Before last night’s victory over the Clippers, the Thunder’s fourth quarter performance had been in a freefall dating back to their first collapse against Golden State in early February. They’d been outscored by 29 points in the final period over a 12-game span, with a 61-point negative differential in the seven losses during that stretch.
The pre-season questions about this roster and coaching staff have shifted amid all the blowouts. When Billy Donavan was hired, many wondered if he could get his stars better looks than Scott Brooks did in the last couple minutes of crunch time. Now, we’re asking if he can merely get the team to play even against quality opponents in the fourth.
I’ve compiled some of the more relevant fourth quarter lineups Donavan has been using below, eliminating most every grouping with less than 5 minutes played in the fourth quarter, and any lineup that isn’t a realistic closing group that Donavan would throw out to stop the bleeding in a big game (sorry, Mitch). We’ll ignore most groups without at least two of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka present, for example.
The typical caveats apply here: these are mostly extremely small samples, and a coach really does have to roll out combos that match up ideally with the opponent, something these lineup numbers in a vacuum don’t take into account. Still, Donavan has been a copious tinkerer with his lineups, so exploring signs of life in small samples is no less foolish than riding out groups that have been disastrous in limited time (sorry, Randy).
To the lineups.
GROUP A: The Thunder Way
Lineup 1: Westbrook / Roberson / Durant / Ibaka / Adams
8 Fourth Quarter Minutes (7 games); -38.5 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (127.1/165.6 Offense/Defense)
602 Overall Minutes; +19.4 Overall Net Rating (112.4/93.0 Offense/Defense)
Lineup 2: Westbrook / Waiters / Durant / Ibaka / Adams
87 Fourth Quarter Minutes (23 games); +12.4 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (113.7/101.3)
348 Overall Minutes; +11.5 Overall Net Rating (112.8/101.2)
These groups represent the Thunder’s organizational philosophy dating back to the James Harden era. A defensive wing starts at the 2 (Andre Roberson), but a more offensively-inclined sixth man (Dion Waiters) gets the bulk of the shooting guard minutes, including the final stretch of the game. Generally speaking, this dynamic works just fine. The starters crush better than any other starting lineup in the league, and the finishers are the 14th most effective lineup among groups that have played at least 147 minutes (the amount of time the Warriors’ death lineup has seen the court).
This combination also shows just how odd a balance of stubbornness and belief the Thunder hold. Donavan (and presumably, the front office) aren’t swayed by concerns that Roberson is an anti-space machine on the wing, employing him in the starting lineup to great effect. But they also don’t believe in Roberson at the end of games, presumably because they find spacing to be more valuable when the game is tight. Which, fair enough, but 8 total minutes of fourth quarter action for one of the game’s most dominating units? In a season marred by complete and utter defensive collapses, the starters have somehow not been an option at these critical moments.
Those 8 minutes of action have a bad net rating, but they came across 7 games, meaning these are barely even real minutes. In his rare opportunities, Roberson has been a defense/offense sub in/out when the Thunder are playing possession-by-possession games down to the wire, not a real cog within the flow of the game’s final minutes.
GROUP B: Variations on a Theme
Lineup 3: Westbrook / Waiters / Durant / Ibaka / Kanter
54 Fourth Quarter Minutes (18 games); +11.2 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (131.7/120.5)
129 Overall Minutes; +13.9 Overall Net Rating (129.3/115.3)
Lineup 4: Augustin / Waiters / Morrow / Collison / Kanter
35 Fourth Quarter Minutes (10 games); -34.1 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (90.3/124.5)
61 Overall Minutes; -19.7 Overall Net Rating (93.9/113.5)
These groups are very different, but they further highlight Thunder stubbornness/steadiness/commitment/delusion/whatever you want to call it. Group #3 is the hilarious bucket-trading concoction of highest-paid Thunder players. While Roberson is a more notable absentee from late game rotations, Steven Adams is almost as forgotten at the end of games if it isn’t working with group #2. He averages just 5.3 fourth quarter minutes, 10th among current Thunder players.
Group #4 is where things start to get ugly. An all-reserve groups obviously aren’t game-finishing candidates, but it’s worth noting that all iterations of have stunk, rarely buying the stars any rest. It’s also worth noting that Donavan did not start staggering Durant and Westbrook when this D.J. Augustin-led, all-bench unit was getting smoked for most of the season, exceptionally so in fourth quarters. This draining group still ranks fourth (!) in total minutes played for the 2015-16 season, well after Augustin’s benching and eventually trading.
The all-bench lineup and its all-bench step sisters (Cameron Payne swapped in for Augustin, and/or Singler in for one of Waiters or Morrow) are still clogging up the Thunder’s lineup data for the season, despite the fact that only one all-reserves group, featuring Payne, has turned out a positive net rating in 10 or more minutes played. All of that time watching Thunder leads burn could have been spent looking for better staggered groups involving all Thunder starters, rather than waiting to make the drastic staggering/point guarding change around KD and Westbrook so late in the year.
