May 17, 2013 11:16 AM EDT
On Wednesday, as the Oklahoma City Thunder were knocked out of the playoffs, the Miami Heat moved on to their third consecutive Eastern Conference Finals. Russell Westbrook’s season-ending injury dramatically weakened Oklahoma City, but Miami did a far better job without Chris Bosh, their second most-important player, when he missed 10 playoff games last year. While the situations aren’t identical, the Heat are ultimately the measuring stick by which the Thunder should be judged. In that respect, Scott Brooks comes up woefully short in comparison to Erik Spoelstra.
Spoelstra, operating in the shadow of Pat Riley and LeBron James, has done an excellent job since losing to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. Not only has he managed the egos of the Big Three, he hasn’t been afraid to alter his team’s identity in order to find the right mix. In contrast, Brooks has pounded square pegs into round holes for years, refusing to make the adjustments necessary to win a playoff series against an evenly matched team. To understand how poor a job Brooks has done in Oklahoma City recently, let’s imagine what he would have done in Spoelstra’s shoes.
If Brooks were coaching the Heat, Joel Anthony would be the starting center. Anthony, a 6’9 245 defensive specialist, was a mainstay in the Miami rotation for four seasons. An undrafted free agent who clawed his way into the NBA, he is an excellent shot-blocker whose work ethic earned the respect of everyone in the Heat organization. However, his anemic offensive game was exposed in the 2011 playoffs, where he had a 7.9 PER. Spoelstra has steadily eased him out of the rotation ever since. Anthony has played only 17 minutes this postseason, going from a starter to end of the bench player in two years.
Anthony, like many defensive-oriented centers who can’t score, is less valuable in a more perimeter-oriented NBA. Spoelstra recognized this, moving to a smaller line-up with Chris Bosh at center. Brooks, in contrast, has faithfully stuck with Kendrick Perkins for years, despite ever diminishing returns. The 2012 NBA Finals, when Perkins couldn’t defend the smaller Heat players on the perimeter or punish them on offense, should have been a wake-up call. Instead, Perkins rewarded Brooks’ faith with a -0.7 PER in this year’s playoffs, the lowest mark in NBA history.
In a bizarro world where Brooks coached Miami, Mike Bibby would still be part of his rotation. Bibby started all 20 playoff games for Miami in the first year of the Big Three. However, his playoff experience couldn’t make up for his diminishing foot-speed. In their loss to the Mavericks, Bibby was a 6’1 spot-up shooter who couldn’t stay in front of JJ Barea; getting Barea a $20 million contract was one of the best assists of his career. Bibby, now out of the NBA, isn’t much worse than Derek Fisher. Fisher hasn’t had a PER above 10.0 in four seasons, yet Brooks has consistently given him as many minutes as he can handle.
There’s a domino effect to playing Fisher so much. While Reggie Jackson barely played as a rookie, Norris Cole was given the opportunity to grow into a role in spite of his mistakes. Both were backup PG’s drafted at the end of the first-round in 2011, but Cole hasn’t had to waste time behind a guy who can’t play. In their first two seasons, Cole has played over 1,000 more minutes than Jackson, whose still getting his legs under him as an NBA player. Jackson could have an an Eric Bledsoe-like breakthrough next season, but he still would have lost playing time to Fisher if Westbrook had been healthy.
Of course, even if Brooks had been as flexible as Spoelstra, the Thunder might not have gone further in any of the last three years. A coach can only do so much; in a seven-game series, the best team almost always wins. The real concern isn’t that Oklahoma City lost to Dallas, Miami and Memphis in the last three years, but how they’ve done so. They were knocked out 4-1 all three times. That tells you the coaching staff isn’t having success making adjustments against a better opponent, probably because Brooks never makes any. When you’re down 3-1, why not alter your starting lineup? What do you have to lose?
When the Heat faced the Pacers last season, Spoelstra emptied his holster trying to survive without Bosh. He used a different starting lineup in each of the first four games, before settling on a small-ball mix that often had Battier and LeBron James defending the Indiana big men. It’s easy to forget now, but after a 94-75 drubbing in Game 3, the grand experiment in Miami looked doomed. If Spoelstra had stuck with Anthony and Bibby the same way Brooks stuck with Perkins and Fisher, the Heat would have lost. Without Bosh, their margin for error was narrow enough for poor coaching to make a difference.
