Is Scott Brooks the Right Coach for the Thunder?
Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks has a winning percentage of over 63% in the regular season, and a 53% one in the playoffs. His regular season winning percentage is good enough for 16th of all-time, ahead of coaching legends Jerry Sloan, George Karl, and a number of other Hall of Famers. On the surface, Brooks looks like a great coach who’s headed for the Hall of Fame, but there are questions on his resume. His lineups and offensive sets have been called questionable, so I want to take a look at what he's doing right and what he's doing wrong.
We’ve seen what happens when multiple superstars end up in the same locker room. It ends up in a fight rather than a championship, more often than not. We’ve all seen the Kobe and Shaq scenario, and there have been many smaller scale problems created by a clash of egos. We have to give Brooks credit for keeping Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook happy. At one point, James Harden and his horrible defense were in town as well and the Thunder always seemed to be on the same page outside of a few small disagreements here and there. So far so good.
This is where things start to get interesting. Last year, Scott Brooks’ two most frequently used lineups featured Kendrick Perkins, whose game has really struggled in recent years. Unsurprisingly, those lineups were fairly poor for the Thunder, both posting an offensive rating lower than the Thunder’s season average. It’s not hard to figure out why they struggled. According to NBA.com, Kendrick Perkins posted a horrendous effective field goal percentage of 45.1% and had a usage rate of 11.6%. It's very hard to run a good offense when one of your players is used on less than 12% of the plays. On top of that, teams were having their way with the Thunder on pick and rolls when Perkins is on the floor because the big man's movement has taken a downhill turn in recent years. It was a lose-lose situation but Brooks kept going with it.
In just 20 minutes per game last season, Perkins posted a nERD rating of -3.4. nERD estimates how many wins over .500 a team would be at with a given player starting alongside four league-average players. If the Thunder had given those minutes to Steven Adams (nERD of 0.8), they would have been expected to win an extra four or five games on average.
I understand having to play Perkins in the regular season, after all, Adams was just a rookie and needed time to develop. But Perkins’ 20 minutes per game continued in the postseason. The Thunder played great small-ball with either Serge Ibaka or Nick Collison at center and Steven Adams continued to play well, but Perkins kept finding himself on the floor. On average, Oklahoma City’s net rating (difference between offensive and defensive rating) was 7.1; it was only 1.9 with Perkins on the floor. That's not a sign of good coaching.
It wasn’t only Perkins who found himself in questionable lineups. Brooks has shown a preference to older veterans time and time again when younger options are available on the bench. Derek Fisher, a veteran years past his prime, also continued getting playing time when he was visibly slowed down and couldn’t stay in front of his man on defense. These things matter most in the playoffs and Brooks didn’t fix them.
Overall, Scott Brooks had his team well organized on defense, and the Thunder used their length and athleticism well on the way to achieving the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA. Like any team, they had their problems, especially late in the season. In the last 30 games, the Thunder allowed opponents to shoot three pointers at rates of 50% from the left corner, 41.3% from the right corner, and 37.2% from above the break, ranking 2nd, 10th, and 7th worst in the NBA during that time span, respectively. Not closing out on three-pointers was a problem that ended up hurting them in their loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference finals, where they let the Spurs shoot 39.6% from beyond the arc. This is once again a solvable problem, as some of the younger guys on the roster could have presumably done a better job of closing down on shooters than 39-year-old Derek Fisher.
This is where Scott Brooks has been widely criticized, and deservedly so. The Thunder have two of the best offensive players in the league in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but have struggled on offense at times, simply isolating the two studs. Scott Brooks fails to create offensive sets for his players and instead lets Westbrook and Durant go one on one too often. To put that in perspective, the Thunder were 25th in percentage of field goals assisted and dead last in percentages of three pointers assisted. They are 27th in the NBA in assist percentage in clutch situations (last five minutes when score is within five points), which is further proof of Brooks’ inability to get creative with the offense. Many of the shots in the last five minutes come out of timeouts and Brooks’ inability to draw up good plays is a visible concern at the end of the games.
If you think the percentage of shots assisted is more of a player statistic than a coach/scheme statistic, take a look at LeBron James’ three-pointers in his four years in Miami and the four years in Cleveland right before. In four years in Miami, LeBron’s three-pointers were assisted at a rate of 55.6%. In his four years in Cleveland right before that, that number was 41.0%.
The following table shows Kevin Durant’s shot selection compared to LeBron’s final season in Cleveland and final season in Miami.
|2013/14 Kevin Durant||2009/10 LeBron James||2013/14 LeBron James|
|Pull-up Jump Shot||133||18||31|
You can see the transformation LeBron made in four years, but credit must be given to Erik Spoelstra and the Miami Heat for guiding him through the metamorphosis of becoming a more efficient player. Scott Brooks is showing no signs of helping Kevin Durant improve his shot selection and continues to run high school level isolation plays that lead to pull-up jumpers. Pull-up jumpers don’t win championships. Ball movement does.
Scott Brooks has done a respectable job coaching the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has developed them into a top ten defensive and offensive unit. He has kept the locker room in tact despite a plethora of egos. Sometimes, that’s not enough. The Thunder need a coach who can provide the play-calling and tactical know-how needed at a Championship caliber team. They need an offensive mastermind who can create shots for the Thunder’s role players, which will in turn let Durant and Westbrook play more efficiently. They need a new coach.