Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan has faced his share of criticism in his first year as an NBA head coach, but one recent adjustment he has made has been met with almost universal praise: staggering Russell Westbrook's and Kevin Durant's minutes so that at least one is on the floor at all times.
That is something fans and media always criticized Donovan's predecessor, Scott Brooks, for not doing, and it is something he faced a ton of heat for not doing early on in the season. The only other piece I've written this season was a defense of not staggering the minutes, but even in that piece I acknowledged that, if done correctly, it'd be hard to argue against it. The problem is Billy Donovan is not staggering the minutes correctly. It's either that or the logic that, in order to succeed OKC must have either Westbrook or Durant on the floor at all times, could be flawed.
To summarize the argument against staggering: The Thunder, under Scott Brooks as well as the beginning of this season with Donovan, traditionally played Durant and Westbrook around 36-38 minutes a night. In those minutes, Westbrook would check out around the 3 min. mark of the first and third quarters, Durant would check out at the end of the first and third quarters, Westbrook would check back in at the 9 min. mark the following quarter, and Durant would follow at around the 6:30 min. mark. That meant in the 48 minutes of gameplay, Durant and Westbrook would share the court for roughly 32 minutes, Durant would fly solo for six minutes, Westbrook would fly solo for 5 minutes, and an all-bench unit would try to keep the ship from sinking for five or six minutes each night.
Despite the stress that came with those five or six minutes of an all-bench lineup, the Thunder could take comfort in the fact that not only were Westbrook and Durant maximizing their time of the floor together - which is by far when the Thunder is most efficient - they were still getting a few minutes each night to do their own thing without the other one. It wasn't perfect, but they won a heck of a lot of games doing things that way.
Still, the numbers for the all-bench lineup weren't pretty, and it became clear - especially against an elite team like the Golden State Warriors, that the Thunder would need their stars on the floor at all times to compete. The problem is that Donovan hasn't approached it in a way that most thought he would.
The new rotation works like this: Kevin Durant checks out around the 5-min. mark of the first, then re-enters around the 2-min. mark for Westbrook. Westbrook then enters back around the 9-min. mark and then Durant checks out for a second breather around 6-min mark before checking back in at the 3-min. mark. In this scenario, Westbrook and Durant are only sharing the floor for 26 of the 48 minutes. The thinking is that this is fine because the other 22 always feature one or the other, and since they are two of the five best players in the league, it should be a benefit having at least one out there at all times.
Most thought the acquisition of Randy Foye at the deadline meant another shooting wing option for the Thunder to utilize off of that aforementioned bench that was struggling to find offense. Instead, he has been used mostly as a pseudo-backup-point guard, which has all but erased the minutes for rookie Cameron Payne, who was starting to round into a viable weapon off the bench before the acquisition. Not only is Foye filling in at that role, he is essentially still playing off the ball while Durant is initiating much of the offense in the new staggered rotations with Westbrook on the bench.
The results are even uglier than you may expect. In the five games that the Durant/Foye/Kyle Singler/Dion Waiters/Enes Kanter lineup has worked together in the non-Westbrook minutes, they have posted an offensive rating of 99.2 and a defensive rating of 145.3 for a net rating of -46.1 Negative forty-six point one! In stark, stark contrast, Thunder with both Westbrook and Durant on the floor have posted an offensive rating of 113.7 and a defensive rating of 102.5 for a net rating of 11.2
Again, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Thunder operates better with both on the floor, but what about how the Westbrook-only and Durant-only lineups stack up against that all-bench unit? Well, much of that depends on the pieces surrounding them in those minutes without one another. The most-used Westbrook-only lineup is Westbrook/Andre Roberson/Anthony Morrow/Serge Ibaka/Steven Adams and that has posted a stellar net rating of +20.4. The problem is that Donovan has grown less and less interested in Morrow, so he has subbed Dion Waiters into that role, for the second-most used Westbrook-only lineup. That one has produced a far uglier -24.2 net rating. Sub Kanter for Adams for the third-most used Westbrook-only lineup and it's an even worse -41.8 net rating. But sub Singler for Roberson on top of Kanter for Adams, the fourth-most used lineup and one that has seen more run of late, and you see some better things with a +18.3 net rating.
One of the common denominators in all of those lineups is Ibaka, which shouldn't be much of a surprise given his ability to not only shore up the defense, but also act as a safety blanket on offense and create space. That's a luxury Durant hasn't had in his new minutes without Westbrook, which is a shame because a lineup of Durant/Ibaka/Singler/Kanter/Waiters is actually producing a net rating of +18.8.