GROUP C: Decent Small Ball
Lineup 5: Westbrook / Waiters / Singler / Durant / Kanter
11 Fourth Quarter Minutes (3 games); +18.4 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (101.4/83.0)
22 Overall Minutes; +15.8 Overall Net Rating (115.9/100.1)
Lineup 6: Westbrook / Foye / Waiters / Durant / Ibaka
7 Fourth Quarter Minutes (3 games); +10.4 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (107.0/96.6)
12 Overall Minutes (5 games); +21.2 Overall Net Rating (111.7/90.4)
Donavan is going to small ball more often these days, but the groups he’s using haven’t tended to work out. Here are two that have so far. Lineup #5 shined in Milwaukee on Sunday night, halting a furious 24-5 Bucks run and putting the game back in the Thunder’s control. Lineup #6 is the rare case where a Randy Foye unit doesn’t spiral into the void, most likely a fluke.
GROUP D: Crap Small Ball
Lineup 7: Westbrook / Waiters / Roberson / Durant / Ibaka
18 Fourth Quarter Minutes (11 games); -55.7 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (74.7/130.4)
46 Overall Minutes; -8.3 Overall Net Rating (107.8/116.2)
Lineup 8: Westbrook / Waiters / Singler / Durant / Ibaka
13 Fourth Quarter Minutes (4 games); -12.4 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (113.1/125.5)
33 Overall Minutes; -27.5 Overall Net Rating (85.0/112.5)
So you can’t just throw anyone around the Thunder big three and get production, huh? There’s an obvious lack of shooting in these poorly performing combos, but here’s another takeaway: Thunder small ball tends to be more effective when built around Durant and Enes Kanter than Durant and Ibaka, even on defense.
GROUP E: Foye Ball (Crap Ball Was Sorta Taken)
Lineup 9: Westbrook / Foye / Durant / Ibaka / Adams
Fourth Quarter Minutes (games); Fourth Quarter Net Rating (/)
15 Overall Minutes; -23.4 Overall Net Rating (133.5/156.9)
Lineup 10: Foye / Waiters / Roberson / Durant / Kanter
Fourth Quarter Minutes (games); Fourth Quarter Net Rating (/)
9 Overall Minutes (3 games); -29.0 Overall Net Rating (115.4/144.3)
While all of the lolfoye lineups are still very much in small sample size territory, there is plenty of other evidence that Foye the player is washed. He cratered the Nuggets’ efficiency before the trade, and he’s been even worse since being dropped into a contending rotation.
GROUP F: The Fire That Got Away
Lineup 11: Westbrook / Waiters / Morrow / Durant / Ibaka
16 Fourth Quarter Minutes (11 games); +28.0 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (132.8/104.8)
38 Overall Minutes; +40.8 Overall Net Rating (140.3/99.6)
Lineup 12: Westbrook / Waiters / Morrow / Durant / Kanter
3 Fourth Quarter Minutes (1 game); +74.9 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (158.2/83.3)
10 Overall Minutes; +10.0 Overall Net Rating (112.1/102.1)
Lineup 13: Westbrook / Morrow / Durant / Ibaka / Kanter
14 Fourth Quarter Minutes (3 games); +51.6 Fourth Quarter Net Rating (130.2/78.7)
22 Overall Minutes; +39.5 Overall Net Rating (132.4/92.8)
Before Anthony Morrow was out of the rotation, he was playing some of the worst basketball of his career. But his ability and reputation as a dead-eye shooter still made these lineups more than viable. Other than those disastrous all-bench options, every single fourth quarter lineup that has featured Anthony Morrow for more than 5 minutes has been a net positive, with one minor exception (-1.7 for 6 minutes of a Durant-less group with a Westbrook/Payne backcourt).
An unbalanced roster forces Donavan to make deals with the devil every night, and he’s always hedged his bets toward more defense. Waiters, Singler, and Foye aren’t stoppers, but they’re generally less exploitable defenders than Morrow and Payne. In the process of leaning more on the former trio, he’s worked some of his most successful lineups out of the rotation.
Donavan’s choice might be wise in the long run, despite the numbers. If the Thunder can’t improve on defense, the playoffs will be rocky. And the Thunder are rarely hurting for offense. Or he might be going overboard in the name of a fleeting defensive identity. To play more lineups like #11-13, you make peace with some barn burning because you have more flame-throwers on your side. Regularly pulling some microwave offense from your back pocket doesn’t have to preclude committing to defense for the bulk of the game.
Donavan isn’t done tweaking, and time will tell if his choices will turn out to be stubborn, prudent, or doomed regardless.