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Thunder woes, muscle memory, swinging a bat, and the challenge of change

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How difficult is it to change? As easy as swinging a baseball bat.

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Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder are currently reeling after dropping their last 2 games and kicking off the season with what some consider a disappointing 11 and 8 start. Many fans are questioning whether or not the coaching change in April was such a good idea and those who were against the move in the first place are already beginning to ramp up with the "I told you so's." Well here is an "I told you so" from me:

Obviously, expectations are high, but there is no way to know how successfully Billy D transitions to the pros until the Thunder take the court. The odds would seem to be in Billy D's favor, but any time a team goes into a season with a new coach there are questions. For example, can he motivate Kanter to work on his defense and get Waiters to make better decisions? How will the Thunder's core of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka respond to a different voice running the team?

R.K. Anthony, August 8, 2015

I was right, expectations were high, probably too high, and the comment section to that post reflected those lofty hopes and I went on to write that my heart was guilty of the same thing. So in a sense, this is also an 'I told you so' to myself as well as a reality check.

As hard as some may find it to believe, there is some good news to report. Enes Kanter is in fact working to become a better defensive player and for the most part, Dion Waiters is making better decisions. That final question...."How will the Thunder's core of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka respond to a different voice running the team?".... is much more complicated and to be perfectly honest, the jury is still out on that one. Overall, I feel like the team is heading in a positive direction.  I think Donovan would tell you the same thing. And yet, we still see team-wide struggles with the changes. At times the team looks confused and completely out of sorts on both ends of the court, and confusion leads to forcing things and reverting to bad habits. Some critics have even gone so far as to say the team does not look any different than before.

I would like to address my last statement. To do that, let's talk about baseball.

Muscle Memory

(from Wikipedia)

Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, typing in a PIN, playing a musical instrument, or martial arts.

(emphasis mine)

"Allowing it to be performed without conscious effort," or in other words, done without the need to think about it first.

The list of activities from Wiki could include swinging a baseball bat. When my son was growing up, he played catcher and he was good. No, that is an understatement. Josh was a natural behind the plate. He was born to wear the "tools of ignorance," the term used for a catcher's gear.

I love that picture.

How good was he?

That's how good my boy was.

Not only was Josh an excellent ballplayer, he was the most dedicated athlete I have ever had the privilege to know, and I am not just saying that because he is my boy. When the first quality hitting instructor told him that he would need to swing the bat 500 times every day to correct a bad habit, he did it. Every day, sun or snow, hot or cold, rain or shine, for 12 years.

Josh has his own kids now and his playing days are well behind him, but if there is a bat around, he picks it up and starts swinging it. Some habits never die.

In baseball, unless you're a pitcher, the highest  epsilons for men and women is through hitting. Whether it be a NCAA Division I manager or a professional coach, the first question they ask about a potential prospect is, "Can they hit?" Bottom line: if a player can do the hardest thing in sports, which is to hit a round ball with a round bat, they can write their own ticket. If not, they better focus on their text  books.

My son dreamed of playing in the majors one day but he never got the chance, and it is my fault. More precisely, it was a well-meaning small town high school baseball coach's fault for teaching bad swing mechanics to my own father in 1955, and I became the carrier of bad mechanics and passed them along to my son. You know how the story goes; a "my father taught me, I taught my son, my son battled to overcome both of us his entire baseball career" kind of thing.

What is ironic is how simple the flaw was. It was Josh's feet. My Dad was taught to step into the ball, which is correct, but his coach left out the vital element of  allowing the back foot to rotate.  I passed on that fatal flaw when I first taught my son to hit a baseball. As a result, Josh dragged his back foot, his hips were not rotating properly, and his head and body slid through the hitting zone, which further triggered other flaws in his swing mechanics.

When teaching youngsters how to properly hit a baseball, many instructors tell them to "kill the bug," or "squish the bug" under their back foot. The idea is to imagine that the biggest, ugliest, toughest bug they have ever seen is under their back foot and merely stepping on it is not enough to kill it, they have to squish it by rotating their foot. Otherwise, the bug gets away.

