Some additional thoughts about lineups for the Thunder

You might have noticed in the game against the Knicks on Saturday that the Thunder were playing from behind most of the game and really only pushed through at the end of the game with some alternate lineups. Quite a few teams in the NBA feel that their Starters are their best players (or at least the best mix of players) and so while they eventually have to sub them out for rest during games, they usually come back to them in crunch time. Not so with the Thunder as evidenced by the Knicks game and many others. Royce made note of it in his post game wrap: 

Scott Brooks talked after the game about adjustments and probably the biggest and most important one he made was going with one of the Thunder’s best lineups down the home stretch. He had Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Collison on the floor to defend New York’s pick-and-roll game. It worked well, forcing the Knicks into long jumpers and also meant that the Thunder crushed the glass.

True words. That particular lineup has long been one of my favorites going back to last season, but the question in my mind is if it is so effective (and it is as I will show) why aren’t we seeing more of it?

“I don’t see a change,” Brooks said Friday. The reason? The Thunder is winning.“Our record is good,” Brooks said. “We won 50 games last year, which I don’t like to talk about. That’s history, but it is part of what this team is. Every year has its own dynamics. But we’re 27-15 right now. We’re winning games.” Brooks as a player’s coach has his guy’s backs. I get that. But surely he sees what we all see:

  • The Thunder’s current efficiency differential overall as a team for all combined lineups is about +2 points. (that’s points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions). Last season it was over 3.5.
  • The Thunders’ starters have an offensive rating of 108.23 and a def. rating of 110.27, thus the differential is -2.03. Not so good. That team if it played all 48 minutes of 82 games would be very poor.

However, the lineup of RW, JH, KD, SI and NC  has seen 81 minutes of play so far this season and it has been a success.  The lineup has used 160 possessions (157 for the opponent) and has scored 170 points (155 for the opponent). That calculates out to a reasonable offensive rating of 106.25, but where it shines is that the defensive rating for that unit is 98.73. The differential is thus a +7.52 for the unit overall this season. It is the 6th most frequently used lineup for the Thunder this season. Why the 6th most frequent? I do not know.

I mentioned that this lineup was one of my favorites going back to last season. In April last year after the game one playoff loss to the Lakers I wrote a post here where I talked about lineups that were working and not working. I mentioned that this lineup only got about 3 minutes of burn but that it was +/- zero, which was quite good really when you consider our starters were getting crushed. For the playoffs as a whole last year this lineup of RW, JH, KD, SI and NC was +38 and the second most used lineup to the starters, who were unfortunately -22.

In the third quarter of game 3. With 4 minutes left in the third and the Lakers holding a small lead (the Lakers had led the whole game up to this point) Brooks rolled out the lineup of RW, JH, KD, SI and NC. The team ripped off a quick 8-0 run and finished the quarter out +3,  and down by just 1 point at 75-74.  Brooks must have been looking for matchups that would counter the Laker’s length so he let the lineup roll and finish the game (less a minor defensive substitution with a few seconds left and the game in hand).  That lineup went on a 10-2 run and finished the game out +5.  This lineup essentially won the first playoff game for the Thunder; bringing it from a deficit for 36 minutes to the promised land.

Coach Brooks used “the lineup” sporadically for a few minutes at a time during game 4 but it was +5.  In game 5 the Lakers jumped out to a 22-8 lead before “the lineup” finally got it’s pieces in (Brooks put in Collison, then Harden, then Ibaka at different times) and stopped the bleeding by closing out the second quarter at +/- zero. And just so you know, this was against Pau, Odom, Artest, Kobe and Shannon Brown. No junk lineup here for the Lakers.

I won’t bore you with the details of game 6, but suffice it to say that the starters went down into a 12-6 hole and “the lineup”, or at least different pieces of it stopped the bleeding.

The point I am making here is simply that the starters are nowhere near the best unit for the Thunder this season. Nor were they last season or in the playoffs.

  • If you take the starters of NK, JG, KD, RW and TS and simply sub Ibaka for Krstic the lineup goes from -2.03 to +2.21 (and it’s not what you might think, the offense improves drastically and the defense suffers a bit). This is the second most used lineup by Brooks.
  • If you take the starters and merely sub in Ibaka for for Green the lineup goes to +9.60, again with a huge increase in offense. This is the third most used lineup.
  • If you sub in Serge and Harden for Thabo and Nenad, for some reason the oxygen is sucked out of the offense and it is -12.83 overall with a offensive rating of just under 95 points per 100 possessions (however with a not too horrible defensive rating of around 107). This is the 4th most used lineup.
  • If we roll with Maynor, Harden, Green, Ibaka and Collison, the team can’t seem to defend as a unit. It functions with a defensive rating of 122 and an offensive rating of 114 for a -7 overall. This is the 5th most frequent lineup.
  • Another very good lineup that doesn’t get used a lot, but is good when it does is Eric Maynor along with JH, KD, SI and NC. Basically subbing out RW for EM.  So far this season it is rolling with an offensive rating of 106.4 and a defensive rating of 96.83. The differential is +9.57, or almost two points per 100 possessions better with Maynor in instead of RW. The difference may well be because of the second unit competition for Maynor. This is the 7th most frequently used lineup for the Thunder this season and it was effective in the playoffs in short stints.

So, when the evidence is clear that are starters do not play well as a unit, and the coach doesn’t go back to them at crunch time, and there are many far superior lineups available with quite a bit of history and sample size, why is Brooks adamant about not changing?  I think we all have some theories, and the Free agent status of Green and Krstic after the season will likely sort some of this out for next season. But the question remains until then.

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