With Tuesday's home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Oklahoma City Thunder moved to 1-12 under interim head coach Scott Brooks--the same record that got P.J. Carlesimo fired as the Thunder's head coach in late November. At the time, I wrote that Brooks should not be judged by the team's record, not that I imagined the team would continue to have such a hard time winning games. Still, dig deeper and there are positives beneath the surface of Oklahoma City's 2-24 record.
Let's break down how the Thunder has played under both head coaches.
Coach Pace OffRat DefRat Diff ExpW
Carlesimo 94.6 93.4 107.7 -12.3 1.2
Brooks 91.0 106.8 116.4 - 7.5 3.3
Despite the record, it's easy to see that Oklahoma City has played better with Brooks at the helm. Their point differential is still bad, but at least respectable. On average, a team with the Thunder's -7.5 differential under Brooks would have won about three out of 13 games. It's easy to see where those wins could have come; within Brooks' first week on the job, Oklahoma City had lost a pair of home games by a combined three points on last-second shots. The team is also competing on a nightly basis: only one of Brooks' 12 losses has come by more than 12 points.
Under Carlesimo, the Thunder was threatening all sorts of league records for offensive futility. That has changed under Brooks, and impressively so. Actually, Oklahoma City's 106.8 Offensive Rating over the last 13 games is not far off of league average for the season (108.0). The Thunder has been far more potent at late. The tradeoff has come at the defensive end, where an OKC squad that was reasonably competent early in the season has been porous since the coaching change. No team is allowing more points per 100 possessions than the Brooks Thunder, though again the league-wide shift inflates the magnitude of the change.
The move from an awful-offense/average-defense squad to one that is nearly average at scoring but dismal at defending can largely be traced to Brooks' biggest coaching move thus far. Right away, he shifted starters Kevin Durant and Jeff Green from shooting guard and small forward to small forward and power forward, taking a big man out of the lineup (center Robert Swift, who had been starting at center, has not played since Brooks took over because of a back injury) and making room for another wing, Damien Wilkins. The new look offers more perimeter shooting, but has left Oklahoma City woefully small in the frontcourt, explaining the improved offense and the weakened defense.
While the overall numbers make the lineup change out to be a slight net positive, what they cannot take into account is the effect it has had on the Thunder's other starters and, most notably, franchise player Durant. Along with improving the offense, I cited the development of Durant as Brooks' top task, and that hardly required a leap of faith. Durant's talent is otherworldly, yet his progress had stagnated under Carlesimo early in his sophomore campaign. Again, the numbers tell a story of transformation with the coaching change.
Coach 2P% 3P% eFG% TS% Usage 2A% 3A% FTA% TO%
Carlesimo .447 .438 .462 .513 .294 .712 .055 .088 .145
Brooks .476 .500 .532 .592 .271 .613 .156 .124 .107
Durant has improved virtually across the board. The most telling numbers might be the rightmost series, what I group as player tendencies--the percentage of possessions used on two-point and three-point attempts, free throws and turnovers. The two most efficient ways to score are on threes and at the free-throw line, and Durant has improved his sum of the two categories from 14.3 percent of his possessions under Carlesimo to 28.0 percent under Brooks. Quite simply, Durant is playing a different game. It's also a much better one, as reflected in the massive spikes in his effective field-goal percentage and his True Shooting Percentage. Durant has gone from a low-efficiency, volume shooter to the kind of lethal, highly-efficient scorer he was in his lone season at Texas. And he's done it while slashing his turnovers as well.
Add it up and Durant has gone from replacement-level contributions under Carlesimo to worth 1.5 wins above replacement under Brooks, which projects to about nine WARP over the course of a full season--borderline All-Star production. Who says coaches don't have an impact on player performance?
The most common explanation for Durant's step forward is that he's finally playing his natural small forward position after Carlesimo had him at shooting guard. I suspect that line of thinking is overblown. Consider it this way. At the start of last season, Carlesimo started the same pair of wing players (Durant and Wilkins), only Durant was called the two. Now he's called a three. That's a matter of semantics more than anything else.
I wanted to save this column until I had a chance to review a Thunder game, which I did last Sunday, the team's failed comeback at San Antonio. Watching, it doesn't seem like Brooks is really using Durant all that much differently than his predecessor did. Durant is getting a few more touches in the post and fewer isolation plays, but for the most part the position change is a red herring.
What has helped Durant, and all of his teammates, is improved floor spacing. Lack of outside shooting has been a major weakness for the Sonics/Thunder during the Durant era. While nobody is about to mistake this group for the Suns, with Green developing into a threat from beyond the arc during his own sophomore campaign and Wilkins on the floor, opponents have to at least respect multiple Oklahoma City perimeter players. That has opened up the drive for Durant and allowed him to operate with more air space.
The other aspect of Durant's game that has improved under Brooks is his shot selection, oft-maligned during his brief NBA career. Durant made strides in recognizing good shots during his rookie season, and I was stunned and disappointed to see the kind of quick hoists he was putting up when I watched the Thunder get crushed by New Orleans in Carlesimo's last game as head coach (possibly a sign the team had tuned Carlesimo out). Two things have changed under Brooks. First, with rookie Russell Westbrook and Wilkins moving into the starting lineup, Durant has more shot creators around him. Second, as expected Brooks has slowed things down, which has removed some of the license for players to launch early in the shot clock.
There's one final factor, one which should be disconcerting for the Thunder's opponents in the long term. Durant is still a babyfaced 20-year-old, and he's figuring out things all the time. The development of his game from where he was at the end of his rookie season was obvious against the Spurs. He has become much more accurate from the perimeter, most notably from three-point range.
Because of his low percentage, Durant gradually phased the three out of his game near the end of last season, continuing that at the start of 2008-09. However, when Durant started making more of his infrequent attempts, he began ramping back up. Under Brooks, he has been hitting at an even 50 percent clip from long distance while making nearly two threes a game.
A long 6'9" player who can gets shots off against any defender while hitting almost effortlessly from range? That's the Durant everyone envisioned coming out of the University of Texas, and slowly but surely--with the assistance of the Thunder's coaching change--we're starting to see it at the NBA level.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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