The Oklahoma City Thunder have started their post-All-Star break play in a serious funk. In their last four games, they have lost three, including the embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a marquee Sunday afternoon game. The Thunder seemed to have had things pieces together heading into the All-Star festivities, so what has caused this recent downturn in play? I'll examine the role that head coach Billy Donovan has had in the Thunder's slow start to the second half of the season, taking an in-depth look at the main choices that came out of the games against Cleveland, Dallas and New Orleans.
CLEVELAND: Death Of The Bench Lineup
Sunday's game against the Cavaliers was a huge game on the NBA docket. Fresh off a week long All-Star break, capped with an exhibition game involving zero defense, it was time to get back to real basketball.
LeBron James versus Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving versus Russell Westbrook on a Sunday matinee. What could be better? Well for Thunder fans, a lot could've been better.
OKC's defense was still lackluster and the fiery pre-All-Star offense was left in the break as well.
After winning 40 of his first 54 games, Billy Donovan didn't make many changes to his coaching philosophy to begin the second half of the year. When you're winning 74 percent of your games, changes are an afterthought.
The game turned however when the Thunder, as usual, trotted out an all-bench lineup of Cameron Payne/Randy Foye/Anthony Morrow/Nick Collison/Enes Kanter to start the second quarter.
Cleveland would quickly take advantage of this and turned a one-point deficit into a four-point lead. That set the stage for a 35 point quarter for the Cavs, aided by the insertion of point power forward LeBron James into the game.
Donovan was going to go down with the SS Switch All Picks boat and with a facilitator and playmaker of LeBron's quality in possession of the ball he had free reign to pick apart OKC's defense.
Switch Randy Foye on him after a small-on-small screen? James would attack the rim, drawing either a foul or a help defender for an open kick out. Switch Serge Ibaka on him after a traditional pick-and-roll? James would find Kevin Love on the block ready to exploit his mismatch in the paint.
This is a game where the veteran presence of Monty Williams and Mo Cheeks on the bench was missed. The Thunder obviously came in with the game plan of switching all pick-and-rolls, which with Kyrie or Matthew Dellevadova running the point could be effective, but once James became the de facto point guard, it was clear that this method of defense was not the answer.
Williams and Cheeks could've been the voice of reason in the locker room, either addressing Donovan or coaching the players into better rotations/help defensively. Without them the switching continued and the Thunder's frustration showed as they sent Kevin Love to the free throw lines 14 times in just the third quarter alone.
Another interesting note that came out of Sunday's nightmare was The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry suggestion that OKC stat chases in games.
With the game well out of hand in the fourth quarter, Westbrook oddly checked back in the game. Mayberry shot off these series of tweets post game:
Meanwhile, gotta get Russ back in there in a 22-point blowout to get him that triple-double!!— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 21, 2016
Needed three boards for a triple-double in this one. Checks back in up 23. But they're not stat chasing, right? pic.twitter.com/zZxVasbEJU— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 22, 2016
At this point, I don't blame the individuals doing it. I blame the entire organization for fostering and enabling that mentality/culture.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 22, 2016
Billy Donovan unfortunately has bought in. Thought he'd do a better job with accountability. Now he's putting guys back in in blowouts.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 22, 2016
Imagine if consistent defensive effort was as extolled as stats. Wonder where this Thunder team would be then.— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 22, 2016
And it's not even about stats. It's about habits. Regular season is designed to build good habits for the playoffs. What are they building??— Darnell Mayberry (@DarnellMayberry) February 22, 2016
Definitely some food for thought. Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Wednesday that one of the reasons KD and Russ have bonded quickly with Donovan is that he has leaned on them due to their greater experience in the league. Is this stat chasing a result of the stars having too much of a say in what happens in OKC? Only time will tell.
DALLAS: Staggered Minutes!
Speaking of time, Russ and KD finally got their minutes staggered, THUNDER FANS REJOICE!
Andre Roberson also returned after missing the last month due to a knee injury, but the fact that Donovan has finally done what many have been calling for since the Scott Brooks era is the biggest takeaway from this game.
Donovan has gone to the staggered minutes in second halves of previous games, but the Dallas game was the first time he's used it for an entire game.
Durant came out six minutes in and then replaced Westbrook with three minutes left in the first quarter. Westbrook then replaced Durant with around 9:27 left in the second before KD reentered with 5:09 left and both remained on the court to close out the half.