If Westbrook had stayed healthy, the Thunder would have been the odds-on favorite to return to the NBA Finals. That doesn’t mean Brooks is a great playoff coach; it means having two Top 10 players in their prime makes his job a lot easier. When evaluating coaches, it’s important to be process-oriented rather than results-oriented. Brooks has consistently left points on the board in each of the last three seasons and has shown no ability to learn from his mistakes. Worst of all, his refusal to adjust his rotation reveals a potentially fatal flaw in how he evaluates players.
Whenever he’s asked about Perkins and Fisher, Brooks points to their contributions in the locker room. However, it’s nearly impossible for an unproductive player to be a team leader, especially one keeping more talented players on the bench. How can you hold others accountable if you don’t hold yourself to the same standard? Fisher and Perkins can talk about sacrifice and playing for the team, but it rings hollow when they don’t practice what they preach. James Harden, an All-NBA player, came off the bench for the Thunder. Kendrick Perkins can’t swallow his pride and do the same?
It’s one thing for a coach to not play the match-up game well; it’s another when he can’t bench a player because he’s worried about his ego. There’s a reason Spoelstra so tirelessly preaches “family” in Miami. At some point in the last three years, he’s had to ask all of his players to sacrifice either playing time or shot attempts for the good of the team. In Oklahoma City, Harden is the only player whose ever had to sacrifice. Does Westbrook need to be attempting 3.7 three-pointers a game when he shoots them at only 32 percent? That’s inefficient basketball. You can’t beat Miami playing like that.
Replacing Brooks after a 60-win regular season might seem rash and unfair, but it would hardly be unprecedented. The Pistons fired Rick Carlisle in 2003, the Bulls let go of Doug Collins in 1989 and the Lakers removed Paul Westhead in 1982. For a coach, growing a young team takes a different skill-set than getting a team through the playoff gauntlet. Sometimes, a front office has to take a PR hit for the long-term good of the franchise. The Thunder made a business decision and parted ways with Harden nine months ago. Now, they need to be just as cold-blooded with Brooks.
May 14, 2013 1:19 PM EDT
A friend once asked me to explain the point of watching an NBA game in its entirety. After all, he said, games are usually decided in the last five minutes. I told him that when you have a large sum of money on the line, every possession is important. Everyone remembers the final five minutes, but they aren’t always the most decisive stretch of a game, even if it goes down to the wire. In a long playoff series, as two teams begin to know each other in and out, every five minute stretch is important. A playoff game can be lost at the start of the first quarter as easily as it can at the end of the fourth.
In the regular season, coaches think long-term, not short-term. They get their best players rest and keep their rotation as stable as possible, in order for everyone on the roster to get comfortable with their roles. An 82-game season is a marathon, not a sprint; it’s more important to be consistent from Game 30-60 than it is to win Game 45. That dynamic changes in the playoffs, as every coach starts to act like Tom Thibodeau and manage games solely for the present, not the future. They shorten their rotation and play the match-up game, trying to create an edge on a possession-by-possession basis.
Micro-management, however, doesn’t necessarily make games any closer. This season, the average margin of victory in the second round is 11.5 points. Some of that margin is padded by two blowouts in the Miami Heat/Chicago Bulls series and cheap points given up on the free throw line at the very end, but the broader point still stands. More often than not, the team that controls the action all game long will end up winning. The collapse of the Golden State Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of their series is the exception that proves the rule. Before that, NBA teams were 392-0 in playoff history in the same situation.
Nevertheless, the last few minutes have an outsized hold on our collective memories. We remember the most notable moments of a series, condensing hours of action into a few “decisive” seconds. We remember Michael Jordan’s shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, not the shots he hit in the first 47 minutes. Jordan had a 28.1 career playoff PER while playing 42 minutes a night. He was great not because he hit the big shot, but because he hit all of the little ones. Over the course of his NBA career, he missed 26 game-winning shots. There are no guarantees in the final moments, even with the greatest closer in basketball history.
