Longevity and impending free agency have created a lose-lose for the Thunder
Here’s the thing about Scott Brooks: he’s not a bad coach; more on that in a bit. Here’s the thing about my personal evaluation of Scott Brooks: for years I’ve teetered back and forth, gone this way and then that, bounced from one extreme to the other. One day I’ll hate him; I’ll be grabbing my pitchfork (not literally) and painting signs that call for his immediate sacking. The next day I’ll agree with Royce Young and the Oklahoma City media, which for some reason has pledged undying allegiance to Brooks.
Well, those days are over. I’ve decided it really is time to let Brooks go. But while it’s easy for me—a graduate student, an occasional sportswriter, a distant lover of the game—to come to that conclusion, it won’t be so easy for Sam Presti; again, more on that in a bit. First, some facts about Scott Brooks.
Only three other coaches in the league have spent more time with their teams than Scott Brooks, who started in 2008: Rick Carlisle in Dallas, Erik Spoelstra in Miami, and Gregg Popovich (all hail!) in San Antonio. Two of those three coaches are the best two coaches in the NBA. Hint: it’s not Spoelstra, who I’d put into the same category as Brooks, but slightly better. So, that’s interesting, right? Because even though Spoelstra might not be as great of a coach as Carlisle or His Majesty Popovich, he’s still won multiple rings. Yes, LeBron James was there. And yes, his team was playing in the Eastern Conference, so making it to four straight championships seems easier to do. But still.
Another fact about Scott Brooks: he’s a really, really good people manager. Think about it. Not only does he have one of the most explosive personalities in basketball in Russell Westbrook, but he has had to manage the occasionally tumultuous on-court relationship between Westbrook and Kevin Durant. And speaking of Durant—although by most standards he seems like an absolutely perfect basketball player off the court, the one critique you might make of him on the court is pointing out his sporadic moping. I know; it hurts me, too, even to criticize Durant, who’s my favorite baller. The Reggie Jackson situation, rearing up young players like Steven Adams—Scott Brooks does a lot of things really well. That should not go unnoticed.
But the troublesome fact remains: he has not won a championship. To put a more interesting spin on that fact: Scott Brooks, who for the last few years has had the league’s best duo since Kobe/Shaq, has not won a championship. You can raise all sorts of little criticisms to my statements—injuries, unfortunate timings, etc. But every team goes through those ups and downs.
What about the offense, too? At times OKC’s offense makes YMCA basketball teams of 5th graders coached by their dads look like the Spurs’ fluid system. At times, it’s miserable and painful to watch. Royce Young will argue this: 1) Scott Brooks, knowing the sheer talent of his roster, employs a “chaos” offense with lots of pick-and-rolls, isolations, etc. in order to best suit his team; 2) the Thunder, over the last few years, have actually had one of the league’s best offensive efficiency ratings; 3) thus Scott Brooks is not a terrible X’s and O’s coach. The problem with this line of reasoning is it ultimately claims, “The best way to get the most out of your talent is to let them go one-on-one at other teams.” Or, to put it the other way around, “Having a fluid, dynamic offensive systems that not only incorporates pick-and-rolls and isolations but a variety of other styles/players/plays/etc. would not work for the Thunder.” Why?
If the San Antonio Spurs or the Atlanta Hawks can create beautiful, efficient offensive systems that manage minutes and create a number of easy opportunities—a rare thing for Oklahoma City, except in transition; i.e. they rely on the absurd talent of Westbrook and Durant to make tough shots rather than employ an offensive system designed to create higher-accuracy opportunities—if other teams use system to maximize less talented rosters, then why can’t the Thunder use a system that will get even more out of their talent?
And that’s the crux of the matter: the OKC media has pampered Scott Brooks, and in the name of “loyalty” has stuck by him despite his winning a championship. Again, Royce Young will come back at me and point to winning the Western Conference multiple times, an unfortunate Serge Ibaka injury, and regular season winning percentages. If he’s satisfied with that, and if OKC’s media is satisfied with that, then retain Scott Brooks.
But there’s a catch: it might be too late for the Thunder to fire Brooks. Durant has one year left on his contract, and firing Brooks at the end of the year might mean alienating Durant at the worst possible time. What’s a team to do?