OKC Thunder Have Issues, and Their Biggest Might Be Scott Brooks

Fred KatzFeatured ColumnistMay 15, 2014

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Scott Brooks just flailed up from his seat on the Oklahoma City Thunder bench like he was resting on a stove. It's far too hot.

Even after a 59-win season coaching the NBA's MVP, Brooks finds himself at the center of blame for the Thunder's struggles in the playoffs. Oklahoma City almost lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, falling behind 3-2, only to win the series in seven.

Now, the Thunder lead the Los Angeles Clippers 3-2 in the Western Conference Semifinals, a series lead that the Clippers gave more than the Thunder took after the horribly played final four minutes of Game 5, during which L.A. turned a 13-point lead into a one-point loss. It almost seemed like that game was basketball karma for Game 4, when Oklahoma City gave away a huge lead of its own: 16 points with under nine minutes to play.

It was an ugly four minutes of basketball that didn't seem like it involved two teams that are legitimate championship contenders. And it would be fair to say part of the reason the Thunder were in that position is Brooks, whose stagnant offense and lineup preferences have hurt OKC for a while.

Now, as Brooks tries to keep his job, it's time to ask: What does he have to do to remain as coach in Oklahoma City after losing in the Western Conference Finals last year? How far do the Thunder have to go? And what exactly are the problems leading up to all of this?


Ball Movement

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

This is the most highlighted problem with the Thunder: They don't move the rock well at all.

It's not that the Thunder are a poor offensive team. Oklahoma City finished seventh in points per possession during the regular season, and it's scored at an almost identical rate during the playoffs.

Still, everyone with a set of eyes has gone over it time and time again. The Thunder have one option on their play calls, and if that first choice doesn't work out, they go into a ball-eating isolation set.

So, they miss out on getting looks for Serge Ibaka, and mostly, they fail to find cutters—or even have them. They don't use guys off the ball properly.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Now, against all common belief, a coach doesn't necessarily "need" a system. If you have a couple of first-rate superstars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, you can feed off the two of them. But what you do need is instincts.

At some point, an offense has to understand how to move in certain scenarios, and the Thunder attack isn't always prepared when it sees new schemes.

This is basically reiterating points everyone has made thousands of times about Brooks. The "stagnant Thunder offense" argument is as redundant as the offense itself. Kurt Helin of ProBasketballTalk may have summarized it best:

But some of the Thunder’s struggles come back to the coach. He sticks with Kendrick Perkins for long stretches against all logic. Brooks runs fairly simple sets, and when Memphis has taken away the first option — as any good defensive team will do in the playoffs — the Thunder offense has broken down. There is a whole lot of Durant or Westbrook against the world while the other watches. Remember the first seasonLeBron James and Dwyane Wade were paired in Miami and they just seemed to take turns (with an odd possession here or there thrown to Chris Bosh)? Right now Oklahoma City feels like that. At times it looks like that.

So to further this point, let's go back to a play I referenced in a column Monday, one from Game 3 of the Clippers-Thunder series.

That contest was the one in which OKC blew a 16-point lead with under nine minutes to go. And during crunch time, the offense looked pretty darn out of sorts.

The Clippers threw Chris Paul on Durant and doubled the league's leading scorer almost every time he touched the ball. And when those hard double-teams came, the Thunder didn't know what to do:

Herein lies the problem.

A reasonable person could argue that two short defenders coming over to man Durant shouldn't take away a passing lane. He should be able to find Reggie Jackson to reset the offense. But the problem here is that the offense shouldn't need a reset at all.

This is where the "inherent understanding of how to move" thing comes in handy.

May 13, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) handles the ball against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) during the second quarter in game five of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Ener

Jackson has to know to cut to the paint, which would either bring his man, Jamal Crawford, with him or pull Danny Granger off Ibaka.

If Crawford follows Jackson, Butler can cut to the top of the key and have himself a wide-open three or drive. If Granger leaves Ibaka and Durant can find Jackson anyway, that leaves a wide-open pass or lob to Ibaka at the hoop.

This play should have offered a scoring opportunity. But instead, it was a turnover and two points for the Clippers.

And those sorts of mistakes continue to happen over and over again. They're not stopping.

Maybe this is a problem with personnel. Maybe Brooks has done everything he can to teach Jackson that he needs to make that cut, that someone needs to move. It's possible this group of players just doesn't get it.

But that's not likely. It's not the most reasonable assumption to make, especially considering that, while the stars on this squad are still young, the role players are not, and Brooks' teams have had these same issues in the past.

Mar 16, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks reacts to a play in action against the Dallas Mavericks during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

And that leads to one disclaimer that has to come up, and it's an important one: The Thunder don't have many offensive players.

For all the credit Sam Presti gets—he's so practical that he's probably the most likely general manager to buy toilet paper in bulk—this roster isn't all that perfect.

Is it championship-caliber? Sure. Is it the best in the league? It's definitely capable of being that. But that has more to do with its top-heaviness. Someone has to mend it.

Oklahoma City has defensive personnel, but where is the offensive firepower? If you want Durant and Westbrook dribbling less, that means you want Thabo Sefolosha handling the rock more, or Serge Ibaka, or Kendrick Perkins.

With all of that said, though, those don't necessarily have to be the only options on the floor.


Lineup Distribution

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Kendrick Perkins, I don't want to be mean to you because you can probably beat me into Keith Richards-look-alike territory. I like my face—almost as much (and as irrationally) as Brooks likes your game.

