Whenever a team does not seem to be quite playing up to its expectations (or should I say, our expectations), we loyal NBA savants jump to the trade machine, we look at PER's, and we try to tinker with the line-up so that the team might squeeze out just a few more ounces of WIN to placate us for the time being. Should we do this? I'm a blogger, what else am I going to do?
If you hadn't noticed what Darnell Mayberry has instituted in the past week or so, it's a nice little slice of insight into the thoughts of the pros that cover the Thunder. A question is asked, and each reporter provides their answer. Here is today's question:
The question is inspired in part by Daequan Cook's recent play, combined with James Harden's struggles and Thabo Sefolosha's injury.
Here is a brief summary of each reporter's position:
John Rohde: Stay with the hot shooter. If Cook is hitting, leave him in. If he isn't, go with Harden.
Berry Tramel: Don't touch it; Cook is still the odd man out.
Mike Sherman: No, tinkering sounds too complicated. Which means this is a perfect time to try tinkering. (seriously, read what he wrote and explain it to me if you get it)
Darnell Mayberry: Substitution pattern should be situational, Brooks needs to feel the game better and mix the line-up as appropriate.
Here is my working premise, which I have seen scant reporting on, so I don't know how accurate it is - I think James Harden is still hurt. In the month of December, he had a few breakthrough moments where he asserted himself as The Man of the second unit. He attacked, he was physical, he defended, he rebounded, and he did it with style. He looked like he was having a ball out there. In the past month or so, it seems like he has really regressed. He hasn't been anywhere near as aggressive or explosive. Harden has turned into a spot-up shooter, which is unquestionably the weakest part of his offensive game. This report is the only thing I've seen to confirm it. So, if Harden is injured, then all judgment needs to be delayed for another few weeks.
Aside from that caveat, I think it's important to actually look at what each of these players represent in order to understand that it probably can't be one versus another.
James is a guy who makes good things happen when the ball flows through him. He is an offensive facilitator who breaks down the defense, distributes the ball, and rarely forces a bad shot when he's initiating his own offense. He plays really well when he's paired up with Jeff Green and Eric Maynor. Since He and Green are similar in style, they play off each others' strengths really well and have a good feel for what the other is trying to do. I honestly feel that if Harden can't get 25 minutes of playing time in a game, his effectiveness is drastically reduced because he never has a chance to "feel" the flow of the game. He is at his least effective when asked to be a 15 minute per game 3-point shooter. If he is only getting 15 minutes and is at a match-up disadvantage, Brooks is definitely better off looking elsewhere.
Thabo Sefolosha also seems to have regressed since the beginning of the season (injury aside), when he was much more comfortable looking for open shots. I've seen several stat lines as of late where I don't think he took a single shot. Unfortunately, at the professional level, if a guy can't bring anything at all to an offensive system, he is effectively forcing his team to play four on five. If he isn't a threat, that means the opposition's weakest defender can be hidden and just serve to play help defense. In my mind, Sefolosha would be the ideal guy to come off the bench in situational defensive settings. His greatest strength is his ability to guard swingmen like Carmelo Anthony. Any time he has to play smaller, quicker guards though, his defense really slips. Since Sefolosha isn't looking to score anyway and isn't going to be mentally damaged if he doesn't get a lot of minutes for his offense, it seems a better fit for him to be a key bench defensive stopper to take on the likes of 'Melo, Grant Hill, and even Kobe Bryant.
Since Cook's working trade is spot-up shooting, then that is what he needs to be used for. It is important to note that he is going to be least effective in an offense that doesn't have Kevin Durant on the floor. Durant is the only guy who is going to demand double-teams in the half-court, so if you're going to use Cook, use him when Durant is being featured, particularly in the post. Durant is learning to swing the ball out of the post very effectively, and this type of passing is of the kind that will get Cook his best open looks. The biggest obstacle Cook is going to face is that, down the stretch, he's going to be the guy that gets 15 minutes of playing time per game, and he is going to have to be ready to knock down shots when his number is called. It probably isn't fair, but that's what the Thunder needs him to be. That said, if the Thunder want Cook to be that 15 minute per game spot-shooter like Eddie House, then they have to make him that player NOW, rather than hope he can do it come playoff time.
To conclude, I think the problem here is that these three guys shouldn't be seen as interchangeable parts. Rather, Harden should be seen as the 2nd unit leader, and Sefolosha and Cook should be used as situational opportunists. Hopefully Coach Brooks can continue his work with all of them to maximize each of their strengths.