The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the most interesting teams to watch in the NBA Playoffs this postseason. After wrapping up their second round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Thunder are headed to the Western Conference Finals as an unpredictable team.
Picking the winner of the Thunder series with the San Antonio Spurs is proving to be incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons. The most prevalent being that nobody knows which Thunder team will show up.
It’s incredibly frustrating to watch the up-and-down play of such a talented team. When dissecting the Thunder issues, you can’t help but notice most of the on-court problems tie back to the same person; Thunder head coach Scott Brooks.
Brooks has received his fair share of criticism, but is it warranted? Let’s take a look at the Thunder offense and just how much blame the head coach deserves.
When going back and examining Thunder playoff contests on a game by game basis, there are quite a few things that jump out at you. The most obvious is also the most discussed issue for the OKC offense; the inordinate amount of iso plays the team runs. It only makes sense to start with this key issue.
Something interesting about these iso situations is exactly how they play out depending on whether or not the Thunder are losing or winning a ballgame.
In games where Oklahoma City is trailing and in need of some scoring, Westbrook and Durant seem to start taking a lot of rushed and long jumpers, epitomizing hero ball at the expense of any offensive rhythm.
When the offense devolves into such situations, there are usually only two outcomes. Either Durant or Westbrook is going to keep the Thunder close, or they will shoot the team right out of the game.
In games where the Thunder are leading, the two Oklahoma City All-Stars seem to take turns picking defense apart, slowly building up their lead one possession at a time.
Brooks does a good job of trying to stagger Durant and Westbrooks minutes so that each star has an opportunity to run the show offensively. Brooks recognizes how talented his two stars are, and allows them the freedom to take full advantage of that when the ball is in their hands.
Of course when players have this type of freedom there will be good and bad that comes with it. For all of their offensive genius, the Thunder stars, specifically Westbrook, can make their fair share of mistakes. Credit Brooks for allowing them to improve through these growing pains.
But the entire offensive issue can’t just be summed up by saying there are too many iso’s right? There has to be more to the Thunder struggles than Durant or Westbrook going on on one and stopping ball movement.
On any given possession, Russ or KD going one-on-one with a defender is an OKC advantage, so how can that be the team’s biggest issue?
Well if you take a deeper look, those plays actually aren’t what is plaguing the Thunder offense. Sure they hurt the team and tend to make it seem like Scott Brooks doesn’t call many plays, but the real issue here isn’t the overall lack of playcalling, it’s the lack of good playcalling.
One key indicator of how good a coach really is in-game is the types of plays he calls out of a time-out. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is famous for his ability to make these adjustments on the fly and give his team an advantage. Scott Brooks is basically the polar opposite of that, something that has repeatedly proven to be problematic for the Thunder.
When the Thunder have possession of the ball immediately following a timeout this postseason, the offensve numbers are downright ugly.
In the 95 possessions where the Thunder had the ball in such situations, the team has made 24 shots and drawn 18 fouls. Meaning 42 of 95 (44%) possessions have ended in points or a chance at points.
In situations where the Thunder do not get a basket or a foul, they have missed 40 shots and turned the ball over 13 times following a timeout. That’s an astounding 56% of possessions for the Thunder that end without any points following a time out. Overall, OKC is shooting a paltry 24-64 (37.5%) in these situations.
The numbers don’t look much better in situations where the team is coming out for the start of a quarter or half. Despite having even more time to draw something up, the offense is actually even worse. As a whole, OKC is shooting just 6-18 (33%) from the field on possessions starting a quarter.
So why exactly does a team with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant struggle so much coming out of time-outs or quarter breaks?
Simply put, long contested shots. These low percentage chances are the death of the Thunder offense. The team is shooting 45% from the field this postseason, and just 33% from beyond the arc, which is a very low number for a team that is so reliant on the long-ball.
While having scorers like Durant and Westbrook on your team means you have guys that can bail you out by hitting tough shots, it’s not ideal to settle for them frequently regardless of who is shooting the rock.
Brooks does not seem to grasp this concept. Almost every single possession after a break ends in a three-point shot or a long two. In fact, of the 82 field goal attempts in post-time out and start of quarter situations, 33 have been three-pointers. The majority of the remaining shot attempts have been mid-range to long jump shots.
There are only a handful of situations where the Thunder get to the basket following a time-out, which for a team that has Durant, Westbrook and Reggie Jackson is absolutely baffling.
Incredibly, and sadly not surprisingly, the Thunder get much worse when coming out of stoppages in action. Looking at the play-by-play of the team during wins as opposed to losses is like looking at two different squads altogether.
When the Thunder get going, the clock doesn’t stop unless their opponent is calling a time out. If the team goes through a cold stretch after a hot start, Brooks lets them play through it. It’s almost as if he knows calling time out will likely lead to him making a mistake.
When taking a look at these key stats, it’s interesting to see that the majority of the blame should in fact fall on the shoulders of Scott Brooks. While the players definitely make their own decisions once the ball is in play, the fact that most plays coming out of a time-out end the same way shows how poorly planned these situations are.
At the end of the day, if a team is not executing well the blame falls on the coach. It is Brooks’ job to put the players in a position where they can maximize their talents. It will be very interesting to see if the Thunder can overcome the coaching disadvantage they will be at in the upcoming Western Conference Finals. If not, the team may be looking for a new head coach this off-season.