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How Donovan is going to fix the "real" problem

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Handling superstar minutes and improving the bench is a tough task, but we've got the solutions.

Some problems require more than a simple 2 dimensional solution
Some problems require more than a simple 2 dimensional solution
The Donovan debate has morphed into a new arena these days. The question now is whether Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's minutes should be staggered. In a recent WTLC post, Chris Hanneke argued against it. A few days later, almost on cue, NewsOK's Anthony Slater stated a case in favor of the adjustment in the case of the Thunder's recent road loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Slater concluded that just 100 less seconds of Westbrook "proved to be the most important 100 seconds of the game" while Hanneke points out this:
Among two-man lineups, Westbrook and Durant rank 6th in the NBA in +/-.....

then adds
The Thunder's net rating with both on the floor is +16.9. In offensive rating, KD and Russ rank 5th behind four Warriors duos. In net rating, they rank 9th, behind five Warriors duos and four Cavs duos. In field goal percentage, they're 4th, behind three Warriors duos. Field goals made? 2nd, behind Steph/Draymond.

Chris acknowledges there is a downside.

The suck

The biggest barrier to the argument that the Thunder isn't totally screwed with Russ and KD on the bench must be pointed out, and that's the Thunder lineup without them - the one that gets Twitter up in arms. The furor is definitely warranted, as the rotation that has played the most often of Augustin/Kanter/Nick Collison/Anthony Morrow/Dion Waiters produces an atrocious 93.8 offensive rating and 116.1 defensive rating for a truly hideous -22.3 net rating.

The choice

With that, we reach the ultimate question that Billy Donovan, his coaching staff, and every frustrated Twitter user must ask, and one that seemingly no one on National TV NBA Twitter ever seems to acknowledge:

Would you rather ensure that ugly basketball (no Russ or KD) never happens by increasing the amount of very good but sometimes not very good basketball (either Russ or KD) while minimizing the amount of stellar basketball (Russ & KD)?

Or

Would you rather maximize the amount of Russ & KD, even if it means for six minutes a night you may have some pretty awful basketball, knowing full well you'll still have a few minutes of one or other?

and concludes

Look, there's no way to defend that bench lineup. But, as we just saw, there's no guarantee that simply adding either Westbrook or especially, Durant, just magically fixes the problems with that unit. In fact, it's entirely possible that simply restructuring Ibaka's minutes so that he could be on the floor while Durant and Westbrook rest would be just as viable of a solution.

When put that way, it's not as simple as just saying, "One of them needs to be on the floor at all times." To have one on the floor at all times means to sacrifice five to eight minutes from your team when it is at its most productive, and the Thunder is never even close to as effective as when both Durant and Westbrook are on the floor.

Five to eight minutes isn't a small amount in an NBA game. Which is why it's not a problem if Russ or KD's minutes aren't staggered. It's fine for the Thunder to go without either for small stretches, because it's more important to make sure that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook maximize the amount of minutes they spend on the floor together.

Previously in Hanneke's post he showed the effects of one or both of the Thunder stars on the bench, but my focus is on the approximately 6 minutes per game points to that Donovan has the bench out on the floor in all their "naked" splendor.

I think the best argument in this debate, as is the case so often in life, lies somewhere in between. I see Slater's point and in Monday's win over the LA Clippers Donovan did reduce the time the Thunder were on the floor with neither of their superstars to just 3...


..... and I am pretty certain that Anthony Slater is feeling pretty vindicated as a result. But personally, I lean more toward the con side of the "staggered minutes" debate. Mind you I said lean, not totally support. Put me at 80% con, 20% pro;  because I see merit to both sides. So does Donovan, and I believe I see what Donovan is trying to do via his rotation choices and both Hanneke and Slater helped paint the picture.

Both writers see the problem. It is Hanneke's "The Suck". The bench is comprised of cast offs from bad teams, a wise but aging veteran, a passionate yet flawed youngster, some rookies, and a sharp-shooter with questionable defensive skills. They have not clicked together and Hanneke has the numbers to prove it.

Slater wants Donovan to use his superstars to cover for the bench while Hanneke wants to bury their "atrocious" numbers under a rug of more excellent minutes of KD and Russell on the floor together. Monday against the Clippers, Slater was right. Staggering probably saved the day. But roughly 75 to 80% of the teams the Thunder will face aren't as good as the Clippers. And thus the need to stagger will not be as important. Then Hanneke's 6 raw (no Russ or KD on the floor) bench minutes will be a much better option. Thus, both Slater and Hanneke are partially right and wrong.

A Donovan quote regarding the stats and staggering his big gun's minutes from Slater's article:

"It's something that we'll definitely look into and evolve into," Donovan said of staggering earlier this month. "I'm aware of those (bad) numbers. But at the same point, too, getting some consistency off our bench is important in terms of the long run."
(emphasis mine)

I would go so far as to say that getting some consistency off our bench is imperative in terms of the "long run", but Donovan is exactly right to think in those terms.