If a hitter fails to squish that bug, or more accurately, fails to allow the back foot to rotate, it prevents their hips from turning properly. The hitter then tends to slide through the hitting zone rather than rotating, or justs swing with their arms, losing all of their explosiveness. Try it. Stand up and swing an imaginary bat without turning your back foot. Then do it again and this time "squish that bug" and feel how it releases your hips so they can freely rotate. Here is a video from mikescottbaseball of that teaching method. Pay paricular attention to the part where Mike demonstrates what a batter does to compensate for not rotating the foot. That is what Josh's swing looked like after I screwed it up:

For those of you reading this that have a broader knowledge of the proper baseball swing, you know that too much focus on merely "squishing the bug," or rotating the back foot too early, prevents a hitter from creating a proper weight shift to their front leg... but I can tell you from first hand experience that never rotating the back foot is much worse.

I found this video from John Madden's that demonstrates what a pro player's feet, specifically the back foot, and knees do during the baseball swing. John focuses the viewer's attention on the back foot action and knees. I want you to focus on what the knee and feet are doing to the player's hips. FYI, John says the hitter is "Javi" Gomez of the Houston Astros, but I am fairly certain he is talking about Carlos Gomez:

Let's focus on two frames from this video:

In this first frame the hitters weight has been transferred from the back foot to the front foot. Notice that the front foot is already pointing forward (if you want to fall on your butt, try swinging a bat into a closed front foot). Imagine that the white line is a rod that is running up through the hitter's spine located above the hips. Now look at the second frame:

The swing is almost complete, the ball is gone, and the hitter's spine has rotated perfectly around the rod. The back foot is now pointing forward, the front knee has straightened as a result of the hitter's leg driving the front side of his hips around and back, accelerating the hip as it rotates through the hitting zone.

Two basic principles of physics apply to what we just looked at; centripetal force and acceleration... but I will let the Sheldon Coopers out there discuss that in more detail. Suffice it to say, if you have ever felt that zing in your hands after hitting a baseball or a golf ball, it was probably because you hit the ball while your bat or club was decelerating. Furthermore, if no matter how hard you swing your bat or club, you can not get past that 300 yard barrier or get one over the fence, it is probably because your hips are sliding through the hitting zone preventing you from accelerating your swing enough.

Look at the back of Gomez's foot at the finish of this home run swing. This is where the "squish the bug" concept came from. The hitter's foot has rotated and I don't think a bug would survive, but now we know that his foot first came forward, then rotated and is in this position in order to catch the force generated by his front leg straightening.

In order to hit a 95 mile per hour fastball, everything I've just written for you takes place in a fraction less than 4 tenths of a second. The time to finish executing the swing properly after a player decides to hit the ball is less than half of that. Suffice it to say, once the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, a batter does not have time to think about a hitting drill. They have either put in the work and developed good mechanics or muscle memory, or they haven't.

While Josh struggled with his swing, by contrast, he knew how to throw. That unnamed 1955 High School baseball coach I spoke of earlier, unnamed because I don't know his name, and my Dad passed away 8 years ago, he knew how to throw. According to my Dad, this unnamed coach had been a pitcher. He never could hit worth a lick, but threw hard enough to make it to the minor leagues back in his day. I started teaching Josh proper throwing mechanics from the day I realized that a ball was his preferred toy when he was 2 years old, and as you saw in his video clip, the kid had a gun that never failed him.

True story. The  first game Josh caught behind the plate in a "competitive league" park resulted in coaches asking me if Josh would be interested in playing for them and handing me their cards. A friend of mine told me to contact a guy named Denny Porter and said he was the coach Josh should play for.  I called Denny, and It was the best thing I ever did to help Josh develop his catching skills.

Does the name Denny Porter ring a bell? I'm not talking about Darrell Porter, the former Kansas City Royal and World Series and MVP winning St. Louis Cardinal Darrell Porter, I'm talking about his younger brother Denny. Denny is mentioned briefly in the book, "Snap Me Perfect! The Darrell Porter Story," where he tried to follow in his brother's footsteps. In fact, Denny always said he was a better defensive catcher than his brother and made it all the way to the Double A level in the Kansas City organization, but ultimately ran into the same roadblock as Josh. Denny's swing was flawed and he hit his ceiling. Darrell's swing was also flawed, but hard-working talent and a great eye were enough to overcome them. Think of Shawn Marion's shot mechanics and you can get a pretty good idea of the Porter boys' swing.

