Oklahoma City’s résumé with Scott Brooks in charge is well known: One Finals appearance, two more runs to the Western Conference Finals, eight playoff series wins, three consecutive top two seeds, 45+ wins in all six of his full seasons.
However, the part of that sentence that has become the most important element of Brooks’s reputation isn’t any of those accomplishments: it’s the phrase, “in charge.”
Most Brooks critics focus on two things:
1. Overplaying limited veterans such as Kendrick Perkins, Derek Fisher and Thabo Sefolosha, especially when it came at the cost of thinking long-term with the likes of Steven Adams, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones.
2. That Oklahoma City was so overwhelmingly talented, with two players, as Russell Westbrook this season showed, capable of leading the league in scoring, plus the league’s most fearsome rim protector in Serge Ibaka. How in the world could that team never win a title?
The problem with both of those judgments is that they’re in no way unique to Brooks. Rick Carlisle, George Karl, Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau are all well-known for trusting past-their-prime veterans to a fault at the cost of developing young prospects. In addition, Stan Van Gundy’s Magic teams let a couple shots at a title slip through their fingers, but that didn’t stop him from being the NBA’s hottest coaching candidate last summer and garnering control over basketball operations in Detroit.
No, what the case against Brooks ultimately boils down to this: he doesn’t outwardly appear to be a “leader of men.”
The NBA, while significantly more progressive than its competitors, isn’t immune to larger societal expectations and prejudices, and Brooks is a victim of that. No matter how society changes, a man who doesn’t project utmost confidence will be seen as weak. Just as flawed as most other coaches, Brooks sticks out because he doesn’t embody the overly-masculine, machismo profile that famous coaches possess. He wields neither the biting, sarcastic wit of a Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, nor the gruff, no-nonsense attitude of Thibodeau or Carlisle. Making matters worse, he and Westbrook go hand-in-hand, as the latter’s balls-to-the-wall style makes both of them look worse to the casual observer. To them, Westbrook is the man without a plan, and Brooks is the coach who doesn’t hold enough command of his huddle to demand otherwise.
I don’t know how good Scott Brooks truly is at coaching. If I’m not going to blame him for losing with teams that have been too injured to compete, or to a team with LeBron James, I’m also not going to blindly credit him for winning with Kevin Durant-led rosters that were better than their Western Conference contemporaries. In simplistic terms, he’s not that different from the esteemed Thibodeau, considering both kept the ship steady amid major injuries to their respective stars, run offenses that can rank well by the numbers but disappoint via the eye test and have consistently fielded elite defenses, at least until their best interior defender (Ibaka for Brooks, Joakim Noah for Thibodeau) was affected by injury.
What I do know is that we’ve seen this before with Mike Brown in Cleveland and Erik Spoelstra in Miami. Despite quality reputations within the league and, in Spoelstra’s case, success before LeBron arrived, both were accused of riding shotgun while coaching James because it appeared as if LeBron was the one actually running the team. The same thing was seen again this year in regards to the way people reacted to the dynamic between Cavs head coach David Blatt and associate head coach Tyronn Lue, along with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst saying LeBron would call plays, with Blatt merely repeating them. For proof, look no further than the headline in the Deadspin link for that story: “David Blatt Just Stands There Like A Buster And Parrots LeBron’s Calls.”
Having the charisma and bravado to command the room is certainly a part of being a head coach, but it’s not the end-all, be-all. Teams like Orlando have been suggested as the next stop for Brooks. He may not be the coach to get Oklahoma City to the mountaintop, but he did help their stars develop and mature, thus he could do the same elsewhere. That’s where the case for the pro-Brooks camp starts to crumble: even they see that as his future, as opposed to jumping to another contender, like Chicago or Washington.
Scott Brooks is neither the right coach nor the wrong coach; he is cyclically both, which means we’ll be back to this point in four in five years, when his new team has been rebuilt, but stands at a crossroad.