Thunder leaning too heavily on talent

Brooks' refusal to alter his game plan leaves the Thunder wholly dependent on their top-flight talent (Photo: Eric Gay/AP)

Regularly throughout the NBA playoffs, we’ll be checking in with former Raptors head coach Butch Carter for an insider’s perspective on the X’s and O’s that lead to W’s and L’s. Today, Coach Carter breaks down the impact of Scott Brooks’ lack of meaningful action on the Thunder’s shot at winning the west.

The biggest problem I have watching the Western Conference Finals is how Oklahoma City and Scott Brooks continue to make so few technical adjustments during the course of a game.

The game plan Brooks has stuck to appears to be a simple one: Let Russell Westbrook do whatever he wants. I don’t know how else you can evaluate it. The mindset seems to be, “I’ve got these talented guys and I’m going to turn them loose.” While that might win you some games, it’s not exactly a strategy for success you expect to see at this point in the season.

Brooks’ lineups and substitutions have been curious as well. For example, I’ve said in previous columns that Thabo Sefolosha has to play. The decision to keep him on the bench will come back to haunt Brooks. You don’t take a guy who has started with a group for that long and disrespect him by taking him out of the lineup and not playing him. Brooks has basically taken Sefolosha’s minutes (and, to a degree, Derek Fisher’s) and handed them to Caron Butler, a guy they acquired before the trade deadline who has been largely ineffective.

Brooks lack of meaningful action has been apparent throughout the post-season, and that the Thunder still have a shot at winning—albeit a long one—is a testament to their talent. But they’ve also gotten lucky along the way. In the Western Conference Semifinals against Los Angeles, for example, the Clippers handed Game 4 to Oklahoma City by not calling timeout on their last possession to stop the clock and advance the ball to half-court—LA ended up throwing the game away.

Part of the problem is that the Thunder coaching staff is entirely represented by agent Warren Legarie. In my experience, a Warren Legarie staff is based on lieutenants who are in the fold but not high on basketball IQ. That was evident when former Thunder assistant Mo Cheeks took two assistants with him when he got the head coaching job in Detroit this season and they all ended up getting shot after 50 games. Historically, Legarie head coaches have hired very weak staffs—guys who can take orders and push paper.

Legarie also represents very few former players who are now coaches. Brooks is one of them, but coaching is a craft. If you don’t learn your craft—the X’s and O’s part—then your instincts as a player are useless. You have to learn to outflank your opponent, and there are three ways to do so that will translate to the court: Win the first and third quarter, win the scoring differential and lead the category of defensive field-goal percentage. Teams that consistently do those three things, have a coaching staff that’s trending in the right direction. Those are not things the Thunder do with any consistency.

Both teams have had their moments throughout the series, though, so none of the above is to say Game 6 will be a repeat of last night’s one-sided affair. The first- and third-quarter benchmarks, in which the Spurs lead the league, are especially important for San Antonio because they don’t have the ability to come from behind in the same way OKC does. The Spurs also don’t want to play their backups when trailing. As well as they’ve performed in stretches—and as much of a luxury as they’ve been for Gregg Popovich—they’re not starters for a reason.

As for Brooks and Westbrook, that one’s a tough spot. Those two have been together for such a long time and their relationship is that the coach has allowed the point guard to have his bad days. Mo Cheeks was that settling voice for Westbrook in the past and when Cheeks left for Detroit, it may have destabilized things with one of Brooks’ key players.

Westbrook is an immense talent, but his style and approach can make things difficult at times. Most good teams know where each of their players like to get the ball—where they like to shoot from, etc. That normally contributes to an overall team rhythm that, in part, allows guys to know they have some kind of balance to get back on defense. But Westbrook has never bought into that strategy. He’ll shoot from every corner of the court, and that kind of player is hard for a coach to rein in. Westbrook doesn’t yet understand how much that offensive balance contributes to stopping opponents from scoring in transition. Defensively, Westbrook has done a good job on Tony Parker, who is turning the ball over at a higher rate than we’re used to seeing (a result of Westbrok’s athleticism and size for his position). But, as Brooks and the Thunder have learned, there are no shortage of consequences to playing Westbrook’s way.

There are too many questions surrounding OKC to expect the Thunder to pull out the series win: How will Serge Ibaka’s health hold up? Which version of Russell Westbrook will show up game to game? What will—or won’t—Brooks do to make his mark on the game? With Popovich and his team in a position of having to win just one of two games, I would ultimately take those chances.

On another note, I wanted to touch on the news of the potential sale of the Los Angeles Clippers: I guarantee the NBA Players Association will have problems with some of the stipulations that Shelly Sterling is requesting in the purchase agreement. That’s all I will say for now, but keep an eye and ear out for more on this in the near future.

For more insight and analysis on the NBA playoffs, follow Coach Carter on Twitter @TOButchCarter

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