I am a huge fan of this new pattern. First, it provides both stars with stretches where they can get into a rhythm offensively. Russ can attack the paint like a crash dummy and take as many pull up jumpers as he pleases without having to hear about why KD should be getting more shots. For Kevin, it gives him chance to morph back into the MVP Slim Reaper he was when Westbrook was sidelined for the 2013-14 season.
However OKC still keeps two of the five best players in the NBA on the court in tandem for the most important stretches of the game; the beginning of the game, the end of the first half, the start of the third and the final five minutes of the game.
This also takes pressure off players like Dion Waiters/Enes Kanter/Cameron Payne/Randy Foye to have to create offense for themselves. Instead, they are able to get better or more open looks because the opposing team having to still deal with stopping one of KD or Russ.
Donovan also introduced two new lineups to his rotation. He chose to go no point guard in the second quarter and have Waiters and Durant split ball handling duties and had Singler, Collison and Kanter out there with them. This is an interesting lineup that could counter one where teams--except Golden State--try to go small.
Having a shooting guard on either Singler/KD is a win for OKC as is having a point guard trying to stick with Waiters. Defensively Collison serves as the anchor with KD being the best perimeter choice and Singler/Waiters are adequate enough to hold their own against smaller players.
The other lineup Donovan debuted was a new small-ball grouping that saw Westbrook/Foye/Roberson/Durant/Ibaka share the floor together. This is a lineup I think we'll see more for the elite teams in the league. With Foye/Durant/Ibaka on the court their shooting will provide space for Westbrook to get to the paint and allow Roberson to be a slasher and hound the offensive glass.
On the other end it pairs your two best defenders (Ibaka and Roberson) with three above-average ones--KD and Russ can be great defenders when locked in, hopefully by the playoffs that will be the case. Though older, Foye could potentially switch onto point guards or OKC can slot him on the other team's worst perimeter player.
NEW ORLEANS: Lack Of Energy
Most of these breakdowns of Donovan's coaching have focused on lineups and rotations with the occasional X's and O's talk added in. However, none of those things was the main takeaway from last night's debacle in the Bayou.
Coming off a game against the Mavericks, the Thunder never seemed to have the necessary energy and focus it takes to win NBA games on a nightly basis.
Despite a 32-point first quarter, OKC seemed like it was just going through the motions. Especially considering it allowed the Pelicans to score 35 points in that same quarter despite missing 5 key contributors.
Anthony Davis is a transcendent player and has talent oozing out of him, but giving up 16 points in a quarter to any player is not a good start to any game. It also speaks to just how poor the Thunder have been playing defensively.
New Orleans has been handcuffed by injuries all year, they are currently missing Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and have Jrue Holiday on a minutes restriction.
This is a game you just can't lose, period.
Durant and Westbrook combined for 76 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. There's no reason that shouldn't be enough production to get a win against any team.
Yet, it was a lack of effort that plagued the Thunder to their third loss in four games.
This calls into question Donovan as a leader and motivator. Games like yesterday's have occurred far too often for the Thunder this year. It seems like they feel they can simple flip a switch and everything will be fine and in most cases that lends them to dig a whole too big to get out of.
Could the longer schedule and the team being in the doldrums of the regular season have contributed to the lack of energy? Yes, it's entirely possible, but every team plays 82 games.
Every team has to deal with playing games in February. And the great teams, the ones that win championships, are the ones that can find that energy to get up for a game in Minnesota when it's below freezing or can put a team that's clearly below them in terms of talent out of their misery early in games and coast to victory.
In college Donovan had conference play to keep his players' focus and up for the games leading to March Madness. That isn't the case in the NBA. You're gonna have games against teams out of the playoff race or on extended losing streaks come to town and you have to find a way to get your team in the proper state of mind to win those games.
NEXT UP: Golden State
No rah-rah speeches should be necessary to get the team ready to play for this game. The Warriors are making their only trip to Oklahoma City and it's the first of two meetings in less than a week.
While the offense seems to be back in sync after the Mavericks and Pelicans games it's going to again come down to what kind of defense the Thunder play.
We've seen time and time again the Warriors can score at will--they just dropped 130 on the Orlando Magic and that Steph Curry guy has had two 50-point games since the All-Star Break--and if OKC continues to play defense the way it has the past month they may need to score in the 130s to get a win.
With five of their next eight games (three of those five on the road) against the top four teams of the West we will get a really good look at what Donovan and this team are made of in these next two weeks.