Donovan is fully aware of the numbers Slater is suggesting to correct the Thunder's "current" problem. They are basically the same as Hanneke's and the same ones his team of experts are crunching around the clock as well as "many many" others. (my apologies for the cheesy use of the double adjective, I picked up on Donovan's habit of using them when he really wants to stress a point in his first interview as Thunder coach and after all, I am stating a case supporting his rotation decisions)

The flaw in Hanneke's option is the same with any repetitive action, if you don't use it, you lose it. When the playoffs roll around Donovan will be using Slater's approach more often than not because Westbrook and Durant's minutes will go up. Donovan has to keep those mixed rotations (bench plus KD or Russell) sharp. Tough games against the top quality playoff teams the Thunder may face in the post-season are the best games to do it.

My guess is that if presented with Hanneke's argument after the Clipper game Donovan would alter his former response to something like, "I'm aware of those (good) numbers. But at the same point, too, sacrificing some of those premium minutes at key moments in the regular season could mean the difference in winning vs losing a big playoff game."

Thus my belief that the the answer Donovan seeks lies somewhere in:


A fifth dimension beyond that which is known to fans. It is a dimension as vast as spacing and as endless as advanced stats. It is that middle ground between success and failure, between science and guesswork, and it lies between the pit of those fans fears and their hope in Donovan's knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination that finds Donovan in an area in which I call "The NBA Rotation Zone".

The truth is, Donovan has a workable solution. But Slater's solution is not a solution at all, it's a patch. In all fairness to Anthony, there are times when you need a patch to get you where you want to go as we saw in the Clipper game, and in the playoffs. But before you take off cross country, it is better to fix a problem before you embark, not just patch it.

Former coach Scott Brooks liberally applied Slater's staggering method once the team became contenders, especially in regard to KD. I have no doubt that way before this point in the season Brooks would be staggering Durant and Westbrook's minutes like a drunken sailor blowing all his pay on a weekend pass for instant regular season gratification and looking at tomorrow as tomorrow to be dealt with when it comes.

Patch, patch, patch, patch, patch... and the Thunder might have a few more wins as a result. Unfortunately, the problem with the patch Slater offers is the same as any patched up job, and would eventually leads to one of the big problems Brooks was encountering in the playoffs, the patch fails and your left with the original problem. As stated Donovan is looking for a solution for the "long run", the playoffs, and I think I see his plan. It's a 2 part plan that employs some of Slater's solution and a lot of Hanneke's.

Part 1: "Patching" KD and Westbrook's minutes


Take a look at these numbers:

KD's Per Game stats under Brooks- regular season:


Playoff


KD's numbers, IMO, are very telling here. KD's shot percentage goes down during the playoffs during 2012-13 and 2013-14. The amount is slight, but it is across the board and there was a universal perception that KD was tiring throughout the run of the 2014 playoffs. Do you see it? The patch beginning to fail... and had the Thunder won game 6 of the WCF's, there still would have been a game 7 and a possible Finals with Lebron James and the Heat on the horizon.

Now look at KD's strongest playoff season, the 2011-12 run to the NBA Finals. Only one more playoff game than 2013-14, but the shooting percentages are all up. Why? Look at the GP (games played) stat in the regular season. It was the strike shortened season and he only played 62 games in the regular season vs 81 in the next 2.

Look at KD's playoff minutes every year. Up from the regular season as one would expect them to be in the playoffs, but unlike 2012, the patch wasn't as strong in 2014 as the Thunder would like. If the argument is presented that more opposing defensive intensity explains the numbers dropping, then explain why they went up in 2012.

Look at KD's regular season line this year under Donovan:


KD's minutes are at a career low. Donovan is investing into the KD Playoff Minutes "Patch" account. In 21 games this season, Donovan has already banked 67.2 minutes of valuable KD playing time. Extend that over 81 games and by playoff time Donovan will have saved 259.2 valuable minutes. If a run to the playoffs takes say.... 24 games, that's 10.8 minutes of extra "quality vs tired" patch minutes. And Donovan is getting interest on his investment because we are talking about something that has an accumulative effect, fatigue. The effects of fatigue carry over to the next minute, and then those fatigued minutes combined carry over to the next, and so on and so forth.

Westbrook's Per Game stats under Brooks - regular season:


Playoff


Now let's look at one more set of numbers:


Those are Russell's per game stats this year. Compared with previous seasons it does not appear that Donovan is banking any "patch" minutes with Westbrook....or is he? Billy D knows the numbers better than Slater does. The way Donovan is storing minutes with Russell is by not caving into applying Slater's short-sighted patch any more than absolutely necessary. If Brooks saw the Thunder's numbers with Russell on the bench I can only imagine what his minuted played would look like now.