After going to a small-ball, crunch-time lineup in Games 3 and 4 against the Clippers, Brooks reverted back to keeping Perkins on the floor for the end of the contest in Game 5. The Thunder may have made the comeback, but on multiple occasions, the Clippers got Perk to switch onto a guard in the pick-and-roll and got decent looks off those sets.

If Crawford had actually banged in a wide-open, late-game layup with Perkins covering him, we may not be talking about this incredible 13-point comeback at all. And those sorts of strange lineup decisions have plagued the Thunder all year.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13:  Glen Davis #0 of the Los Angeles Clippers jumps for a rebound against Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena o
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Thunder are objectively poorer when the offensively inept Perkins plays. Heck, there's a reason they are 6.9 points per 100 possessions worse when he's on the floor. But Brooks keeps playing him.

It's not all bad, though. The "stop playing Perkins!" criticisms can get unfair at times. There are actually moments when Perk helps.

He made sense during that Memphis Grizzlies series, against a team which has loads of post players and likes to bully guys down low. Need a bully? Perk can do that. Thus, the whole Keith Richards fear.

The problem is that a bully isn't necessarily good for 19.5 minutes a night, which is exactly how much time Perkins got during the regular season. And once you factor in that Steven Adams and Nick Collison are physical players as well, the problems become more inexplicable.

We've gotten to a point where Adams may actually be a little overrated.

Apr 21, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher (6) steals the ball from Memphis Grizzlies guard Beno Udrih (19) during the second quarter in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Aren

Look, Adams has a very nice future in the NBA. He's an active, willing defender who's already becoming a shot-blocker and rebounder, swatting 3.7 attempts per 36 minutes during the playoffs. But people get so excited whenever he enters the game. In reality, though, his best trait may just be that he's not Kendrick Perkins.

But Perk keeps running out there. Brooks loves his vets.

He treats Derek Fisher the same way when he inserts him into games for crucial defensive possessions. It's funny how reputation works like that.

Perk is a gritty guy, so he must be able to make a difference. Fisher's a veteran, so he must be smart. And we all know his biceps, which look like a bunch of Nerf balls stacked on top of each other, give him some sort of anti-aging superpowers.

But who on this team, aside from Westbrook, takes more contested jumpers early in the shot clock than Fisher? Who dribbles into as many unwarranted attempts? And yet, these guys keep getting burn.



Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

One part of the San Antonio Spurs' philosophy that makes Gregg Popovich's team so successful is that he uses the regular season to prepare his players for the most stressful potential postseason moments.

You'll see Cory Joseph run the offense in sparse moments. Or you'll see Tiago Splitter get post-ups. And maybe at the time, it makes no sense. But that's because Pop is grooming his guys.

If the Spurs need to rely on Joseph or Splitter during crucial, late-season or playoff instances, not only will they know more of what they're getting, but they'll also instill some confidence in their players for those moments.

Brooks doesn't groom. It's the same thing all the time.

Jeremy Lamb lost time and opportunities throughout the season. And with that, confidence and trust went out the window.

Perry Jones was the only guy on the pre-Caron Butler roster who was hitting corner threes at a consistent rate, but Brooks wouldn't play him. Instead, the team signed Butler to send Lamb even further into oblivion. And to this day, shooting from the corner remains a struggle when OKC tries to space the floor.

It took Jackson too many games to earn Brooks' trust, and he's still not all the way there. The young guys just haven't progressed at the rate you'd expect—at least at the rate you'd hope.


What Does This Mean?

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

If a coach is playing the wrong guys, running an offense that isn't up to its capabilities and stifling development, then what is his actual effect?

We can talk about motivation, controlling a locker room and instilling confidence in players, but those are things that are impossible to judge from the outside. We can guess the value of those traits, but unless we're there, we don't know.

That doesn't mean the intangibles have no value; quite the opposite—they're supremely important. But in the interest of fairness, it's improper to speculate on something that isn't provable either way. We just don't know.

From far away, the only way for us to judge Brooks is as a tactician, and in that sense, he's struggled far more than a coach of a 59-win team should.

With all the criticism though, comes support from other sources. Brooks defenders are out there, and they're making themselves proud. As recently as after Game 3 of the Clippers series, Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman praised Brooks' coaching effort:

This was a well-coached game by Scotty Brooks. He was saddled with foul trouble in the first – Serge Ibaka got No. 2 just 3:11 into the game, Thabo Sefolosha got No. 2 less than a minute later and Reggie Jackson also picked up two in the first quarter.

Yet Brooks juggled his lineup well. Nick Collison played 8:05 in the first quarter and had a plus-five in scoring differential. Collison helped slow Blake Griffin, who was having a monster first quarter. When Collison entered the game, Griffin had made three of four shots and scored nine points. Griffin missed his only two shots the rest of the period, though he did make five more foul shots.

It's not like Brooks does nothing right. The Thunder boasted a top-five defense this year, and coaches often can have a greater impact on the defensive end than offensive one. So, in that sense, Brooks has brought good attributes to the OKC bench.

But we can't ignore all the self-inflicted wounds this team causes. And if Oklahoma City disappoints in the playoffs once again, those wounds are only going to become more and more obvious.

Even though they are up 3-2 in the Clippers series, what happens if the Thunder lose Games 6 and 7 to drop in the Western Conference Semifinals? What if they win, but get swept by the Spurs? Or they lose in five?

Is that going to be acceptable?

If an organization believes it has a championship-caliber roster, but it isn't winning rings, at some point it has to ask why that is the case. And if the Thunder exit the playoffs in an ugly way, it's possible the answer to that haunting question will be Scott Brooks.


All statistics current as of May 15 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.