The Friday Fan: Never settling

(Have an awesome Thunder story you want to share? Want to complain about no Dr. Pepper in the Ford Center? Want to just tell folks how much you love this team? Send it in to dailythunder@gmail.com. This week’s post comes from reader Keith, who shares his thoughts on Scott Brooks, coaching philosphy and what it all means.)

As this is the fan perspective, I thought it might a good idea to first give a little insight into my fandom. I’m not from Oklahoma, but I understand acutely the feelings of being a new fan and progressing. I only started getting into the NBA about 5 years ago. At first it was just a progression from college sports. I went to Michigan State University and will forever be a Spartan first and foremost. I didn’t follow much of anything (besides hockey) before college. Yet somehow, it all spiralled from there.

My father had always been a great sports fan, and over time I had been packed with knowledge of sports history, but had little appreciation. My sudden interest in MSU and later NBA created a much greater bond with my father. We had never been on bad terms by any means, but none of my brothers or sisters had ever cared about sports either. Now he and I were talking 2-3 times a week about the state of teams and their future. It bolstered my love of the game. All the knowledge I had accrued to that point suddenly became relevant and important.

Still, I was a college fan. I would watch Lion, Tiger, Red Wing, and Piston games with my father, but the only team I cared about were the Wings. Then I was introduced to the stat side of the game. With one of my minors (still mad it wasn’t a major, only needed one more class) being in mathematics, stats were a new world of opportunity. I was hooked, and NBA stats became my favorite. The door opened, and I stepped through.

My final descent into the NBA universe came when I began to follow drafts. Progression was always so much more fun (statistically and visually) than PER or Win Shares. And I had become attached to a skinny kid with incredible talent who was going to be passed over for an injury laden Ohio State player who looked 40. There was nothing in the stats, nothing even in the visuals to suspect Oden was or would be better than Durant. But apparently 2 inches (probably more like 1 now) and 45 lbs apparently meant a lot to scouts. I’ve been watching this team grow up ever since, a perfect place for someone who loves progress.

But it’s not all sunshine and lollipops in Thunder-ville. A lot of people see this season as a success already. They have already marked off the box for being happy and can all but coast through the rest of the season. That doesn’t work for me. I know, objectively, that this season is a success given past failures, but progress never stops. We’ve already read about changing our expectations, how something unexpected happening should not affect our ability to look forward. And so, I’d like to focus on the greatest source for progress this team still has, one that in many ways seems to exemplify the problem in coasting on being just as good as we are.

Many have looked at the Thunder lineup and been perplexed. Why does a defensive specialist start every game when a 3rd overall pick would have been far more advantageous for the team numerous times? Why does Jeff Green and/or Nenad Krstic still have a starting job with Nick Collison and even Serge Ibaka waiting in the wings? Why are the rotations set in stone? Why do I know, almost to the minute, who will be subbed in every time? Don’t all these things greatly limit the team’s ability, don’t they make us easy to coach against?

This simple answer, the one we don’t like to realize at times, is yes. Our team is very easy to coach against. With such simple rotation methods, it’s easy to exploit matchups for extended periods, then simply rest when the rotation moves. There is a reason Green gets so thoroughly exposed by certain players, a reason Nenad Krstic has played roughly one good quarter per game, and a reason our offense has often imploded in the final minutes of games. We don’t play the right people at the right time. We play whomever’s turn it is.

For such a good coach, someone who turned these guys from league dormat to playoff, it’s hard to really get on him. But then again, for such a good coach, we shouldn’t be so disadvantaged in ways that he can fix. So, ultimately, he must have a good reason for the things he does. It may not be the reason he we want to hear, but there is certainly a reason. Let’s look at the evolution of the coach and try to make some good inferences.

Nov 21, 2008 – Carlsimo is still coach, OKC sends out a lineup of Watson-Durant-Green-Collison-Petro

Nov 22, 2008 – Brooks becomes coach, OKC sends out Watson-Wilkins-Durant-Green-Collison This is Brooks first major change. He pushes Green out of position to put Durant where he belongs. Durant subsequently takes off, upping his efficiency and rebounding. Green does not adjust well to playing PF, but the net gain of Durant at SF is greater, not to mention defense is not overly important to anyone on this squad yet.

Nov 29, 2008 – Westbrook is officially handed the starting PG spot. OKC wins it’s second game of the season immediately. In the starting lineup, Westbrook goes on to win Rookie of the Month in December.

Jan 7, 2009 – Krstic joins the team, and within a handful of games rids the Thunder of the Robert Swift experience (taking almost all minutes that Collison does not play at C). Since his official signing on Dec 29, the Thunder have gone 2-3 . They will proceed to play .500 ball for the rest of the month.

Feb 19, 2009 – Thunder acquire Thabo Sefolosha, Krstic has all but locked down the starting center position.

Feb 24, 2009 – Thabo takes over the starting SG spot permanently in an attempt to slow Kobe. An immediate defensive upgrade is visible, and the team goes on to win 5 of Thabo’s first 8 starts.

End of season – Scott Brooks is named full time head coach.

So now we look at this season and we wonder where his decisions came from. Each time Brooks made a change, the Thunder played better. Nenad was 10 times the center Petro or Swift could ever be and Collison was having a terrible year. Thabo was 10 times the defender of anyone we had, and he brought us an identity. Morover, Brooks won a starting job on the strength of that season.

While we look now and see an ineffective center, an overmatched PF, and a 4 on 5 offense with Thabo, Brooks sees the reason he’s head coach. He has been almost stupidly consistent all year, and the reason is that he has already won, so to speak. He’s the coach, his team is headed for the playoffs, and he still has the luxury of a “developing team” label to fall back on.

Change now means going back on what has worked (even if in 2009 it was more coincidence and natural development than coaching genius). Brooks chose a path in 08/09, and he lived or died with that path. At the end of the season, he lived, he was given the job. Now, he fears anything that might construe that path is a failure in any way. He can’t pull Thabo from the starting lineup or high minutes because Thabo was the SG who got him a job. He can’t pull Green because he’s morgaged his future on the development of Green at PF last year. He can’t even pull Krstic right now because it was Krstic, not Collison, starting the majority of those games when the Thunder started winning at all.

It isn’t crazy, really. Being an NBA coach isn’t the same as high school or college. He quite literally can’t force his players to do anything. They are the ones making the big bucks, selling tickets, and making him worth his salary. So, if it’s all on the players, and he has already seen them excel in certain formations, why change? We like to talk about chemistry a lot with the Thunder, and when you think about it, chemistry is exactly a coach’s job. He can’t play the game, only fit the pieces together in such a way that they all work together. Then again, if tiny things like 5 minute swings in PT, offense-defense switching, or the “honor” of starting every game is gong to blow up chemistry, maybe these players and coach aren’t as in tune as we like to think.

Now let me say, I think Brooks is a great guy, and an incredible teacher. Somehow he turned that rag-tag group of nobodies last year into a defensive force (Kings games excluded). That can never be taken away from him. But really, isn’t that what an assistant coach can do? Weren’t teams around the league buzzing over Tom Thibodeau because of his ability to create great defenses as an assistant? When it comes to head coach duties (rotations, strategy, play-calling), Brooks hasn’t shown much.

Brooks is young, he’s still developing himself. But if we are going to win in the postseason, when we play the same teams over and over, when every little advantage and weakness must be magnified, Brooks is going to need to make a serious sophmore leap.

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