The question of course comes back to Donovan. Is he just not using his staggered lineups correctly? Most likely. You could go further than that, though, and suggest he just do away with the staggered lineup altogether, going back to the argument made in my initial piece that it's better to have the wildly efficient Westbrook/Durant duo on the floor together for as long as possible than have these hodgepodge lineups around only Westbrook or only Durant for nearly half of the game.
That also is rooted in the fact that Cameron Payne has proven to be a legitimate X-factor coming off the bench and could actually make those 5-6 minutes per game without Westbrook and Durant on the floor not so terrible at all.
The most-used all bench lineup featuring Payne is one with him, Kanter, Waiters, Morrow and Nick Collison, and it's actually producing at a pretty dismal -12.7 net rating. But the second-most used all-bench lineup featuring Payne simply replaces Waiters with Singler - a competent defender that can nullify the negatives Morrow brings on that end - has produced a +2.3 net rating. That's not setting the world on fire by any means, but it's keeping the Thunder's heads above water while the stars rest.
Once again, these are just some options, and if Donovan really wanted to ensure he had at least one star on the floor, Ibaka's rotation could easily be adjusted so that he could work with Payne and the bench unit and relieve some of the pressure. In fact, a unit of Adams/Ibaka/Singler/Waiters/Payne has produced a net rating of +31.3 in its short amount of time on the court. That's two starters and three bench players, but something that could be utilized to maximize Durant and Westbrook's time on the floor together.
All of that, again, comes down to Donovan's rotations, which is perhaps what makes this so frustrating give that there are only 20 games remaining. This is typically the time when rotations start to shorten and teams really lock in on who will play at what times of each game, so to still be in such a state of disarray is quite concerning. Of course, the other side of that coin is to say that there are still 20 games remaining to really hone this thing in and figure out the best way for the Thunder to play a complete 48 minutes of basketball.
Thunder fans have all memorized the "10 losses when holding a lead to start a 4th quarter, most in the NBA besides the 76ers" stat, and it's something that should absolutely cause concern among the Thunder players and coaches. It's becoming pretty clear that this team cannot hold a lead. The staggering of Durant and Westbrook's minutes was supposed to alleviate that, but in some ways it's only made it worse. Not only are the lineups with just one of the two - particularly those with Durant - not living up to expectations, they may be hurting the team's production over the course of 48 minutes.
Basketball is a game of routine and when you take a guy like Durant, who has been so accustomed to playing until certain minute marks and getting his rest at others, and then ask him to essentially play point guard on top of that, it should come as no surprise that he is struggling to adjust. In the eight games since the All-Star break, when the rotation changes really went into effect, Durant has turned it over 38 times (4.8 per game). That's nearly two more per game than he was averaging before the break (3.1).
Check out how terrible the spacing is on these two turnovers by Durant in last night's game against Golden State.
In both cases, Foye actually brings the ball up - something Durant is also doing often - and Durant catches the ball on the side without much room to operate. In both cases, the other four guys on the floor are essentially standing around and watching, hoping a 6'11" Durant can make something happen. The first results in an aggressive drive and offensive foul as Durant tries to beat two guys - as Harrison Barnes basically just leaves Foye to help on Durant. The second results in Durant driving to the side where literally every other player on the court is standing. No seriously, look how empty the bottom of the screen is:
From there, Durant throws it right into a passing lane which the Warriors defenders play as well as anyone in the league. Simply having Durant on the floor isn't helping the Thunder at all if the other four guys out there are just going to stand and watch.
These are all small sample sizes, and you could certainly make the case that much of these numbers have to do with the fact that these games came against top-tier teams in the NBA. Still, anyone that has watched the Thunder over the past month can see just how out of sorts they seem to look, regardless of competition. They can reach crazy heights, sure, but maintaining that over the course of a full game just isn't happening.
It doesn't matter who's to blame, whether it be Donovan for not dialing up the right combination of players, the players for not adjusting properly to their roles, or some combination of both. The only thing that does matter is that the way Westbrook and Durant's minutes are currently being staggered isn't working and there are 20 more games to figure out if it can be done better, or if the team would be better-suited going back to the traditional non-staggered lineups.
In either case, the most obvious solution is simple: #FreeCameronPayne.