The first four games of the Memphis Grizzlies/Oklahoma City Thunder series have come down to the fourth quarter, but important things were happening in the first three quarters. While Oklahoma City’s execution at the end of games has been lacking without Russell Westbrook, the route to the end has been slightly different in each game. Both coaching staffs have been subtly making adjustments back and forth, altering their rotations and trying to find the most effective line-ups. Over the last three games, Lionel Hollins has had better luck with his adjustments, most of which were not made in the fourth quarter.
The big storyline of Game 4 was the adjustment of the Thunder to the Grizzlies' starting line-up. The Thunder shrunk the floor when both Tayshaun Prince, a reluctant three-point shooter, and Tony Allen, a non-shooter, were in. Memphis’ offense isn’t very explosive normally, much less playing 3-on-5. They were -11 with their starters in the first 11 minutes of the game and were lucky to break even at the start of the second half and overtime. They won because Hollins eventually went to a more explosive line-up, with Jerryd Bayless in place of either Allen or Prince. Bayless, who gives them another shooter and playmaker, was +18 in Game 4.
Nevertheless, if the Grizzlies had lost in overtime, the end of regulation would have stuck in everyone’s head. After Kevin Durant tied the game on a brutally efficient drive to the rim with six seconds left, Memphis had a chance to set up a final shot. In years past, Rudy Gay would have been their closer. Gay, an athletic 6’8 220 small forward with an effective step-back jumper, could always create a decent 1-on-1 shot at the end of games. As a result, he has an impressive number of career buzzer-beaters under his belt. But with Gay in Toronto, Hollins drew up an easily snuffed-out Zach Randolph isolation.
Not having Gay in that last six second sequence cost the Grizzlies, but their lack of shooting would have been the biggest reason for a loss. Since they have to stagger the minutes of Randolph and Marc Gasol in order to keep at least one on the floor, they have to maximize the time when they are playing together, the foundation of their best offensive line-ups. As skilled as Gay is off the dribble, he shot 31 percent from beyond the arc in Memphis and couldn’t space the floor for their two star big men. Going forward, Hollins has to find more time for Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, his two best wing shooters, in those minutes.
Nor is having a great closer enough to win an evenly matched series, as Oklahoma City is finding out. Durant is averaging 32 points on 49 percent shooting in the playoffs; he gets points as easily as anyone in the league. The problem is that he has to carry too huge an offensive load over the course of a game without Westbrook and James Harden. Their role players don’t get enough points within the flow of the offense and Brooks’ fairly questionable rotations have backfired without three star players. Durant can’t carry Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher by himself, not over a seven-game series against the NBA’s best defense.
That’s the fundamental problem with judging individuals by team success. In a seven-game series, the best team, not the best player, will almost always win. While the best player will have the edge when he is in a great situation, like LeBron James in Miami, that doesn’t mean the best player in a series will always be able to carry his team to victory. Basketball is a team sport; the “Green Lantern Theory of the NBA” doesn’t hold. To return to the baseball analogy, it doesn’t matter who the closer is if there isn’t a starter who can get him a lead headed into the ninth inning.
Over time, the mythology surrounding the closer position has overshadowed reality, in both basketball and baseball. Mariano Rivera is widely considered the best closer in baseball history. From 1997-2011, with Rivera in the bullpen, the Yankees won 97.2 percent of the games where they lead in the ninth inning. That sounds impressive, but from 1961-1964, before baseball began using set closers, the Yankees won 97.3 percent of their games when leading in the ninth. It’s the same in every sport. Execute on both sides of the ball all game long and the final moments will care take of themselves.
May 06, 2013 1:55 PM EDT
With injuries to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose dramatically weakening two of their biggest challengers, there aren’t many obstacles left in the path of the Miami Heat.
After a methodical sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, their playoff record is now 26-7 with the Big Three in the starting line-up. In a league becoming more perimeter-oriented, the Heat have the ultimate small-ball frontcourt, with Chris Bosh and Shane Battier spacing the floor for LeBron James. You can’t defeat Miami by playing their game, which is why the massive front-lines of the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies are the biggest threat to the NBA’s newest dynasty.
