The Oklahoma City Thunder have more depth than ever before, but that puts more pressure on head coach Scott Brooks to make the right decisions when it comes to rotations and playing time. Playoff rotations are invariably shorter than those of the regular-season variety, but Brooks has so many players at his disposal who give him plenty of flexibility in his substitution patterns.
We don’t know how Brooks will build his playoff rotation, but we can take the opportunity to build our own ideal rotation for the Thunder.
Obviously, Brooks has the luxury of mixing and matching as he needs to, and these lineups could change drastically depending on the matchup. The starting lineup is pretty fixed, but we may see a change if the Thunder play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
The second-unit players discussed here probably won’t all see the court at the same time, but it’s an attempt to give an idea of the depth on this team and which players will have heavy minutes while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are resting their legs on the bench.
Let’s start with something easy: the starters.
Lineup: C Kendrick Perkins, PF Serge Ibaka, SF Kevin Durant, SG Thabo Sefolosha, PG Russell Westbrook
This isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but there is a small chance that Coach Brooks might deviate from this starting five. Two of these players (Perkins and Sefolosha) are dealing with injuries and may not get much playing time in before the postseason starts, which could make starting them a slightly risky proposition.
But that shouldn’t stop OKC from rolling out this very familiar lineup for Game 1 of its playoff run. A year ago, that starting lineup played more minutes than any other five-man combination according to 82games.com, and it’s going to continue to accumulate minutes in the playoffs.
The sheer experience and comfort level the group has together makes it an easy choice for Coach Brooks, who has shown a reluctance to deviate from that starting five. That’s also because it has a good mix of offense and defense with the two stoppers (Sefolosha and Perkins) taking the court.
Lineup: C Steven Adams, PF Nick Collison, SF Caron Butler, SG Derek Fisher, PG Reggie Jackson
As was discussed above, it would be very surprising to see these five players on the court at the same time in the playoffs, but it’s not actually a horrible lineup. This unit would struggle to score at times but there is plenty of energy and defense here to form a valuable bench mob for the Thunder.
Jackson is the engine for this lineup and has looked much better coming off the bench than starting in place of Westbrook. Berry Tramel of NewsOK.com breaks down why that’s the case:
When Jackson’s role is coming off the bench, either to play sidekick to Westbrook or to run the B team, then Jackson plays more freely. More shots, more success with the shots. Jackson’s 3-point shooting is remarkably better when he doesn’t start— .351 to .322. His foul shooting is much better. Jackson has missed just three foul shots all season during games in which he didn’t start.
I think some of that can be attributed to relaxing. Jackson doesn’t feel the weight of the world on his shoulders when Westbrook starts. When Jackson has to start, as we saw in the 2013 playoffs and occasionally this season, he seems to be carrying a burden.
One of the keys for this lineup is that Jeremy Lamb has lost his spot in the rotation—partly due to experience but mostly because there’s an international task force trying to find his three-point stroke.
The depth on this team is outstanding, however, which means that Perry Jones and Lamb could end up getting reserve minutes depending on necessity, but since their roles are fairly specific they lose out to more experienced and well-rounded players.
Lineup: C Serge Ibaka, PF Kevin Durant, SF Caron Butler/Thabo Sefolosha, SG Derek Fisher/Reggie Jackson, PG Russell Westbrook
Starting the game carries a special connotation, but it’s much more important who finishes it—especially in the playoffs. You’ll notice that Kendrick Perkins has been bumped off the court in favor of a smaller lineup which allows OKC to capitalize on their greatest advantages: athleticism and Durant’s versatility.
Something we’ve seen Brooks do a lot this year is get two (or sometimes even three) point guards on the court at the same time; that’s a trend that will continue when the games matter most.
Firstly, it makes the Thunder more difficult to defend because they have three players (including Durant) who can initiate the offense and handle the basketball. Additionally, it allows Westbrook to be more aggressive offensively working without the ball as a cutter or a post-up player.
It’s also interesting to note that a smaller lineup has been OKC’s best defensive lineup—albeit in a smaller sample size—with the lineup of Ibaka, Durant, Sefolosha, Westbrook and Jackson giving up only 0.83 points per possession according to 82games.com.
We haven’t seen Sefolosha and Butler on the court at the same time, but Butler would seem to have the edge unless Sefolosha can improve on his 34 percent three-point stroke.
Brooks, for one, has loved Butler’s court savvy since his first game in a Thunder jersey, according to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman:
"He went out there and played basketball the right way," Brooks said. "If he had a shot, he took it, if he had a pass, he passed it. And we have to continue to add that mentality to our team."
The important thing to take away from this exercise is that the Thunder may be the most versatile team in the league, capable of going big against the Grizzlies or going small against the Heat—and playing as one of the best teams in the league regardless of their philosophy.
Coach Brooks has received criticism in recent years for his reluctance to get creative with his lineups, but that won’t be the case this postseason with a plethora of experienced and talented role players at his disposal.