Over the last five years, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been a team on the rise. Despite having two of the best talents in the NBA in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the team has not been able to to win a championship. Last night’s implosion brought to light a problem the Thunder have with their current squad — coach Scott Brooks, whose job may be in jeopardy with the Thunder’s recent play.
Yes, Brooks is a former Coach of the Year in 2010 as a result of a complete turnaround of the franchise. However, was this turnaround actually due to Scott Brooks or was it the continued chemistry between Westbrook and Durant, Jeff Green and the addition of newcomers Serge Ibaka and James Harden? The latter appears to be the answer.
Durant and Westbrook immediately came into the NBA with high numbers. However, one problem the Thunder always have had is their depth. Sure, they may not have the deepest roster in the league, but part of that very well could be the fact that many of the other players on the team are pushed aside. Durant and Westbrook take over games. They can be unstoppable. However, to be a championship-caliber team, one has to have that depth and guys to take the load off the starters.
Take the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were a 1-2 punch that many could not deal with. However, they also had a slew of other guys to help along the way such as Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper.
The current Oklahoma City Thunder used to have a more diverse lineup with Green and Harden. However, currently the team only has Ibaka who can become that X-factor. The problem with Ibaka though is he is not consistent enough to be reliable. Sure, he will have the occasional 15-20-point game; however, his reliability is more on the defensive end and as a rebounder.
This is not necessarily an issue on the players though. If one takes a look at the Thunder, game after game, the strategy typically is the Durant-Westbrook show, and Brooks has coached them as such. Last night was the purest example of this. Between both men, they took 46 shots. Granted, they also made 22 of those; however, the rest of the team only took 29 shots.
This has often been the case with the Thunder. Obviously, the team’s focus should be on Durant and Westbrook, but as a coach, Brooks should try to include others on the squad. If one looks at most past championship teams, including the Miami Heat, they tend to have role players that step up when needed. This all starts with coaching. Brooks needs to and has needed to get others involved. It will only help his big men. Ibaka, Sefolosha, Reggie Jackson, Caron Butler and even Derek Fisher are all players who could help ease the load of the big two. Instead, the coach’s strategy has been to give Durant and Westbrook the ball.
Granted, most of the time, it works during the season, especially when facing off against weaker opponents. The Los Angeles Clippers are not one of those teams that Durant and Westbrook can run over. In fact, the Clippers have one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. This was proven yesterday when backup point guard Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford had 18 points apiece, to go along with 25 from Blake Griffin and 23 from Chris Paul. Additionally, the Clippers have guys such as Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick, Danny Granger and even Glen Davis who all can contribute in any given game.
Lack of using the Thunder’s players is not the only fault of Scott Brooks though. Last night, once again, proved that. Oklahoma City was up by almost 20 points in the first quarter; however, each of the following quarters, the Clippers got closer and closer or maintained a steady distance with the Thunder.
As such, Scott Brooks should have made adjustments sooner or later. He should have changed matchups to stop the top scorers of the Clippers. Worse yet, he let a sparingly-used backup point guard run over his team. Collison was able to do everything. He stole the ball, he split through defenders for numerous layups, he tore the Thunder apart. Because of this, he managed 12 fourth-quarter points to help the Clippers’ 14-point differential over the Thunder in the final period.
Brooks should have been able to find a way to stop the point guard. Whether the backup was in his plan to defend against or not, it does not matter. Collison was the smallest man on the court and he pummeled Oklahoma City by getting to the rim. Brooks should have set up plays to prevent him to get to the rim. Instead, coach looked like a man completely flustered, much like his team.
Additionally, Brooks seemed unable to set plays for his guys to fight back offensively. Towards the end of the game, Doc Rivers and his squad managed to slow down Durant and Westbrook. As such, Brooks should have been able to set plays to get a good shot off. He did not, and if the Thunder lose this series, the difference in coaching between the seasoned Doc Rivers and Scott Brooks may end up being the difference.
The most glaring moment of all was in the final seconds. The Thunder were down only two points. Oklahoma City could have brought the ball in and put the game in overtime. Instead, Westbrook took a wild three-pointer that bricked off the rim. While Westbrook could be blamed for the play, his coach should have reigned the guard in. He should have designed a play, or at the very least, he should have told his team to go inside. He did not, and as such, the Clippers are back in the series.
Playoff Failure Not New
This is not the first time something like this has happened though. Brooks is not under the microscope simply because of last night. Yes, they should have won, but this has been happening time and time again during the last five years. When he has a squad with the talent levels of Durant, Westbrook as well as Ibaka and others, they should be dominating the league. Instead, they always end up short.
Their first time in the playoffs, they lost in the first round in six games. The following year, they made a major breakthrough by reaching the conference finals but only lasted five games. 2011-2012 they improved even more by making it to the finals, but once again they only lasted five games. Last year, they lost in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies after Westbrook got hurt.
This is another issue with relying on just two players to win games. Once one of them goes out, they are done. If Brooks had a strategy that included utilizing his role players more, they very well could have beat Memphis. Instead, the team was knocked out too early.
This year, they are looking worse. They were the top seed in the Western Conference. However, they matched up with the eight-seeded Grizzlies in the first round. Considering the clout of the Thunder, it should have been an easy series. Instead, the Thunder narrowly escaped in a difficult, seven-game series. Not only that, but they had to win the final two games after being down 3-2 after five games.
Bottom line: The Thunder should not be struggling like this. Durant and Westbrook have had an incredible year. There is other talent on this team, but there is something wrong here. Maybe the role players do not gel with the two stars of the team, but year after year, it is becoming more evident that Brooks may not be the best coach for this team.
There is no doubt that Brooks is respected and well liked in Oklahoma City. However, eventually Durant and Westbrook, among others, will begin to get frustrated with him if they do not start winning. What is unfortunate is that it appears the Thunder have been getting worse the last two seasons. Because of this, if Scott Brooks does not pull them together to at least beat the Clippers, he very well could be out of Oklahoma City come next year.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey