Scott Brooks had a substitution pattern last season, and he stuck to it.
It was so stringent you could set your clock to it.
When guard Kevin Martin checked in, for example, you knew roughly five minutes were left in the opening quarter. Kendrick Perkins often would march to the bench a minute later, and Kevin Durant regularly took his first breather a minute after that.
Brooks' rotation was rigid, and rarely did more than nine players see meaningful minutes.
Through this season's first 10 games, Brooks has been much more flexible. He's coaching with more confidence and creativity and, as a result, showing continued growth and maturity on the sideline.
Ten players currently are averaging at least 14 minutes for the Thunder, and Brooks has even used second-year forward Perry Jones III as a sporadic 11th man, playing him 10.4 minutes per game.
Brooks' efforts to both modify his minute distribution and unveil more unconventional units has illustrated his newfound trust in his young players, while also demonstrating that Brooks has embraced the idea that there's more than one way to win ballgames.
Judging by these first 10 games, no longer is Brooks consumed with piling up regular-season victories and owning the best record in November. Now, it seems Brooks is focused more on developing the entire roster and striving toward ensuring that the Thunder is playing its best ball in May.
Brooks' efforts haven't gone unnoticed.
“Scott and the coaching staff deserve a lot of credit,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti. “They have looked for ways to give us the best chance to build depth, versatility and to optimize the team throughout the season with the aim being to play our best basketball as the season evolves. We have a great coaching staff. They work hard, are committed and care deeply about the organization.”
Despite the different approach, the Thunder sports a 7-3 record that is identical to last year, a season that ended with 60 wins. That's just the most glaring indication that Brooks' belief in new methods is paying off.
After playing mostly garbage time as a rookie, Jones is now growing confident as a defender and spot-up shooter. Rookie center Steven Adams stepped in as the backup center from Day One and is averaging 17.5 minutes while providing never-before-seen depth at the center position. And second-year guard Jeremy Lamb is averaging nearly 19 minutes and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
“We have a different team as far as our bench,” Durant said. “(Brooks) is just trying to find the right group of guys that mesh with each other on that second unit. And it's tough as a coach with the younger guys figuring out what they do best, what positions to put them in. As a player, I play with those guys and I still don't really know the best plays that are run for them, or the best lineup to have out there. So he's doing a great job, in my opinion, of just trying to mix and match guys and (determine) where to put guys and what plays to call and whether to mix the starters with the second unit. So you got to give him some credit.”
The list of adjustments Brooks has made is a long one.
Lamb, for instance, already has eclipsed the 147 minutes he played as a rookie. It took him just nine games. Adams, meanwhile, has played more minutes than Perkins four times. He was even inserted as the emergency starter over the more experienced Hasheem Thabeet when Perkins missed two games due to a death in his family. Derek Fisher, a safety net of sorts for Brooks, played seven minutes or less in four straight games, a stretch capped by a surprising night off at Golden State.
Brooks also started rookie guard Andre Roberson in place of an ill Thabo Sefolosha last Saturday at Milwaukee. Prior to that game against the Bucks, Roberson had appeared in only two games, totaling just 10 minutes. Brooks, however, showed trust in yet another young player and, consequently, kept his bench unit intact by keeping Lamb with the second unit.
Throughout these first 10 games, Durant also is being subbed out at various times, which has allowed more players a chance to pair with various combinations. Two point guards and three-guard lineups that feature Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and Fisher/Lamb/Sefolosha also have been utilized both throughout games and in crunch time.
It's all making the Thunder deeper, more dynamic and more dangerous.
“We're getting experience, but it's also keeping us hungry,” said Jackson. “I think everybody wants to kind of figure out what's the set lineup. We may not necessarily have one right now, but it just keeps you hungry to go ahead and try to fight for those extra minutes and stay on the court.
“When you're not sure your number is going to be called or how many minutes you're going to get but you know there is a legit opportunity, you always stay ready because you don't want to go out there and disappoint.”