Denny and I became very close friends and talked hitting mechanics for hours on end. One day, Denny told me a sobering truth. He said learning something right the first time is relatively easy, but re-learning it is an entirely different matter. He told me that from the day he began his pro career until the day he quit, his coaches tried to correct the flaws in his swing. The problem was always time. He would work on what his coaches told him to do, but then step back in the batter's box and fail. He said in order to play, he would give up on the new mechanics he was taught and go back to his old style. Further, he admitted he did not work on his swing mechanics during the off-season and in the end, it became apparent he didn't have what it took to get to the next level. Denny walked away.

What I have learned since then is that Denny was caught in a transition period. A muscle memory transition if you will. His mind and body struggling back and forth between the old way and the new way. His brain knew what to do but his muscles kept trying to execute the same way they had countless times in the past. He could apply the new mechanics at the hitting tee or in batting practice, but in the split second after the ball left the pitcher's hand, under pressure, his muscles would betray him. He couldn't hit the ball.

The transition period from doing something wrong to doing something right varies from one individual to the next. Bad habits have a tendency to show up at the worst times, sometimes with devastating results. In Josh's case, it happened during his sophomore season at Clarendon College. We were playing a team from El Paso and Josh was hitting the ball better than he had ever hit it in his life. Clarendon's head coach at the time, Matt Vanderburg, is an outstanding hitting instructor and the Division I coaches were beginning to take notice of Josh. El Paso's pitcher threw what is known in baseball circles as a heavy fastball. His fastball sank and tailed away from the hitter.

The count was even at 2 and 2 and the pitcher aimed for the lower corner of the plate. In that split second when a batter has to decide whether to let the pitch go by or attempt to foul off a possible called strike three, Josh hesitated for a fraction of a second and then chose to foul the pitch off. Under the pressure of the moment, he executed a bad swing and hit the ball with a decelerating blow at the very end of the bat. That zing I mentioned earlier that you feel when you hit the ball with a decelerating swing? It is magnified the farther away from the hands that contact occurs. The vibration in this case was so strong it bruised the hamate bone in Josh's wrist. The bruising was sever enough to result in swelling, which irritated the ulnar nerve, and unless Josh hit a ball perfectly his arm would temporarily go numb.

His batting average plummeted and the D-I coaches stopped calling. An attempt to reclaim his career at a Division II school failed when Josh's coach took another job, his replacement didn't know what he was doing, and Josh walked away from the game a year after the wrist injury. Eleven years of hard work, but those bad habits were still hiding inside. What I wouldn't have traded 25 years ago for the information at my fingertips on the internet today... but enough of bad memories.

The point is, poor fundamentals, even ones that are practically invisible to the untrained eye, are the bane of every athlete's existence, and muscle memory transition is always difficult. Even the mighty Tiger Woods is not immune to muscle memory transition. When he hired Butch Harmon as his swing coach in 1997, Tiger slumped. That is, he slumped until he won 8 tournaments in 1999, including the PGA Championship. Harmon was replaced by Hank Haney in 2003. Woods did not win a tournament for 2 years and lost his record his #1 ranking after holding it for a record 264 weeks. Haney was replaced by Sean Foley in 2010. Another coach and, you guessed it, another slump. Woods and Foley parted ways last year and now Woods is coaching himself. Age and injuries are  obviously playing a role now, but again, new coach (himself) and another slump.

Are the Thunder doomed?

You might have read to this point about the figurative and literal painful lessons of bad fundamentals and think that such flaws might very well doom the Thunder. However, contrary to what you might think, the future is bright for the Thunder. They just have to keep working. And that goes from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on down the line, because everyone is susceptible to the initial negative effects of muscle memory transition.

