For all the hand-wringing, the Oklahoma City Thunder are almost certainly going to make the playoffs. The West playoff picture is a mess, with 3rd place and 10th place separated by just 5 games. Whether the Thunder are in 7th place and trying to overcome a Goliath in round 1 or in 4th place and facing a much more manageable challenge depends on their play in the final 20 games, but barring a catastrophic injury, they should be in.
With how close the West is, it’s too early to project who the Thunder’s first round matchup will be, but we can start to predict some things about how the Thunder will approach their playoff series. Namely, their rotations. Teams generally shrink their rotations down in the playoffs, giving more minutes to the stars, limiting bench minutes, and excising the back end of the roster form the rotation entirely (The Warriors under Steve Kerr have been an exception to that last rule- who can forget Anderson Varejao heroically appearing in the 2016 Western conference Finals to draw some questionable charge calls? #StrengthInNumbers).
Billy Donovan has been no exception- in last year’s series against the Rockets, only 9 players appeared in all 5 minutes, and only 6- Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo, Taj Gibson, Steven Adams, and Jerami Grant- averaged more than 20 minutes per game. Shooters Alex Abrines and Doug McDermott pitched in 16 and 13 minutes a game, and Enes Kanter (about who Donovan famously was spied telling an assistant coach “can’t play him” after blowing yet another pick and roll coverage) added just 9 minutes per game after averaging over 20 minutes a game in the regular season. The nature of playoff rotation is heartless- every single possession counts, and anyone who presents an easy weakness for the other team to exploit is getting yanked.
The first part of guessing Billy Donovan’s rotations is easy- Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony are all going to play massive minutes. All average more than 32 minutes per game- expect to see Russ and Paul George above 40, and Adams and Melo above 35. That’s about 150 minutes per game of the available 240 (48 minutes x 5 players on the court at any time). How Billy Donovan divides up the remaining 90 minutes, and what the players can give him in those remaining minutes, might be the margin between victory and defeat in these playoff series.
Here’s what the Thunder will need from the players besides the fab four come playoff time, and how Donovan can use his rotations to maximize them:
The first big question the Thunder face is who should be their 5th starter in the playoffs with Andre Roberson out for the season. Josh Huestis has gotten the nod in the last 3 games since the all-star break, and it looks like it’s his job to lose. Huestis hasn’t absorbed Roberson’s minutes- he’s getting only about 20 a night, and it’s an open question how much Donovan trusts him come playoff time.
Despite the skepticism of many (this writer included) Huestis has been up to the challenge so far. Since Roberson’s injury, Huestis has logged 61 minutes with the starters, during which OKC has posted a net rating of +14.9, and, crucially, a defensive rating of 95.5 (meaning they’ve allowed only 95.5 points per 100 possessions), right in line with the incredible defensive rating of 96.4 that the team posted whenever Roberson played this season. That’s a small sample size, but if it holds, Huestis deserves the starting nod. However, his offensive game is so wretched that it makes Roberson look like prime Allen Iverson- Huestis shoots 33% from the field, 27% from deep, and a jaw droppingly terrible 24% from the free throw line (if Huestis indeed gets the start, expect Hack-a-Huestis to replace Hack-A-Roberson come playoffs). That the Thunder have managed an offensive rating of 116.5 (an elite mark) in playing Huestis along the starters is a testament to the incredible skill of Westbrook, Adams, Melo and George- that Billy Donovan plays such an offensively limited player at all, much less starts him, is a testament to Huestis’s defensive skill.
The Thunder might be hesitant to give all of Roberson’s minutes to Huestis come playoff time. Defenses get ruthless in the April and May- bad shooters will simply get left alone, forcing an offense to play 4 on 5. Roberson partly overcame that by making crafty backdoor cuts and acting as a screen setter to force the man “guarding” him to at least be involved in the action. It’s unclear if Huestis, a much younger player, will be able to use such tricks to stay involved on offense. If he can be just passable, his defense will get him plenty of minutes, and allow him to keep the starting job. If he can’t, or if teams resort to hacking him, the Thunder may need to look elsewhere. But for now, he looks like the closest thing to a Roberson replacement on the roster.
Grant is a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions and has shown a much more refined offensive game than Huestis. And yet...The Thunder are far less effective when he plays. On the season as a whole, the lineup of Grant + the Starters has posted a net rating of -3.8. The grouping has shown signs of life since 1/28 (when Roberson went down), with a net rating of +6.8 since then. On paper, this still feels like the deadliest lineup the Thunder can roll out, post-Roberson- extremely switchable defensively, with Grant adding enough offensive spark that he can’t be left alone. Monitor how this lineup plays the rest of the season.
Donovan seems to prefer to start Huestis, but sometimes gives more minutes to Grant, valuing him as a super sub. If the Thunder elect to pull Carmelo Anthony early in order to bring him back with the bench, look for Grant come in then, and possibly have Alex Abrines replace Huestis- per Cleaning the Glass, the lineup of Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams has absolutely murdered opponents in limited minutes this season, and should get some look in the playoffs. And if opponents turn to hacking Huestis, Grant might be the best option to close with the starters.
Corey Brewer has committed to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, league sources tell Yahoo. He spoke to Billy Donovan and Sam Presti, three Eastern Conference teams before decision.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 1, 2018
Or maybe not. Corey Brewer isn’t a big name at this point in his career, and certainly isn’t the name most Thunder fans had in mind when dreaming up the ideal reinforcements. He didn’t even make it into our buyout market preview. So what’s the thinking here?