Russell is an amazing athlete, "The Terminator". A seemingly unstoppable cybernetic organism. A machine with a finely tuned racing engine. But even a machine has a wearing out or failure point and a finely tuned racing engine has a red line on the tach that you should never go past. Russ has been able to maintain his energy and production throughout the playoffs averaging 34 to 35 minutes a game. So Donovan is marking that as the red line on the tach. Don't risk losing what Russell has been able to do in the playoffs in the past by pushing too hard on the accelerator today.

Sure, it is entirely possible Russell could handle more minutes and still produce in the playoffs as before, but then you have to consider time in a different way. This also applies in KD's case. I hate to even bring this up because I am the most superstitious person you will ever meet and after last season I try not to even think the "I" word much less write it.... and.... nope, I ain't gonna. You either know what I'm talking about or not, lol. Suffice it to say that for every minute a player is on the floor the odds for sustaining the "I" word increase. Recent history shows, If one of these two go down the party is over.

(forgive me oh basketball gods, I will never think "it" again)

To summarize Part 1, When playing weaker teams Billy D is saving minutes that Slater wants him to use to patch the current problem for the playoffs. Using those patch minutes just enough to keep those rotations sharp, possibly win a few tough games, and gather intel in the form of game film for possible future use. That qualifies as a "long run" approach.

Part 2: Improving "The Suck" the hard way

Let's take the 6 minutes of raw bench playing time Hanneke wrote about and say Donovan can do that against 75% of the teams in the league, that is 62 games or 372 minutes. Now let's apply the 3 minutes we see in the Popcorn Machine game flow for the Clippers game and apply that to the remaining 20 games and we get 60 more minutes for a total of 432 minutes.

Donovan is counting on a combination of practice and 432 raw bench minutes will be enough for "The Suck" to improve. Not be snapped perfect, just improve and develop "some consistency". If only 2 bench players improve, then only 2 of them improve. But it is better to go into the playoffs with 2 improved players and rested superstars with something in the tank than with 2 worn out patches and "The Suck".

That's the Pops way, the Pops Principle if you will, of handling a problem in the the best way. That is one of the primary reasons the Spurs go into each playoff season with seemingly unlimited depth to work with. Fix the problem, don't patch it or white wash over it. Pops' focus during the season is working on what he doesn't know, or what his team doesn't have and fixing it. Pop doesn't obsess over seeing or worrying what anyone in the media has to say and he has been doing it for almost 20 years. Pops' focus is always on the "long run".

The Pops Principle of fixing a problem versus patching one even applies for those rotations Donovan tries that light up the comments sections with "WHAT IS HE DOING?!?". Desperate times call for desperate measures and a -22.3 net sounds like the definition of desperate times to me. Sometimes you just have to throw something against the wall to see if it sticks. My Dad used to have a saying, "sometimes it is better to be lucky than good" and let's face some facts and I don't have to name names. We see from Hanneke's post what happens when Russell sits down and Donovan is leaving no stone un-turned looking for a solution.

Keep that in mind the next time a rotation is on the floor that seems to defy logic. Donovan can't wait for Presti to pull off a miracle trade that fixes "The Suck" for him. At this point he has to go on the premise that what you see is what you get and make the best of it. Just because the ESPN Trade Machine says the money works out doesn't mean some GM out there is going to say, "sure Sam, I'll trade my good player for your "Suck" player because that is what I do, I am in the giving business."

So rather than wasting irreplaceable minutes applying a patch that he already knows will work and ultimately wearing it out, Billy the kid is taking a ton of heat for doing the only thing that has any hope of improving the "real" problem. He is putting it on the line and risking a win or two,or three, by making the bench go out there alone as much as possible and take their lumps. Making them accountable and letting them fall down then get up and do it again, and again, and again.

Repetition is the fastest route to improvement and I point to Brooks' first season in Oklahoma City as proof. When Brooks had no alternative in 2008 but to constantly and persistently play the two players Slater is calling for more minutes from today, they improved and quickly. The record may not show it, but anyone that watched every game that season like I did knows the truth. Harden? Same story the following season. Obviously, the bench isn't manned with players of that caliber so the need for repetition, and patience, is even greater.

There is really no getting around the cold hard fact that practice will only go so far. At the end of the day, if a coach want a player to improve as quick as possible, there is no substitute for playing time.

Donovan is rolling the dice, pushing the envelope and any other cliche you can think of trying to squeeze every second and investing every possession possible of additional playing time into his bench with two goals in mind. Improving Hanneke's "Suck" and saving as much of Slater's patch as he can for the playoffs. In the playoffs, every opponent and every game you play will require every advantage Donovan may gather from.....  "The NBA Rotation Zone".