To a man, the Thunder too are going through a transition period while learning new head coach Billy Donovan's new schemes. Their core of Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison have spent the last seven seasons playing the game a certain way. They are seeing the same things they have always seen since Scott Brooks took over the team in 2008. The difference now is that  they are being taught, "no, you do not do that any more, you do this" and just like Denny's muscle memory betrayed him at the plate, the team's collective muscle memory is causing confusion on the court. The manifestation of that betrayal in Denny's case was striking out. For the Thunder, it is showing up in the form of excessive turnovers, missed defensive assignments, late game execution, as well as practically every complaint I have recently read about.

Furthermore, you have the injuries. Durant missed most of last season, including time to get to know his newer teammates, and then missed 6 games this season with an injured hamstring. Steven Adams, the team's best screener, has missed playing time with a back issue, and judging by the ice pack I see him wearing, is still not 100 percent. Both injuries have impacted the Thunder's re-learning curve.

The pressure generated by the success of last season's Golden State Warriors must feel like a curse to Donovan. Everything this Thunder team does, or more accurately does not do, is invariably compared with Steve Kerr's success as first year coach of the NBA Champion Warriors. Personally, I think that is a totally unfair comparison as well as being unrealistic and I am primed and ready to prove it... so hang on.

We will never know how the Warriors would have fared last year had Stephen Curry missed the majority of the 2013-14 season and then came back to a team in which half the rotational players were new. Nor will we ever know what the result would have been had Curry missed a third of the team's first 19 games because the Warriors went thru Kerr's maiden season virtually injury free. As a result of these and an even more important point that I will make later, the Warriors kicked off the 2014-15 season with a sparkling 17 and 2 record.

A more accurate comparison for this Thunder team is the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. David Blatt was in his first season as head coach and Lebron James had never played with the current roster. Under those circumstances, after 19 games, the Cavs' record was 12 and 7. How many of Cleveland's first nineteen games did Lebron miss? None. And those Cavs made it all the way to the NBA Finals.

Here is a stat I bet no one remembers. The Warriors began last season 7 and 2...

NO! Not that stat, this one: 153.

After winning their first five games, the Warriors lost back to back games by double digits. Their first loss was on November 9th, a twelve point beat down on the road by the Phoenix Suns. Two days later, the San Antonio Spurs handed the Warriors their heads at home, winning by 13, and the aging Spurs did it while playing the second night of a back-to-back. The loss prompted Steve Kerr to say this after the game:

"I retired 12 years ago, and the same three top players and the same coach are still over there, I mean, it's insane...

and added:

"I wish they would just go away...."

We all do coach... we all do...

More to the point of this post, Kerr went on to say:

"I think tonight was the perfect example of the team that's been together forever. They know each other like the back of their hands. They've been through every war. They've been through every scenario. They know how to execute. And we've been together six weeks with this coaching staff and our players."

Coincidentally, what was long-time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's assessment of the Warrior's performance at that time?

"The turnovers are killing them..."

Ahhh... I'm going to miss Pop's warmth when he retires, but as usual, he was right. The Warriors committed 19 turnovers that night and a mind boggling 26 in the Phoenix loss. In fact, after 7 games, the Warriors gave away the ball 153 times!! In the Thunder's first seven games they have committed 125 turnovers. Still too high, but 17.85 times per game vs 21.85?!? Wow.

The point is, even Steve Kerr's magical season suffered from the effects of transition. Roster continuity and lack of injuries may have carried the day in the end, but there were still some warts on that frog in the beginning that most people don't remember.

Here is that key factor I mentioned earlier that worked in the Warriors favor last season: former head coach Mark Jackson gave the team a solid defensive identity. Jackson took over the club in 2011 after the Warriors finished the previous season ranked 26th in defensive efficiency. After three years under Jackson's leadership, that rank jumped to 3rd. (No team has won an NBA Championship with a defense ranked lower than 10th in the past 15 years, further only 2 teams have ever done it in the 37 years that the Defensive Efficiency (DE) stat has been recorded).

I have never been Steve Kerr's biggest fan, but he knew Jackson had started something at Golden State that needed to continue. After being named the Warriors new coach on May 14th, 2014, Kerr sought out the assistance of defensive guru Ron Adams and hired him to run his defense. Thunder fans should remember Adams. He joined the Thunder's coaching staff when they moved to Oklahoma City prior to the 2008-09 season and remained until the end of following season. Adams took a young team that ranked 26th in defensive efficiency before he arrived and catapulted them to number 8 in just two seasons. Is it really that big a mystery why the Warriors finished as the top rated team in defensive efficiency (DE) last season?