While most of the league zigged, the Pacers and Grizzlies zagged. Instead of moving towards a four-out offense that spaces the floor for pick-and-rolls and dribble penetration, they run their offense through two skilled big men in the post. As a result, they have remarkably similar rosters and styles of play. They prefer to operate in the halfcourt, pounding the ball inside and grinding out possessions defensively. Even more intriguingly, they both face a challenge in the second round that could prepare them for the Heat: a clash of styles against the second (Kevin Durant) and third (Carmelo Anthony) best small-ball 4’s in the NBA.
A generation ago, most front-lines looked like Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol and David West/Roy Hibbert. Randolph (6’9 260) and West (6’9 250) are two of the toughest power forwards in the NBA, old school players who can brutalize smaller defenders on the block as well as step out and knock down a 15-foot jumper. Gasol (7’1 265) and Hibbert (7’2 280) are two of the league’s biggest centers, defensive anchors who can control the area around the rim and protect it at an elite level. While none of the four have three-point range, they know how to play off each other and create space while operating in the narrow confines of the paint.
With so much size upfront, it’s no surprise Indiana and Memphis are two of the slowest teams in the NBA. In the regular season, the Grizzlies averaged 88.4 possessions per-48 minutes, 30th in the league, and the Pacers averaged 90.2 possessions per-48 minutes, 25th slowest. That continued in the first round of the playoffs, with Memphis/LA Clippers and Indiana/Atlanta turning into half-court rock fights. Both teams dictated the style of the game: the Grizzlies never allowed the Clippers to get out into transition while the Hawks were forced to abandon their small-ball front-court and start Johan Petro by Game 3.
As the Knicks and the Thunder discovered in Game 1 of the second round, it’s hard to go small against power forwards as skilled as West and Randolph. New York only has two conventional big men (Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin) left on their roster and they prefer to use Carmelo at the 4. The problem is that leaves either Carmelo or Iman Shumpert giving up a lot of size against West, who had 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting in Game 1. And while Oklahoma City starts Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, playing both at the same time dramatically impacts their floor spacing, since other teams don’t have to defend Perkins.
The key is to attack the Pacers and Grizzlies where their size can be negated: in transition and when they go to their bench. Forcing live-ball turnovers against both is crucial, since that speeds up the tempo of the game and creates open-floor scoring opportunities. And when their big men are fatigued or in foul trouble, the opposing team has the opportunity to dictate the style of the game. The Pacers went 12 minutes without both Hibbert and West on the floor in Game 1; the Grizzlies went 14 without both Randolph and Gasol. The Thunder and the Knicks have to take advantage of the stretches of the game when they can go small with impunity.
Those stretches are where Indiana (Danny Granger) and Memphis (Rudy Gay) miss their leading scorer from last season. This season, Granger played in only five games due to a knee injury, while Gay was dealt in a salary-cap move at the trade deadline. There are plenty of differences in their games, but both are 6’9+ forwards capable of playing inside and out. Without them, neither the Pacers nor the Grizzlies can put too much firepower on the floor in the rare occasions when they go small. When Randolph was in foul trouble in their first two games against the Clippers, it was a completely different series.
Where the two teams differ is how they’ve adjusted without Gay and Granger. Indiana has run more of their offense through Paul George, their 6’8, 220 small forward. George, who won the Most Improved Player award this season, has thrived in Granger’s absence, averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. Memphis, in contrast, has turned the keys over to Mike Conley, their 6’1 185 point guard. Conley is now their best shot-creator and the player they turn to in end of the clock situations. He went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul in the first round and they’ll need him to dominate his individual match-up against the Thunder, especially with Westbrook out.
If either Memphis or Indiana can get out of the second round, it will have been the perfect warm-up for an eventual series against Miami. For the most part, the Heat do everything the Thunder and the Knicks do, they just do those things better. If the Pacers let J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony take over the game from the perimeter, they will have no chance against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And if the Grizzlies can’t contain Kevin Durant when Ibaka or Nick Collison is the lone big man on the floor, good luck handling LeBron when Bosh is spotting up for corner 3’s.
