Thursday, October 2, 2014

Derek Fisher and Scott Brooks

If there's an underplayed story line coming into the season, it's that the Oklahoma City Thunder are no longer playing with one arm tied behind their back. Last season, in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, the game which essentially decided the NBA championship, Scott Brooks played Derek Fisher 32 minutes. This is something I've mentioned before, but I feel like it's worth breaking down into more detail.

I try not to be too hyperbolic in this blog, but that is absolutely insane. It seems like people became used to the insanity of the whole thing because Brooks had been giving Fisher big minutes for three years in defiance of basic statistics, advanced statistics and an even basic grasp of logic, but let's not sugarcoat things because D Fish gave reporters good quotes over the years was a great character guy.

Let's start with a few basics. These were Fisher's statistics in last year's playoffs - 4 points, 2 rebounds and 1 assist on 32% shooting. When asked to comment on them, Brooks would generally say something along the lines of Fisher's role not being enough for him to get into a rhythm, which is fair enough, although he sure loved to jump to conclusions on his young guys based on the smallest of sample sizes. 

Those are particularly abysmal, but I'm hardly cherry picking the statistical record here. Over the course of a whole season, the last time that Fisher had even acceptable statistics for a starting PG came in 2008-2009, a full five years prior to 2014. That was the last year he shot over 40% from the field, which isn't exactly a huge bar to clear. He had been a very below average NBA player for a very, very long time.

Here's the thing, though - that is exactly what you would expect from a guy like Fish. Even in his prime, he wasn't one of the best athletes at his position and he had a fairly one-dimensional game. Very few guys can be NBA-lever players in their late 30's - the ones who are usually guys like Jason Kidd, who are declining from such a peak that they can still keep up an acceptable level of play. You don't see many role-players last into their late 30's.

This doesn't even get into the fact that his basic stats don't account for the lack of foot speed he suffered as he moved into middle age. It's the same thing as what happened to Derek Jeter this season - it doesn't matter how much of a leader you are if you can't move your feet on defense. A 6'1 guard who is 39 years old is not going to hack it on that side of the floor, no matter how many times the refs bail him out with a charge call.

If you look at all the different ways that a basketball player can add value to the floor, the late-end model of Fisher came up short in all of them. He wasn't creating his own shot and he was no threat to do anything off the dribble. He wasn't running point or getting anyone else shots - he was mostly spotting up from 3. That's fine, except he shot 29% from 3 in the playoffs! On defense, he was being hidden as much as possible. 

Maybe his leadership was so vital to OKC that he absolutely had to be on the floor in the biggest game of the season, but if that's the case, that doesn't say too many positive things about their other players. Are you telling me they are so incompetent they need a geriatric out there telling them what to do? You only get to have five players on the floor at any one time - you might as well make each spot in the line-up count.

Something that is also worth pointing out is that Brooks fought and clawed to keep Fisher in the rotation far beyond the point of rationality. We can argue about some of the guys that Fisher was ahead of in the rotation, but can we all agree that Reggie Jackson was a much, much better player? Yet I give you Game 2 of their first-round series against Memphis, when Fisher was at 17 minutes and Jackson was at 15.

Fisher actually had better statistics in that game, but if we want to play it that way, I can point to a number of games in those playoffs where he didn't. When guys are playing in limited minutes off the bench, it's about process, not results, in a one-game scenario. The process of playing Derek Fisher over Reggie Jackson in the year 2014 is not a process I can get behind. 

Let's fast forward to Game 6 against San Antonio, after Jackson had firmly established himself as one of the Thunder's best players. With the season on the line and a shot at a championship at stake, Brooks went full YOLO, playing five guys the last 17 minutes of the game - all of the 4Q and OT. It's hard to argue with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Jackson, but let's look at who could have that fifth spot instead of Fisher:

Caron Butler - I was not a huge fan of what Tough Juice brought to the table in OKC, but I'll still put him comfortably above Fish. He was a better shooter and he was much bigger, which gave him the ability to shoot over the top of smaller defenders and would have given the Thunder more size on the perimeter, instead of going 6'1, 6'3, 6'3. 

Thabo Sefolosha - Not a huge fan of Thabo's game either, but he's still in his athletic prime and was a far, far better perimeter defender than Fisher. He gives the Thunder another perimeter athlete who could try to turn over the Spurs and get the game going up-and-down and he certainly couldn't have shot worse than Fisher.

Jeremy Lamb - This is where I would have gone. I was banging that Jeremy Lamb drum all season and whenever he got on the floor, he produced. People tell me he struggled with his confidence and he went into a shooting slump and he couldn't handle the big stage, yet he did have a 14.4 PER in the playoffs, so he must have been doing something right. PER is far from a perfect stat, but Lamb damn near DOUBLED Fish. Also, the only thing worse than a guy shooting 32% from the floor is a guy who is confident while doing so. 

