A 10-game sample isn’t enough to probably draw definitive conclusions from, but here’s what we know about the way the Thunder have played sans Russell Westbrook.
They’re not as good.
Stunning revelation, I know.
There are a lot of complaints and criticisms bounding around — some very valid — about what the Thunder need to do and how Scott Brooks could alleviate a little of this stress. A lot of it can be solved simply with “play basketball better you dummies,” but that’s probably oversimplifying matters. I don’t think an offensive system is necessarily the answer, nor some magical “adjustment,” a word fans love to just say without having any idea what adjustment it is they want.
So here’s one: Switch the starting five.
I mentioned the idea it may be time to consider a change after last night’s game, but today on radio, I went all-in with it. So if I’m willing to say the words, I probably should be willing to type them out as well: The Thunder need to change their starting five, at least until Westbrook returns.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Not happening. Scott Brooks loves the consistency in rolling out his starting five and I think he thinks if he were to adjust it that it would be conceding some kind of weakness. But here’s the thing: He’s done it before. Twice, actually. Once was in Game 6 against the Rockets last postseason where he came out of halftime with Perk on the bench and a smallball five. The other time was two seasons ago when Thabo Sefolosha was hurt, so he rolled James Harden in to start at shooting guard. After two games of Harden clearly struggling, Brooks made a clever decision to start Daequan Cook and let Harden return to his comfy bench role.
And again, this isn’t the starting five that’s been together since 2011. I’m not advocating for change to that one. But the Thunder are in a predicament, one they don’t want to be in, and things aren’t really working right now.
Here’s what the numbers say: The Thunder’s starting five right now has played 165 minutes together over the last nine games (remember, Ibaka sat against the Jazz), 132 more than the second most-used lineup. That group is a net 2.0 per 100 possessions, averaging 99.0 points and allowing 97.0. Pretty good defense, miserable offense.
With Westbrook, the starting five has played 19 games together and 280 minutes, putting up an offensive rating of 97.5 and a defensive of 103.2 for a net of -5.7. So this group is actually an improvement! Sigh. But we know the method to the madness with a healthy Westbrook. The Thunder’s second unit is a weapon and with two top five offensive players on the floor together, it can cover up the overall deficiencies of the group. Other than for five games in the NBA Finals, that lineup has acquitted itself pretty well.
But right now, the issues are obvious. Reggie Jackson is uncomfortable, and Kevin Durant looks like a man carrying around four grand pianos on his back for 10 minute stretches at the beginning of the first and third quarters. It’s not working. Since Dec. 25 when Westbrook went out, the Thunder are +5.2 points in the first quarter per 48 minutes and -8.0 in the third. In the second they’re +8.8 and the fourth they’re +12.0. The first and third quarters is when the starters play together. See a trend here?
The way the Thunder are currently built without Westbrook, they’re a team much better suited to be playing from ahead rather than trying to come from behind. When they get behind, it kicks in Durant’s natural instinct to try and dig them out personally, rather than relying on the team’s principles. And when that happens, he’s exerting too much energy and doing too much.
So what’s the fix? Five solutions come to mind, a couple of which I don’t like:
1) Start Derek Fisher over Reggie Jackson. I don’t like this one. Yes, it falls in line with what Brooks has done in the past starting Cook over Harden and Andre Roberson in place of Thabo Sefolosha, but in this circumstance, it would mean you’d remove a strong offensive player and reduce the starting five to Durant and Ibaka as the only legit scorers. And really, Durant would be the only player that could create his own or a shot for a teammate. Bad idea.
2) Start Steven Adams. I like it, but don’t love it. Adams showed how good he can be against the Grizzlies on Tuesday, changing the game with his defense and rebounding. The fact he got only 21 minutes is upsetting, because it should’ve been 31. The question is, what does start Adams actually solve for the starting five? It weakens the bench and while he’s a better offensive player than Perk, I don’t think it’s good plan.
3) Start Nick Collison and Jeremy Lamb. Mix it all up. The lineup of Jackson, Lamb, Durant, Ibaka and Collison has appeared in 12 games together this season, playing 29 minutes. In that time it’s got an offensive rating of 131.0 with a defensive of 103.5. That’s a net of 27.5, making it one of the Thunder’s best lineups. Yes, it leaves the Thunder with a bench unit consisting of Perkins, Sefolosha, Adams and Fisher, which stinks horribly, but by staggering rotations there’s a way to make sure that Lamb, Durant, Collison, Jackson and Ibaka are working into time with the second unit. In fact, go with this: Start that group and play them for six minutes. Sub out Collison for Perkins, sub out Jackson for Fisher. Play that group a few minutes, then sub Jackson back on with Sefolosha (for Durant) and Collison, and essentially let him run his old second unit again to start the second.
4) Go small. Start Durant at power forward, Ibaka at center. This is bold, and might backfire. If you’re wanting to keep the bench unit as strong as possible, insert Fisher in and play three guards. There are only a few teams in the league this won’t work against and it means that either Adams or Perk may not see the floor any depending on matchups. But Brooks has shown one of his favorite closing lineups is playing small with Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4. If you think it’s maybe your best lineup, then why not play it the most?
5) How about this: Don’t play the starters so freaking long together. The easiest compromise. Start the five you like, whatever. But maybe don’t leave them in the game until the three minute mark of each quarter. For example, against Memphis last night: The Grizzlies are making a push early in the third. Why not cut your losses right there and sub three minutes in and get Adams back in the game early? Instead of committing to that five for 17 minutes a night, maybe cut it to 12. That’s all.
Look, I’m anti-panic right now. Because what’s there to really worry about, other than dropping games and missing out on a top one or two seed? Assuming Westbrook’s health is intact, when he returns, the Thunder will straighten out. Yes, it’s a concern that they haven’t learned from any of their mistakes and yes, why aren’t they better than they were in May after having all this time to figure things out?
But face the music here, people: The Thunder are missing a top five player in the world. By default, that’s going to make them worse. Quit comparing OKC’s situation to the Spurs sitting starters. Different team, different structure, different players. A more comparable situation is what’s happening in Miami. The Heat with Dwyane Wade this season: 23-5. The Heat without Dwyane Wade: 4-5. (The Thunder with Russell Westbrook: 21-4. Without: 7-6.) Is Erik Spoelstra’s system the problem? Is his gameplan busted? Is the roster flawed? Or are they just missing a really terrific player?
In the meantime before Westbrook returns and fixes all these problems, it’s up to the Thunder to survive and maintain where they’re at. I’m not entirely sure homecourt advantage is entirely vital in winning the West, but I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt. And there’s this: What if Westbrook has knee problems again in the postseason? What if the Thunder have to play a game, or two, or three without him? Are they going to be remotely ready for that? So why not at least use this time to try a few new things, to see what might work and what might not?
The Thunder have a cultural philosophy of borderline arrogance that’s both good and bad. Basically, they think as long as they do what they do and do it well, it doesn’t matter. They can win with their starting five, with whoever, as long as they just do their damn jobs. That kind of confidence is great when you have Russell Westbrook because in most situations, it’s true. Play well and no one will beat you, lineups be damned.
But there’s nothing wrong with accepting that maybe a change is in order to jumpstart a little of that. Russell Westbrook isn’t on the floor right now and the Thunder need to start acting like it. Scott Brooks has repeatedly called the issues the team is facing “correctable.” He was talking about other things, obviously, but the starting five is one of those things. So correct it.