Most importantly, if Memphis and Indiana can’t dictate the match-ups in the second round, there’s no way they’ll be able to do so against Miami. In the three years since “The Decision”, only one team -- the 2011 Mavericks -- has forced the Heat to stay big. Against everyone else, Miami’s postseason record with their Big Three healthy is 24-3. A generation ago, “small-ball” was an underdog strategy, a desperate attempt to even the playing field in a sport dominated by centers. That’s how much the balance of power has changed: in 2013, Goliath is the underdog.
Apr 25, 2013
The best teams in the NBA can spread the court on offense without sacrificing much on the defensive end because of the versatility of a star forward. That’s what makes LeBron James and Kevin Durant so scary; the best two players in the league just happen to play the most important position in the game.
Feb 18, 2013
Everyone always talks about how different he is from the average person, but Michael Jordan at 50 sounds like every other 50-year-old. He’s not totally sold on the young kids today and he isn’t sure they would have been as successful back in his day, though that's the wrong question entirely.
Feb 11, 2013
With “flexibility” the buzzword in the NBA’s new economic climate, the most sought-after players are those with surplus value -- true stars on max contracts and young players on cost-controlled deals. Those are the only players the Thunder have long-term deals with and is how they will sustain their model.
Jan 11, 2013
Franchise relocation is a race to the bottom that pits city against city, which owners of all four major professional sports leagues in North America have used to their benefit.
Dec 27, 2012
As crazy as it sounds, there’s a good chance the James Harden trade becomes the best thing that ever happened to Kevin Durant. With Harden in Houston, Durant has become more of a playmaker, the next step in his progression as a player.
Dec 12, 2012
As we move forward with “Amnesty 2.0,” we will see the fascinating possibilities that the provision brings even as the number of teams and players left dwindles with time.
Nov 30, 2012
In order for the Thunder to take the final step as a franchise, they must address the decision-making of Scott Brooks over the past two playoffs. With James Harden gone, they can't afford to be outcoached.
Oct 28, 2012
Since dealing Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2007, Sam Presti has made every decision with the goal of amassing high draft picks in mind. Trading James Harden, while painful, was the next logical step in that process.
Oct 15, 2012
The Thunder will again be title contenders, but the Northwest Division is impressive in its depth as the Nuggets, Jazz and Wolves will again be in the playoff chase while the Blazers aren't too far off in their rebuilding process.
Sep 24, 2012
If James Harden wants to know what his future will look like depending on whether he remains with the Thunder or signs a max deal elsewhere, all he has to do is look at the careers of Joe Johnson and Manu Ginobili.
Jul 19, 2012
The Heat, Thunder and Lakers appear to be a cut above the remainder of the NBA, but how do the 27 other teams rank?
Jun 29, 2012
Whle the Pistons, Blazers, Bobcats, Nets, Thunder and Bulls headline the 'Great Drafts', the caboose of 'Bad Drafts' is comprised of the Cavaliers, Suns, Bucks, Wolves, Heat and Knicks.
Jun 28, 2012
The Andre Drummond/Perry Jones effect on this draft before we make sense of picks seven through 30 just hours before a flood of draft-day trades shreds every mock.
Jun 21, 2012
The 2012 NBA Draft is a week away and nothing is certain beyond Anthony Davis going to the Hornets with the first overall pick even though several scenarios are beginning to crystalize.
Jun 19, 2012
There are two core reasons why players outperform their pre-draft expectations, while there are two main paths for prospects to underachieve.
Jun 12, 2012
Even if the emphasis is always on the stars, there is a joy of The NBA finals in seeing which unheralded college players like Norris Cole and Daequan Cook have reached the pinnacle of the sport.
Jun 10, 2012
Win or lose in this Finals series, the Thunder are a team on the rise, a cast made up of players who will remain in their prime for the considerable future. However, the Heat are under the microscope, under the level of scrutiny with a shorter window, that is unmatched in professional sports.
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