Brewer certainly fits the profile of the type of wing player Sam Presti has historically favored- tall (6’9), long, able to guard multiple positions, shooting-challenged (I’m not saying Presti likes guys who are bad at shooting, but if you look at the wings he’s stockpiled- Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Josh Huestis, and way back, Thabo Sefolosha- it’s clear he values defense first, confident that the rest of his roster can still generate points). Billy Donovan, who won back to back titles at the University of Florida with Brewer, is naturally a fan as well (the Donovan connection was reportedly a big part of Brewer’s decision).
On paper, you can see why leadership likes the fit. Will it work? Brewer was even worse on offense than Roberson this season- while both are abysmal distance shooters, Roberson was much better at converting at the rim (64% vs only 60% for Brewer, per cleaning the glass). Maybe that number improves with Brewer playing alongside the far more talented Thunder roster instead of the young Lakers team he was with, but there’s no guarantee of that- Brewer wasn’t any more effective in his half-season with the Rockets last year. The Thunder have other wing options who are better at putting the ball in the hoop, namely Alex Abrines and Jerami Grant, so for Brewer, it has to be all about the D.
Brewer certainly had a good defensive reputation earlier in his career, but he’s on the wrong side of 30. It’s tough to evaluate him on the Lakers this season, playing with so many young players. Of note though- when Brewer shared the court with Andrew Bogut in LA - another veteran with known defensive chops - the Lakers had an elite defensive rating of 90.9, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s a small sample size, but there’s evidence that he Brewer can be a part of great defensive units if pared with the right players. Where he slots into the rotation means to be seen. He’s not a starter at this point in his career, but he could be another option to close games depending on the matchup.
Last season, the Thunder simply could not find a solid back-up point guard; Cameron Payne, Semaj Christon and Norris Cole all failed to live up to the challenge. By the end of the series against the Rockets, Donovan was reduced to asking Victor Oladipo to play point guard whenever Russ sat. Those Russ-less minutes were where the Thunder lost the series.
This season the Thunder have a clear backup point guard, Ray Felton. Felton is a wily old vet who can playmake and spot up for 3’s. He at the very least will look like he belongs on the floor come playoff time, which is more than you could say about any of the backup point guards last year. Still, he has one of the worst net ratings of the regular rotation players. That’s partly because he’s been featured on some terrible bench units, and those units cannot see the floor for even a second come playoffs.
Instead, Felton should have a small but important role come the playoffs. He, along with Melo, will be used to stem the bleeding while Russ sits. Billy Donovan has preferred to use Paul George as the focal point of the offense when Russ sits, but those units haven’t worked; when Felton and George have played together without Russ this season the Thunder have posted a net rating of -11.4, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sacramento Kings, who are literally trying to lose and have been for most of the season, have a better net rating than that. But when Melo and Felton have played together without Westbrook, the Thunder have posted a net rating of +13.1. More of that lineup please.
Russ will probably play 40-42 minutes a game in the playoffs. If Felton and Melo can just go point for point with the opposition in those 6-8 minutes, the Thunder can win.
2Pat is nominally a power forward, but has served as the Thunder’s primary backup center this season. When Steven Adams has played this season, the Thunder have posted a net rating of +3.8; when he sits, the thunder are -2.9. For all the strides the Thunder have made towards surviving the minutes Russ sits, they have to survive the minutes Adams sits too. The only real options for those minutes are Patterson, smallball lineups with Grant, or a baptism by fire experience for little used rookie Dakari Johnson (or, you know, Nick Collison, who has somehow logged 62 non-garbage time possessions this season). Patterson is an experienced player and has some ability to switch onto smaller players defensively, but he’s nowhere near the rim protector Adams is.
Rather than try to win the minutes Adams rests by praying Patterson can masquerade as a center, they need to try to play to Patterson’s strengths in the minutes he plays. The general rotation pattern i’ve suggested (pull Melo early, play him alongside the second unit) could be supported by pulling Adams along with Melo and inserting Patterson with Russ, Abrines, George and Grant. That lineup can legitimately play 5 out behind the 3 point line, opening up the floor even more for Russ’s drives to the rim, and has enough defense between George, Grant and Patterson to stifle opposing units (and make up for Abrines). There are certain matchups where this won’t work (if the Thunder play the Wolves, for instance, you don’t want Patterson guarding Karl-Anthony Towns), but it’s worth experimenting with more in the regular season; that unit has posted a net rating of +16.7 this season, but has only played 24 possessions together.
If Donovan prefers to keep Adams with PG and Russ, the trio of Melo, Felton and Patterson has posted a net rating of +14 this season and has been used a fair amount (188 possessions). The most successful variant has also featured Alex Abrines, but Felton, Abrines and Melo together is begging for trouble against great offenses in the playoffs. A line-up of Felton, Grant, Huestis, Melo and Patterson might have more potential- defensively stout on the wing, relieving Patterson from having to be a rim protector, and allowing Patterson to serve as a floor spacer on offense while Melo goes to work, or work some pick and pop action with Felton. As long as the rotations are run properly, Patterson’s skill set, different as it is from Adams, can help OKC survive the minutes without Adams.
Ultimately, that’s what OKC needs from these four players and Alex Abrines- survival. If these 5 non-stars can focus on doing what they do well, and if the rotations are run so that they are always paired with a star who they complement and vice versa, the Thunder can avoid a repeat of last year. The pressure will be huge- Felton and Patterson are crafty vets, but Huestis has never played on a stage this big, and Abrines and Grant will be counted on even more than they were last year.
Superstars win championships, and OKC has enough superstar talent to mask a lot of deficiencies, but they’ll still need these 5 bench players to come up big for 8-10 minutes a night. If they can’t, the Thunder’s odds of winning so much as a series, much less reaching the finals, get a lot worse.