Oklahoma City Thunder preview: Why Scott Brooks could be forced to expand his bench

SCOTT BROOKS — The Thunder's coach cast aside his beloved nine-man rotation last last season when Daequan Cook started hitting 3-pointers. The condensed NBA schedule could prompt Brooks to go to his bench even more this season.
BY DARNELL MAYBERRY AND JOHN ROHDE Published: December 18, 2011
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Thunder coach Scott Brooks has not talked about playing time.

Not to his players. Not to the media.

Therefore, no one really knows how the coach will run his rotation.

But this much is clear. The distribution of minutes could be more significant in this season than in any other we've seen.

Because of the NBA lockout, the league was forced to shrink the schedule and compress 66 games into 124 days for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The schedule will include 18 back-to-backs — one more than OKC had last year — and an abnormal stretch of five games in six nights, which will test the Thunder's legs with a potentially grueling test of three games on consecutive nights.

“Everybody's bench is going to be relied upon more,” said veteran guard Royal Ivey. “That's just the nature of the business right now. With a shortened season and guys coming into training camp, they might be out of shape or guys might get hurt. You never know so you've just got to prepare yourself for anything.”

In addition to his usual responsibility of trotting out the most effective lineups, Brooks now has to guard against fatigue and the possibility of injuries this season. It's a tough task considering that Brooks must also play his regulars enough to win games and allow them to gain their rhythm before gearing up for the playoffs.

“Everybody's going to have to be ready,” said Ivey. “You never know what can happen. Guys can go down so guys got to be ready to play, from Reggie Jackson to myself.”

Brooks settled on a nine-man rotation throughout much of last season. Only toward the end of the year did Brooks expand the rotation to 10 players. An 11-man rotation sounds impossible, but it's not something anyone should count out given the circumstances and the amount of talent in OKC.

“It just depends on how the guys feel,” said guard Daequan Cook, last year's 10th man. “I'm not going to sit here and say I know who (Brooks) is going to play and how he's going to play them. It just depends on how the guys feel and how people's bodies are and how guys on the bench are producing, not just in practice but also in the games.”

For a coach who constantly counts on consistency — right down to preserving the same substitution pattern for nearly every game — this shortened season could test Brooks in ways he's never experienced.

Kevin Durant played 38.9 minutes last season, and Russell Westbrook averaged 34.7 minutes. Brooks must first figure out how to handle those two All-Stars, juggling what's in the team's best interest versus their disgust for sitting. While Westbrook's playing time might remain the same, Durant's definitely could see a reduction.

Returning starters Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, however, averaged just 27 and 25.2 minutes, respectively. Ibaka's minutes are likely to increase now that he's the full-time starter. Perkins, though, has never averaged more than 29.6 minutes so Brooks might be in the clear with his starting big men.

James Harden, meanwhile, averaged 26.7 minutes last year and appears to be in line for the biggest bump this season. He played 28.3 minutes per game after the All-Star break a year ago and proved himself worthy of an even larger role this year.

Others such as Cook, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Cole Aldrich and Byron Mullens also could be looked to more, as well as Jackson and newcomer Lazar Hayward.

The positive thing in all of it is the Thunder has a roster filled with capable players. They all just have to stay ready.

“It's going to go by quick,” said Mohammed. “You've got to get your rest and you've got to be prepared to go deep into your bench because it's going to be some injuries because of so many games. It goes hand-in-hand.”

THE THUNDER BENCH

45 — COLE ALDRICH

Position: Center

Height/Weight: 6-11/245

2010-11 stats: 1.0 ppg; 1.9 rpg; 7.9 mpg; .533 FG; .000 3FG; .500 FT; 0.2 apg; 0.3 spg; 0.4 bpg

Niche: Defense. Aldrich will get on the court to block shots, rebounds and draw charges. He's a physical defender who doesn't mind contact. If all else fails, Aldrich will make good use of his six fouls. On offense, Aldrich has an adequate hook shot and not much else.

Opportunity: Aldrich might not be ready to leapfrog Nazr Mohammed as the full-time backup to starting center Kendrick Perkins. But he could see more spot minutes. It depends on how much Aldrich learned in a year. If he's not ready, he could see time once again in Tulsa for the D-League's 66ers.

14 — DAEQUAN COOK

Position: Shooting guard

Height/Weight: 6-5/210



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