Perry Jones III - Pretty much the exact opposite of Fisher, in terms of what he brought to the floor. Instead of being unable to guard any positions, PJ3 could defend all five. Instead of bringing no length and athletic ability to the table, PJ3 is one of the longest and most athletic players in the league. Here's a crazy idea - if a guy is going to stand in a corner on offense, it's better if he's 6'11 235 than 6'1 180. 

Steven Adams - A different look, if the Thunder had been trying to go big with two post instead of playing four out in the last parts of Game 6. At the same time, putting an unathletic guy who can't shoot on the floor kind of defeats the whole purpose of going small. Adams had his moments in the playoffs - he was on the floor for most of the second half of Game 6 against the Clippers. He gives them another big body, another athlete and a guy who clog up the lane.

Nick Collison - The same idea as Adams, in terms of a different look. With Collison on the floor, the Thunder have another facilitator in the half-court and a guy who can bang on the glass. He wasn't very useful against the Spurs, but if we're not going to hold that against Fish, let's give one of the hardest working and most beloved players in the Thunder locker room some love.

Kendrick Perkins - I'm grasping at straws, but at least Perk gives them a big body who can match up with Tim Duncan in the post.

The point of this exercise is that of the 8 different options that Brooks had to close out the game, he chose the worst possible one. Every one of the players who watched the Thunder's season end from the bench could have brought more to the floor than Fisher. At some point, a coaching staff has to preach accountability to the players - you can't just do whatever you want to do out there with no fear of coming out the game.

Take a look at what Pop does in San Antonio - he will bench Duncan, Parker or Ginobili like it's nothing. He doesn't care. He's trying to put the best five on the floor and he's not worried about hurting anyone's feelings in the process. This is why I can't take people who say that Brooks gets a bad rap. He doesn't. I'm sure he's a great guy and he's important to the locker room, but there are a lot of great guys in the NBA. A coach doesn't have to make the perfect decision every time, but he at least has to make reasonable ones.

If you put wheels on a traffic cone and had a guy use a remote control to direct it around the court, it would roughly approximate the value Fisher had last season. It would actually be better, since the cone would not soak up as many possessions in as inefficient a manner. The worst part is when the coach insults the collective intelligence of the audience and acts like we're the asshole for bringing this up. No, sir, you are the asshole.

I'm not sure which explanation makes Brooks seem worse. Did he actually think that Fisher was his best option in terms of winning the game? Or did he just not care and he wanted to play his friend and everyone else can go hang? 

My pet theory, based on many years of watching Avery Johnson in Dallas, is based on psychology. Guys like Johnson and Brooks were mediocre players, but they had tremendous pride (had too to be in the NBA at all) and they couldn't have like riding the bench as much as they did. So they had to develop elaborate theories about why their leadership and knowledge of the game meant they should have been out there and they had to resent younger players who took their minutes even though they hadn't paid their dues. So when they coach a guy like Fisher late in his career, they are really justifying their own playing careers. If they evaluated it objectively, cognitive dissonance would kick in and the foundation of their identity as basketball players might be shaken. 

Either way, Fisher took the decision out of Brooks hands when he retired. If he had stayed in the league, Brooks would have played him. I feel like it's crazy to say he would have gotten minutes at 42 or 43, but it was crazy at 39, so who knows. Here's the point - you don't have to be as bullish on their young players as me to think that OKC will be much improved next season, if only because just about any player in the NBA would have done more for them if given Fisher's minutes. 


  1. "A coach doesn't have to make the perfect decision every time, but he at least has to make reasonable ones"

    I'd argue Brooks' fault is indecision. He was comfortable with Fisher and din't want to push the envelope with the young guys. Sometimes coaches need to risk takers, and Brooks never wants to take those risks.

    I'm right there with you on Lamb and PJ3. I remember watching PJ3 guard Lebron last year and thinking "This kid has real NBA skills, what a great pickup for the Thunder". But Brooks doesn't know how to develop these young guys! He's got talent, but refuses to cultivate it. If Pop had either of those guys they'd be contributing right now for a deadly deep Spurs team.

  2. Comfort level definitely has a lot to do with it. It will be interesting to see whether OKC brings any veterans in at the buyout deadline this season, knowing what they know about Brooks substitution patterns.

  3. To me, PJ is the guy who I want as the starter this season, and would have been great then. His length makes him so versatile, and he can shoot like a 2 guard as well. I'm hoping they don't bring in any vets now, because they're gonna just steal time from the young guys.

  4. Glad to see someone else on the PJ3 bandwagon! It's getting lonely, haha.

    1. All aboard man, love your stuff on RealGM too!

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  6. Long time fisher fan here, and I actually think he was a great player and deserved to be on the court that day, but even I laughed at the point when you wrote "brooks went full YOLO and played them all for the last 17 mins".

    d-fish and KD could have been what lebron & ray allen was. but kd was too weak back then.