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Thunder Small Ball Doesn’t Exist, and Six Other Lineup Myths

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Myths stand in the way of solutions, so we must break them!

This is not a small lineup.
This is not a small lineup.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Things are going well in Thunderland, but those watching closely have good reason to worry that the team is way off the pace of the Warriors and Spurs. Some glaring weaknesses in Thunder lineups have been apparent from opening night, and trimming Kyle Singler out of the rotation didn’t expunge the bench’s demons. I agree with Marina: something needs to change.

Here are some myths that could impede the necessary changes:

Myth #1: 55 wins and a ticket to the playoffs is all the shot you need so long as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy

It might turn out okay if the Thunder play at this level all year, but it’s a shaky proposition. The Thunder know better than anyone that injuries to key pieces happen in the postseason. It’s understandable that the Thunder have collapsed without Durant and Westbrook down the stretch in recent years, but their inability to withstand Serge Ibaka’s temporary absence in the 2014 playoffs ago shouldn’t be far from memory. That was the same year that both Steven Adams and Reggie Jackson played surprisingly heroic roles in desperate playoff games. It was also the same year that Jeremy Lamb’s development was inexplicably cut-off. Derek Fisher played 32 minutes in the Thunder’s elimination game, the washed 39-year-old guarding Tim Duncan in crucial overtime stretches.

The stakes are high. It’s not enough for the stars to star. The rotation will shorten in the postseason, but how it shapes up before then can be the difference between a Finals appearance and a first round exit.

Myth #2: The starters are good and the bench is horrible

This is the toughest myth to debunk, as the numbers and games have both shown that the starting lineup crushes opponents while the reserves hemorrhage leads. The reason the starters are dominant is largely because Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka are dominant; this has been true for multiple seasons.

But every single Thunder player on the bench played better last season, excluding rookie Cameron Payne and Dion Waiters, who has been slightly less of a disaster in 2015-16 (still bad). Unless the entire pack of reserves are lemons (average age 27, excluding Payne and DNPers Steve Novak and Josh Huestis), at least a few of them should be performing much better than they are. A trade or two would be welcome, but the Thunder clearly have a situational and/or developmental coaching problem a third of the way through the season. Having said that…

Myth #3: This is the deepest Thunder team since the Harden era

This pre-season myth has already evaporated, but the roster construction of GM Sam Presti needs discussing. As I said above, I’m not convinced that these bench players are as terrible as it seems. But in the 35-point Lakersblowout, every bench regular had a negative +/- for the game, while every starter was at least at +33. The 5-man all-reserves unit (D.J. Augustin, Waiters, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison, Enes Kanter) managed in 8 minutes of the same game to kept their inefficient -22.1 rating humming like a gas guzzling SUV in the summertime. A bunch of good players don’t produce so poorly.

Donovan is spreading minutes around as if the team is deep. Six players are averaging between 13-25 minutes a night, including starters Roberson and Steven Adams. That means Kanter and Morrow are playing below their career averages while other guys play more than they should.

Part of the drop-off in production is due to how poorly the bench complements the starters. I wrote this about the Lakers thumping:

...the Thunder reminded us why they’re great and why they’re probably the same team we’ve known for years. This team doesn’t win with basketball IQ and precision the way the sexy Spurs or Warriors are doing. They pummel their opponents, overwhelming them with size, aggressiveness, and try-and-stop-me individual scoring.

Every starter is a prototypical Thunder built for that style of play: long, tall, and athletic. Durant and Westbrook are obviously at the heart of their success and style, but Andre Roberson is a good barometer for whether they’re playing their game well. The Thunder are 4-0 when Roberson scores 8 or more points. Some of that is due to him getting more minutes in blowouts, but other than the "small ball" eviscerating in Memphis, Thunder blowouts have been ignited by overpowering runs from the starting unit featuring Roberson at shooting guard.

Roberson provides zero spacing and never drives the offense, but he fits with what makes the team unstoppable at times—getting blocks, steals, and rebounds with length, getting downhill in transition in an instant, and benefiting from chaotic, broken defenses for easy buckets in the half court.

The Thunder reserves are not like that. D.J. Augustin, Enes Kanter, and Anthony Morrow have nowhere near the length and explosiveness of the average Thunder athletic freak. Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, Cameron Payne and Mitch McGary have better size and grit, but the first two are usually bad enough on offense to negate their defensive contributions, and the latter two are raw defensively (and out of the rotation).

Myth #4: Thunder Small Ball Exists

Fans have clamored for more "small ball" from the Thunder before and after Billy Donavan employed it in the Grizzlies-slaying explosion back in early December. Donavan clearly views this as an emergency unit, something to use sparingly. Presumably, the Thunder want to limit the minutes Durant has to bang in the post. This is ludicrous.

