As we enter what will undoubtedly be a long off-season, driven in part by the fact that the Thunder have to watch the remainder of the playoffs from home, there are a number of issues worth analysis. Watching how the Spurs have moved on to the Finals despite: a) their most important piece is 37 years old; b) their 2nd most important piece is coming off a tough ankle injury; and c) their 3rd most important piece is a shadow of his former self, we are left to wonder how exactly the Spurs keep rolling on at a high level despite the natural and inevitable decay of their athletes.
Despite this steady physical decay, the Spurs this season continue to play at a high offensive efficiency while simultaneously playing vastly superior defense,destroying the Lakers in the 1st round, defensively dismantling Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the 2nd round, and sweeping the Memphis Grizzlies in the 3rd.
OKC GM Sam Presti used to work for the Spurs, learned at the feet of their GM R.C. Buford, and has taken his information-gathering long term philosophy to Seattle-then-OKC to build a perennial contender. He established a team around the youthful talents of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and up until last season, James Harden. Entering this season with two good draft picks in Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III on the roster, it seemed like the perfect time to build out the Thunder's bench and get the young fellas quality minutes in preparation for the playoffs.
We all know what happened. We lived through what happened.
Despite seeing Lamb and PJIII get shuttled back and forth to the Thunder's D-League team the Tulsa 66ers, they never got onto the court during the Thunder's regular season to learn the ropes. Instead, they saw garbage time minutes in blow-out games when stakes were lowest. Derek Fisher was brought in, minutes were distributed accordingly without regard to the rookies, and by the time Westbrook went down for the year there was no backup plan in place and the tenacious Grizzlies were on the horizon. Those splendid, talented, athletic rookies sat in suits while the Thunder's hopes came down to whether Fisher could make shots. Indeed, that's how badly OKC's offense deteriorated - the Twitterverse was actually pining for when Fisher would enter the game in the hopes that his hot shooting from earlier in the playoffs might continue (it didn't).
As we wrote often during our analysis of those sad and depressing 4 consecutive losses that spelled the end of it all, the problem was not that Brooks coached poorly. In fact, his coaching was solid and not a detriment to the team's fortunes. Rather, the problem was that the Thunder had wasted 82 regular season test lab. OKC played a full season where they beat 60 teams by a historically significant 9.4 points per outing, but rarely gave their youngsters the minutes and leeway to learn the game, get some reps, iron out the baby hiccups, and be in a position to contribute against the Grizzlies.
Which brings us of course to the Spurs and Gregg Popovich. I can't say for a fact that Pop is an adept culinary maestro in the kitchen, but I wouldn't write it off either, if you know what I'm saying. (I'd be willing to wager that Pop is a grilling bad boy yet still understands the delicacy of making a proper chocolate souffle).
There is a cooking technique called Sous-Vide, and if Pop knows about this technique, he just might be applying it to his youngsters like Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Cory Joseph.
Sous-Vide cooking involves cooking food in sealed plastic bags immersed in hot water for long periods of time. Depending on the cut, type, and thickness of the meat or the type of food in question, cooking sous-vide for several hours is not out of the ordinary. The key is managing the temperature of the water so it stays hot enough to cook the food thoroughly and evenly, and long enough to kill any food-borne pathogens that may be in the bag along with the food. Cooking in sealed bags (usually vacuum sealed) at lower temperatures also results in juicier food, since there's no substantive transfer of moisture from the food in the way there is with a more moist cooking method like poaching or broiling, and the cooking temperatures don't get so high that the food starts to dry out.
Truehoop's Henry Abbott writes a great piece about Pop's slow cooking skill so do read it all, but this passage in particular jumps out:
Popovich gets the same unproven players every team gets -- in fact, he gets worse ones. The Spurs haven't had a lottery pick since Tim Duncan in 1997. Nevertheless, he plays young players relentlessly and aggressively all season long. He plays young unproven players when his team is ahead. He plays them when his team is behind. He plays them when his team is in first place and when they're in last. He plays them in all four quarters and in overtime. And, most importantly, he does it season after season.
Like the Sous-Vide chef, Popovich knows that the season is a long one and there are ample opportunities for young, untested players to get quality meaningful minutes without harming the team's overall mission. Pop starts the cooking process early, sealing his young players in a controlled environment (say, a November game against the Wizards) and begins the process of allowing them to contribute and mature while making mistakes. By getting those reps in early and often, Pop is allowing for a natural learning curve playing along side the greatest power forward in NBA history instead of throwing them into the flash fryer in May and hope that they don't screw up. Kawhi Leonard in particular has shown tremendous growth under this process. For example, Leonard, has been charged to defend the likes of Kevin Durant for 2 years running now. Yes, Leonard got torched during last year's playoffs, but by Pop giving him a shot, he greatly increased Leonard's meaningful experience so that as he and the team moved forward, Leonard would not be cowed by future pressure. The cooking 'temperature' would always be the same, no matter what the time of year.
Royce Young at Daily Thunder notes:
But after reading Henry's piece, it really struck me that there's a disconnect between the Thunder and Spurs when it comes to young players. At least there was this season. It's not that the Thunder aren't trying to develop their youth, it's just that they're going about it somewhat of a different way.
The best example is these numbers: 1) 23 games played, 147 total minutes and 2) 24 games, 347 minutes.
I was one of many that were outspoken about Fisher's playing time during the regular season and for me, it had a whole lot less to do with what Fisher was actually bringing to the floor and more to do with the fact of what he was keeping off it. The idea of playing Fisher over Lamb, outside of inexplicably treating Fisher like he was a shooting guard somehow, completely flew in the face of the Thunder's approach of long-term development over short-term gain. Not only did Fisher get 12-15 minutes a night over Lamb, but he cut into the minutes of Reggie Jackson and even DeAndre Liggins. Why would the Thunder want to play a 38-year-old with no future with the franchise over a 20-year-old that's supposed to be a future big piece? Unless they have no plans for Lamb (possible, I suppose), what sense did that make, especially for the Thunder?
This sentiment is what left us all so frustrated during the playoff flame-out. Coach Brooks had these guys on his team for the full duration of the year, yet they rarely saw the court even before Fisher showed up. Fisher was a known quantity and a trusted player whom Brooks knew may not have the upside of his youngsters, but would not make costly mistakes either (ahem). However, by not playing Lamb and PJIII, Brooks was capping not just his rookies' contributions, but his team's overall production as well.
Abbott also notes:
Think JaVale McGee.
That's why so many teams keep young players stapled to the bench in big moments.
But there's an oddity: Those very same McGees tend to have valuable things like superactivity and bodies from basketball heaven.
In the final analysis, who's better for your team: an active and mistake-prone dude, or a fundamentally but athletically compromised guy?
The old guys keep everyone from looking stupid. But sophisticated numbers suggest that even with all their missed rotations and biting-on-fakes, the youngsters like McGee are very often better at, you know, winning.
Coach Pop knows this. He's been living this philosophy for the majority of his coaching career, ever since he gave a 19 year old point guard named Tony Parker the keys to the Duncan-mobile. Pop, instead of trusting that he could stick some 10 year old frozen burgers in the microwave if his team got into a pinch, started the Sous-Vide slow cook properly, let Parker (and Leonard and Neal and Green and Splitter) mature at a pace that made them fully prepped ready to contribute to the final dining spread.
The final irony? Do you know who convinced the Spurs to take a chance on that incredibly talented but raw 19 year old guard?