Analyzing Scott Brooks' Unbalanced Lineup Decisions
Scott Brooks hears us. Perhaps the most-criticized winning coach of all time (save for maybe Vinny Del Negro, he of a career .533 winning percentage), Brooks takes constant heat for his sideline decision making. And he knows it.
But Brooks sticks to his guns, for the most part. He’s been undyingly loyal to his starting five until this series, he relies on veterans that are far past their most useful moments as players, he doesn’t run an offense. Plenty of smart folks have written in the past week that Brooks doesn’t deserve the criticism he gets, and that may be true. He’s been a big part of developing a winning culture in OKC, he hasn’t tried to rein in his explosive talent, namely Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka has developed into a very good two-way player under his watch.
Still, the list of things people bash on Brooks for goes on and on. One thing that I and plenty of other critics and observers love to hammer the bespectacled coach for is his bad habit of resting MVP Kevin Durant and Westbrook at the same time.
The logic behind the criticism is simple: Brooks has two of the 10-or-so best players in the world at his disposal; why would he go through any meaningful stretches of game time with both of them resting on the bench?
Look across the playoff bracket to Miami, home to the dynamic wing duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Erik Spoelstra does a marvelous job of balancing his rotation to ensure that one of those two is constantly on the court to steward the offense. Under normal circumstances, Wade will head to the bench toward the end of the first quarter while LeBron plays solo (of course, Chris Bosh is in the mix as well). Then, James hits the sidelines to start the second quarter, while Wade comes back in to serve as the main crux of the offense.
In OKC, though, that’s not the case. Brooks, more often than not, doesn’t stagger the rest for his superstars, and has both of them getting a breather to start the second quarter. When Durant and Westbrook are averaging 42 and 38 minutes per game in the playoffs, respectively, you’d think that Brooks could find a way to stagger those breaks to keep at least one of his All Stars on the court for every meaningful minute of the game. In this crazy series, only that second quarter stretch with both resting has registered as “meaningful.” But how damaging is it, exactly? (Lineup information from NBA.com.)
|Lineup||Min||plus-minus||off rtg||def rtg||net rtg||reb %||efg%|
As you can see, that’s only 12 minutes out of 240 total that Brooks has thrown out an All-Star-less lineup with the game still to be decided. That’s right, a whopping five percent. And, to the skeptics disbelief (mine included), they’re only minus-4 in those minutes! Wait...is Brooks not as bad as we thought?
All told in the postseason, the Thunder have played 14 different lineups with both Westbrook and Durant on the bench for a total of 56 minutes, and they’re minus-22 in that span, per NBA.com. Granted, some of those minutes came in garbage time, but the Thunder are still a negative in the minutes that matter in this Western Conference Finals.>
Not surprisingly, in the Games 1 and 2, when the Thunder suffered massive blowouts without Serge Ibaka to anchor these bench units, OKC lost ground. Because the sample sizes are so tiny, there’s not a lot to glean from which of these lineups actually works; that hyper-effective unit from Game 2, with the 200 offensive rating, only took one shot and made it.
Interestingly enough, Brooks didn’t put any lineups on the court without Russ and KD until the final seconds of Game 4. However, the game was a taxing one on his superstars, as they logged heavy minutes despite leading by double digits for the majority of the second half. Even though it might have appeared on the surface like Brooks had turned the corner, he really had just decided that Westbrook was going to stay on the court all game. He relapsed in Game 5, although he threw his stars back in there when the bench unit couldn’t get anything done against a Spurs lineup that featured Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard in its brief stint.
There really is no respite against the Spurs, as Gregg Popovich does as good a job as any coach in the league to balance his rotations to ensure that there are always options on the floor. It also helps that Manu Ginobili is the greatest sixth man in league history and that every man on the Spurs roster can run the offense to perfection to create easy shots.
Oklahoma City’s season is on the line in Game 6. If they lose, then Durant’s MVP season will end without a ring, or even a trip back to the Finals. It appears the only way Brooks is going to ensure that one of his stars is on the court at all times is to not give them any rest, and if the Thunder lose tonight then the entire roster will have a summer to kick their feet up.
At this point, Brooks is what he is. He’s made some lineup tweaks throughout the series, but many of faults we see in him that have been present for his entire career aren’t going anywhere. If he believes in resting Durant and Westbrook to start every second quarter, so be it. He does have a career 63.3 winning percentage, after all, so he’s doing something right.
But for Game 6, Scott, please: keep your stars on the court at all times. Your season might depend on it.