Durant is listed at 6’9", but by many accounts is probably 7’. We’ll call him 6’11" for our purposes. He’s skinny, but that doesn’t make him "small". Dirk Nowitzki has survived at the 4 his entire career. The Mavericks find ways to limit both the wear on his body and the deficiencies in his post defense. There are not many teams with multiple post threats to begin with, let alone with enough punishment on the block to negate the blaze that is the Thunder’s offense on the other end of the court when Durant is the second big.

In reality, the Thunder are huge to begin with. They start three players north of 6’10", a 6’7" converted power forward at shooting guard, and a 6’3" point guard who happens to be one of the most powerful players in the league. Here is how the Thunder "small ball" lineup compares to Nylon Calculus’s league-wide size averages from a year ago:

This backcourt and frontcourt are in fine shape against most every team they’d face, even if the opposing coach didn’t counter with a less typical group. The only thing you can legitimately call "small" is Anthony Morrow at small forward, but giving up a few inches on the wing is not the same as sacrificing significant height down low.

Draymond Green (6’7") is a proper small ball center. Durant at center would be small ball, and that would be a truly progressive experiment were Donavan to give it a go. Toying with a 6’11" shooter at power forward, only when you’re back is to the wall, is regressive in today’s NBA.

Myth #5: Staggering is only about Durant and Westbrook.

Regardless of exactly how long Durant or Westbrook are on the court without the other, they need to be paired with the most effective reserves in their time as lone superstars. A glaring example is Enes Kanter, who has been useless when paired with Waiters (2.5 net rating) or Augustin (-2.0 net rating) but amazing alongside Westbrook (+15.9 net rating). Yet, Kanter has played 805 minutes with Waiters/Augustin and just 243 minutes with Westbrook. Nick Collison should not be filtering into the game before Kanter, but that routinely happens, squandering precious minutes Kanter and Westbrook could be picking and rolling opponents to death.

Morrow makes much more sense as a weapon alongside Durant and Westbrook than Waiters, but he’s played alongside them 87 measly minutes, usually subbing in to start the second quarter and fourth quarter when both are on the bench. Waiters has played with the duo three times as much, and Augustin has played with Durant more than Morrow.

These gaps are bizarre for a team that has insisted on using a starting lineup/sixth man stagger for years. The starters have only appeared together three times in fourth quarters this season, and only when Roberson subs in and out for defense/offense possession changes. There is a very clear philosophy in managing those tradeoffs and pace from the shooting guard position throughout the game—why does every other position seem so random?

Myth #6: Nick Collison is still a good player

Augustin’s nosedive has been well documented, but the beloved Mr. Thunder has mostly escaped criticism.

Collison looks his age (35). He’s turning the ball over almost 30% of the time he touches it, a huge spike above his 15.5% career rate. His offense is gone, tracking toward his second consecutive season shooting under 50% from the field (a mark he’d never dipped below until last season). I hate to say it, but he’s becoming an even taller Derek Fisher than Caron Butler was. He’s there to babysit Kanter on defense and provide those veteran intangibles that coaches love, but again, it’s not working.

Collison won’t sniff the playoff rotation if the Thunder are in a good place at that time. So why not work on developing someone who could have one of those crucial games like Adams and Jackson a couple years ago? The pat answer is defense, and McGary is no rim protector. But it’s a bogus concern, since the 5-man unit Collison is anchoring has a 115.9 defensive rating, 6.5 points worse than the league-worst Lakers defense. Preserving the status quo should be a non-starter for a team that can’t hang with the reserves of those dismal Lakers.

Myth #7: This is rocket science.

I don’t want to downplay how much ego-management and off-court preparation goes into coaching an NBA team. But we’re talking rotations. Donavan did a lot of experimenting early in the year, but his tweaking involved heavy doses of Singler, who has been an all-time terrible player all season. He’s started tweaking again, using a handful of lineups against the Clippers featuring Singler.

While random fans in the comments section couldn’t run a team, they have managed to reach consensus on some of these basic, objective issues before Donavan: Benching Singler. Trusting small ball. Soon enough, giving Payne enough of Augustin’s minutes to see whether this season’s backup PG is on the roster or out in the trade acquisition wilderness.

It appears that Donavan is trying to shoehorn backups into roles that will keep the Thunder big and stable on defense, but it isn’t working. There is an easy, simple change that would at least reduce the current problems:

Play the better players more. Don’t play the worst players as much. Do you want a wing that can play physical defense and spot up/do nothing on offense? Play Andre Roberson more, not Singler. Want a similar dynamic in the post? Roll with Steven Adams longer, not Collison. Want your primary ballhandler to have a prayer of staying in front of his man? Use Waiters as an actual bench piece (instead of virtual starter) over Augustin. And for goodness sakes, give one of the game’s best three-point shooters (Morrow) more minutes than Jason Terry, Chase Budinger, and Anthony Tolliver are getting from other playoff contenders this season.

While there are nifty lineups out there that would be very interesting to see, shoring up the current rotation doesn’t require rocket science. The good news for Thunder fans: there are very doable things to make things better. The bad news: they aren't being done.