If you look at the recent history of the game, every great player who has won a championship needed a championship level coach to push him to the promise land. And by great player, I mean the transcendent players of their generation. In recent memory, those players have been Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James. Each of these players needed to go, not only through adversity, but also through a coaching change before they led a team to the championship. Tim Duncan should also be included in the list, but he has played for the same coach his entire career while racking up 4 titles in the process.
Kevin Durant, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is paving his path towards being a transcendent player. He is on his way to winning his 1st MVP, has won 4 scoring titles before the age of 26, and leads a team that has been a championship contender for the past three season. He has a top 10 player by his side in Russell Westbrook, a versatile big man that can block shots and hit mid range jumpers in Serge Ibaka, and a great 6th man in Reggie Jackson. With all this at Durant’s disposal, why is it that the Thunder are struggling with their first round opponents, the Memphis Grizzlies?
The answers to that question are like pieces of a puzzle. When you analyze everything, you’ll see that many factors are contributing to the Thunder’s struggles in the first round. First off, Memphis is not your run of the mill 7th seed. The Grizzlies struggled out the gate due to Marc Gasol’s knee injury, but finished the season on a 33-13 tear that brought them up to the 7th seed. Without Gasol’s injury, this team probably finishes in the top 5 in the Western Conference. The next factor is that Memphis is built for the playoffs. They are a half-court oriented offense with one of the best defenses the league has to offer. And, their core is playoff-tested and has been together for at least 4 seasons. But these factors are more a microcosm of who the Grizzlies are.
It’s what the Thunder are doing (or not doing) that is affecting them in this series. Oklahoma City is a team that can play a variety of ways, but they’re at their best when they are running in transition and causing havoc in the paint through penetration. But those things tend to get muddled in the playoffs. Teams protect the ball more and defenses make it a point to protect the paint. Less turnovers means less transition opportunities. More defenders in the paint means less avenues to get to the basket. Unfortunately for the Thunder, the Grizzlies are great at two things: protecting the ball and defending the paint.
But with players as dynamic as Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and Jackson, the Thunder should not be struggling as bad as they are in this series. Part of that could be attributed to bad luck as both Durant and Westbrook seem to be in shooting funks. Part of that could be the Grizzlies’ defense, which packs the paint and dares you to beat them with perimeter shots, of which the Thunder aren’t making. But a lot of the Thunder’s problem has to do with scheming (or lack thereof), and that falls squarely on Scott Brooks.
Unfortunately, this has always been the knock on Brooks. The lack of an offensive system rarely rears it’s head for the Thunder, except when the transition faucet is turned off, the paint is packed, and the shots aren’t falling. It’s understandable that you would have an iso-oriented system when your two best players thrive in isolation situations. But it’s also important to have a system in place when the defense keys in on those two players. And that’s what is severely lacking for the Thunder in this series.
It’s almost asinine that Brooks, with the weapons he has at his disposal and the amount of time he’s had those weapons, would never have created a fail-safe offensive system that would play, not only to the strengths of his stars, but also to the strength of the role players around them. Brian Windhorst of ESPN tweeted during Game 3, “Grizzlies know all of OKC’s plays. When the 1st option is taken away the Thunder often just shut down their offense.” If anything, last season should have been a sign that the team needs an offensive system outside of superstar iso-plays. When Westbrook went down, it should have signaled to Brooks that a change was needed in order to prevent what happened in last season’s playoffs. Instead, with Durant and Westbrook both in tow, it seems as if Brooks has defaulted even deeper into superstar isolation mode.
It’s either that, or those two superstars aren’t trusting their teammates, which leads them to take it upon themselves to try and save the day. Whether Brooks is heeding both players to look for teammates more or not, this still goes back to Brooks. If isolation ball isn’t working, get onto your superstars and tell them to run the offense. Oh yeah, I forgot. There is no offense. Ibaka, one of the best release valves in the league and probably the best target for a pick and roll outside of Durant and Westbrook is getting completely frozen out of the offense in the fourth quarter and overtime. Jackson, who up until Game 4, was struggling mightily, was basically benched for games 2 and 3. Brooks could have and should have incorporated those two into the offense even more, especially in Games 2 and 3. Instead, the Grizzlies defenders keyed in on the superstar duo and made it extremely difficult for them to get into their sets, let alone get off a good shot.
The other transcendent players I talked about in the opening had to endure coaching changes that brought about success. Michael Jordan went from Doug Collins to Phil Jackson. Kobe Bryant went from Kurt Rambis to Phil Jackson for his first three championships and from Rudy Tomjanovich to Phil Jackson for his next two championships. LeBron James went from Mike Brown to Erik Spoelstra for his two championships. The one constant between these two coaches is that they had an offensive system to fall back on. They had great players, but also a system that helped them out offensively if the opponent was exclusively targeting the star player. Jackson had the triangle offense and Spoelstra has a system that spaces the floor for James, Wade, and Bosh to operate.
It’s especially frustrating when you compare Brooks to Spoelstra. Both are young coaches in their first head coaching gigs who were basically gift-wrapped super-teams. Spoelstra found a way to develop a system that played to the strengths of all his players. Meanwhile, Brooks is still relying on the greatness of a couple players to get him out of jams. Westbrook and Durant are good enough to win you enough games to stay employed.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Brooks is a bad coach. He’s done a great job in developing the talent OKC was loaded with over the years. He’s done a great job managing egos and developing the culture the Thunder are now known for. But as an X’s and O’s coach, I think Brooks has hit his ceiling. Just like players eventually reach a point where they no longer improve, I think Brooks has gotten to that point with this team. I’ve always said that Brooks is a great coach to lead us to the mountain and maybe even to get us halfway up the mountain, but it will take another coach to get us over the mountain. If Durant and Westbrook are ever to get over the hump, they may have to do it with another coach at the helm. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve experienced too much of Brooks to think otherwise.