the second and fourth, he averaged a combined 9.5. This season, his third quarter scoring is down to 5.8, and his first quarter at 5.7. So maybe that’s the explanation, or at least part of it.
Or some have felt it’s due to the perceived regression of both Perk and Thabo. With the slip primarily being on the offensively, that doesn’t add up as much, but then again, the starting five was an elite defensive group and they’ve been extremely mediocre this season.
The Thunder are unique in that they’ve essentially maintained the same starting five going on three and a half seasons. I’m too lazy to research this, but my assumption is that no other team has featured that same starting group as consistently as OKC has during that time. But my question to Brooks on Sunday was, does he consider his starting five to be his best lineup, or is it just part of a greater overall rotational function?
“We’ve won a lot of games. I know that’s usually pretty important in professional sports, is to win games. And we’ve won a lot of them,” he said. “We mix and match our combinations throughout the game, probably more than people give our team credit for, but I like what we do. I like how we play, I like how guys complement each other. Sometimes, I go with a shorter rotation, sometimes I go with 10 or 11. I like what our starters do.
“I don’t really know what other coaches do, but you have to have a good bench,” he said. “And in the past we’ve had some very good players on our bench, as we do now. They’re just not as well known as some other benches in the league. That’s something I don’t pay too much attention to. I know what they do and what they’re capable of doing.”
What I find interesting about OKC’s starting five is that it doesn’t play together except for the beginning of the game, and the beginning of the third quarter. At no other point this season has Brooks put the lineup of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins together other than the start of the first and third.
This season, the starters average 15.2 minutes per game, which is more than any other single lineup by quite a lot, but it also means other combinations average 32.8 minutes. And as long as you’re playing your best lineups when the game really matters, it sort of cancels it out.
Then again, why not play your best lineup the most together?
“I look at it as who plays well, and who gets the minutes, they’re pretty much earned,” Brooks said. Let me use my Scott Brooks translator there: I think he means, “I’m going to play the guys that are playing well and earn their minutes, so who’s starting doesn’t necessarily matter that much to me.”
(Something else to think on: Last season, the starting lineup averaged 17.2 minutes per game of floor time together. That’s down by two per game this season. Seems like Brooks is pulling back some on how much he has them out there.)
My opinion, because as you know it matters so very much: Leave it as is. OKC’s bench is a true weapon again and even if they’re bailing out the starting five some, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s not costing you games (a case could be made it did against the Blazers, though). The issue you face in tinkering with it is messing up the good thing you’ve got going with the second unit. And you don’t want to do that. When you’ve rolled out the same five night in and night out the last three and a half years, it would feel pretty dramatic to shake it up now. And maybe they’re turning a corner after last night’s positive performance against the Pacers.
Plus, like Brooks said, they’re winning games with it the way it is. And that’s usually pretty important in professional sports.