In shocking contrast to the Warriors, the Thunder's DE plummeted from 5th in 2013-14 to 16th last season and that stat  isn't even as bad as it actually got. Prior to the February trade, the Thunder were giving up 101 points per 100 possessions, good enough to rank 10th in that category. A month after the trade, WTLC's Kevin Yeung wrote a post that showed the points per 100 possessions stat had ballooned to 105.7, dropping the team to 24th in the NBA. It only got worse from there.

Three days after Yeung's post, the Spurs decimated the Thunder's defense when they scored 130 points, and I wish that was the worst of it. Less than a week later, the Thunder scored 131 points.... and lost by 4 to the Mavericks. Even crazier, that 135-131 loss didn't even include an overtime period. 135 points in 48 minutes, and the Mavs only made 4 3-pointers the entire contest. That's how bad the defense was.

Now I ask you, is it really fair to compare Donovan's results to those of Steve Kerr when Kerr inherited a defense already worthy of an NBA Champion, while Donovan just landed on the RMS Titanic... after it hit the iceberg?

Let me help you... the answer is not no, the answer is HELL NO!!

Kerr bought into a car that needed a tune-up. The Thunder required a complete engine overhaul, especially on defense. Fortunately, I see numbers that say they are getting it. Their DE is currently 16th and rising. Yes, I know, they finished 16th last season, BUT their DE has improved from 103.1 to 100.7 and it was well above 105 not long ago. Offense? No improvement you say? Au contraire mon ami, OE, or offensive efficiency, has improved from last season's 104.5 to 106.8, second only to Kerr's Warriors, and while I'm not going to try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, the fact is that the Thunder has bumbled and stumbled the entire way while simultaneously giving the ball away like it is some sort of charitable duty and still attained that OE mark.

Of course there will be times the team will do the same things they did under Scott Brooks. I supported the coaching change but not because I thought that everything Brooks did was bad. The Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook high pick and roll is still one of the deadliest offensive combos in basketball. If it ain't broke, you don't fix it, you make the other team stop it. My problem with Brooks was there was wasn't much to go to once teams stopped our bread and butter set and I see Billy Donovan working to develop those sorts of options and the team trying to execute them. That is what he was hired to do.

One criticism I recently read said that Donovan appears passive. That could not be farther from the truth. Never confuse understanding and patience with being passive. There is a very simple explanation for Donovan's calm demeanor. He has seen this all before. One of my favorite lines comes from Dr. Phil when he will look at one of his guests who is questioning what he is saying and reply, "Hey, this is not my first rodeo."

Granted, this is Donovan's first year as an NBA coach, so do not misunderstand what I am saying. When I say he has seen this all before I am talking about his experience watching players learn a new system. After twenty-six years of dealing with hard-headed 18 year old freshman and watching them stumble around like bulls in a china closet, working with hard working, dedicated adults probably feels like a walk in the park. Thus the cool demeanor.

The machine known as the Oklahoma City Thunder is damaged. I know that. It is not running smoothly. How does it get fixed? Good question.

Answer: see Wiki's definition of muscle memory:

Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through REPETITION. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, EVENTUALLY allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.

(emphasis mine)

Repetition, or doing it RIGHT, over and over and over and over and over again, will EVENTUALLY allow this team to perform at maximum efficiency, under pressure, without having to think about every single step they take. Mistakes are going to be made, just like Denny striking out when he tried to use proper mechanics, but it is absolutely imperative that the team stays the course and does not go back to what was comfortable when things get rough. Such a reversion might look like an improvement, but it will only be temporary.  Ultimately, it will damage the process overall that is designed to get OKC back into the company of the league's elites.

Yes, what we are seeing does not pass the eye test much of the time, but the defensive and offensive efficiency numbers indicate it is working. As time goes by, those numbers should continue to improve as each member of the team becomes more and more comfortable with Donovan's system.

Change is hard. I know. My son knows. Every professional athlete knows. But the Thunder are changing. And I am VERY VERY encouraged.