Anyone who watches the Thunder probably has the same gripe. Kevin Durant makes beautiful basketball music, and Russell Westbrook can make a believer out of anyone with his incredible, furious forays to the hoop. Those two aren’t the problem, despite what you might think of Russ’ shot selection. No, most take umbrage with the lineup choices made by Oklahoma City’s coach, Scott Brooks, particularly with the fact that he’s stuck with several veterans with unclear value for far longer than most fans would like.
You don’t need me to tell you that OKC is one of the best teams in the NBA on both sides of the ball. They finished the regular season ranked sixth in both offensive rating (110.5 points per 100 possessions) and defensive rating (103.9), good for the third-best net rating in the league. Even with all that success, the presence of guys like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher on the floor drives most people nuts. To wit, Perkins rocked the lowest nERD on the Thunder this season at -3.4, while posting an efficiency rating of -2.2. Fisher, meanwhile, was just above positive at 0.3 and 0.2 in those two measures. Another veteran, Caron Butler, has been equally inefficient, with a -2.2 nERD and a -1.2 efficiency rating, although he is shooting 44 percent from deep.
Banging against the Grizzlies, though, the Thunder can’t just go small all the time. Even though several lineups with Durant at power forward have blitzed the league in limited minutes, the Thunder would be at a severe disadvantage defensively when going against Memphis groups that include both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ bruising frontcourt pair. In fact, common wisdom would say that Perkins’ value to the team really comes into play when the Thunder have to deal with post behemoths, and he just might be useful as this series wears on. But what lineups should Brooks go to to help regain home-court advantage in this series? Let’s take a look at what’s worked and what hasn’t. (All lineup data from nba.com)
Brooks has stuck with the same starting lineup for several seasons, and it’s hard to look at the Thunder’s record and say it doesn’t work. But it’s true: the Thunder’s starting five of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Perkins has not been all that effective. Take a look at their performance:
|Offensive Rtg.||Defensive Rtg. ||Net Rtg.
|vs. Memphis, playoffs||99.4||112.6||-13.2|
Thanks to a conflagration of injuries this season, that lineup didn’t hit the floor against Memphis in the regular season. And while the sample size is small through two games - just 38 minutes total - it’s still been Brooks’ most-used lineup so far. Still, as you can see, this group isn’t faring well, with a net rating of -13.2. While the two big men are necessary to start the game dealing with Z-Bo and Gasol, this unit is still allowing the usually anemic Grizz to score at a 113.2 points per 100 possessions clip. The group has been prone to fouling, committing 17 personals in their time on the court and sending the Grizz to the line 20 times.
Luckily, Scottie has been quick with the hook. In both games so far, he’s pulled Sefolosha and Perkins early on. Despite having reputations as excellent defenders, both are offensive zeroes (or worse) for the Thunder. After a career as a mostly solid long-range shooter, Sefolosha is hitting just 31.6 percent from deep this season, and the Grizzlies have been able to ignore him on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Perkins, for the most part, has learned not to shoot unless he is literally wide open under the basket, as he was at the end of regulation in Game 2. In both games, Butler has subbed in for Sefolosha, creating a little more spacing for the Thunder.
Several of OKC’s most effective “big” lineups from the regular season featured guys - Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Andre Roberson - that have fallen out of the rotation as the bench has gotten shorter in the postseason. Pairing Durant with two of the Thunder’s regular rotation big men had mixed results in the regular season.
|Lineup||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg. ||Net Rtg.
Watching the team and looking at the lineup data, Perk rarely shares the floor with any other big except for Ibaka. The Durant-Ibaka-Perkins trio has been steady all season, coming out as a net positive, although the offensive numbers - obviously influenced by Perk’s ineffectiveness on that end - are lower than OKC’s numbers as whole.
Replace Perkins with Steven Adams or Nick Collison and those scoring figures take off. Oklahoma City shoots better, turns it over less and plays faster once Perkins is replaced by one of those two in the lineup, obviously a boon against a stingy defense like Memphis. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Adams, despite being raw, already has way more ability catching and finishing than Perkins, and Collison is as adept a screen setter and passer as you’ll see in a backup center. The problem, of course, is foul trouble. Collison picks up 5.0 fouls per 36 minutes, and Adams is up at 6.1. Especially against a team that runs the offense through its big men, that’s an issue.
Honey, I Shrunk the Lineup
With a track record of being slow to make adjustments (2012 Finals, anyone!?), Brooks has actually been quick to run out lineups featuring Durant at the four anytime Gasol or Randolph hits the bench. Without having to worry about KD getting pounded on the block by guys like Ed Davis or Kosta Koufos, Brooks is free to slide him up and let his playmakers wreak havoc. Surprisingly, one of the team’s most effective small-ball lineups featured Fisher, who was born before the advent of time, as well as dynamo sixth man Reggie Jackson.
|Off Rtg. ||Def. Rtg. ||Net Rtg.
|vs. Memphis, reg. season||66.7||233.3||-166.7|
Granted, that lineup flamed out in a limited run against the Grizzlies during the regular season - those numbers aren't a typo, there's a reason Brooks only kept them on the court for 2 minutes - and OKC hasn’t thrown them out there yet this series, but it might be worth it to give it a go. The Grizzlies have started sticking Tony Allen, one of the Grizzlies’ many unthreatening offensive players, on Durant. He’s spent a good chunk of his floor time with either or both of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee, but even with this downsized roster the Thunder have the ability to chase those two while hiding Fisher on Allen. Say what you want about Fisher, but it’s pretty clear that having him on the floor has a positive effect on the team; they were nearly a point better in the regular season with him on the court, and they’re a whopping 25.9 points better with him in the playoffs, per basketball-reference.com.
Brooks is going to have to keep doing what he's doing - making quick changes to find the lineups that work - if the Thunder want to escape this meat-grinder of a series. He seems to be on the right track, but he still needs to find the right combinations to beat the Grizz.