It’s been just a handful of days since Scott Brooks was fired as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s head coach, and the shock, and even dismay, still hasn’t worn off for some.
Even though the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs this year – for the first time in the past six seasons – the buzz about next year is beyond strong. Next season is projected to start with these players presently under contract: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Steven Adams, Anthony Morrow, Nick Collison, D.J. Augustin, Andre Roberson, Mitch McGary, Steve Novak, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. Enes Kanter and Kyle Singler will become restricted free agents this summer with the Thunder able to, and expected to, match any offer sheet they may sign with other teams. Even though a few players on that list don’t see much court time, that’s a strong 15-man roster. And don’t forget the Thunder have the 14th pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Thanks to roster changes at different points this year, Brooks would have finally had a deep bench to coach, and critics and supporters alike were universal in their belief the Thunder would be true title contenders in 2015-16. But in one swift move by Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti on April 22nd, the attention shifted from excitement about the coming season with a healthy roster to Presti’s decision to fire the beloved Brooks.
Why now? The timing of relieving the successful head coach of his duties continues to be scrutinized.
Brooks cannot be held responsible for Durant missing 55 games, Westbrook missing 15 games and Ibaka missing 18 games this year. The plethora of injuries to other players, too numerous to list, also contributed to the reasons the Thunder’s season was so disappointing. Ending up with a .549 record (45-37) was a major feat by Brooks considering all the challenging events that occurred. In fact, this could have been his best coaching year yet. Presti admitted most coaches would not have fared so well given the same circumstances. Just a couple months ago, Brooks’ name was in Coach of the Year conversation. Despite all the adversity the team faced this season, he had them at least vying for the eighth and final spot on the last day of the regular season.
In the 545 regular season games Brooks coached, he won 338 and lost 207. That .620 record currently ranks 20th in NBA history and marks the best win percentage among coaches who never won a title (with a minimum of 500 games coached). During his tenure in OKC, Brooks took the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals three times (2010-11, 2011-12, 2013-14), to the West’s Semi-Finals (2012-13) and to the first round (2009-10). Most teams would be elated with that postseason history and promise of future success. Brooks was named Coach of the Year in 2010 and was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for games played in February this year.
The Thunder made just one trip to the NBA Finals, in 2011-12, when the Miami HEAT were on a mission for a title. Under the national glare, the Thunder fell apart for a variety of reasons (fans will mostly remember how James Harden failed to show up). It was reminiscent of how things fell apart for the HEAT the year before in their first trip (in the Big Three era) to the Finals. Devastating injuries in 2012-13 (Westbrook) and in 2013-14 (Ibaka) each effectively ended the Thunder’s bid. This season was supposed to be the year to win a championship, but, of course, injuries to key players struck again.
In Presti’s press conference, he said the decision to fire Brooks was more reflective of the team’s goals looking toward the future rather than what transpired in past seasons. He says it’s time for a change. Maybe a new coach will get the team “over the hump” in the postseason. Brooks definitely proved he can lead the team during regular seasons by his winning record (.712 in 2011-12, .732 in 2012-13, .720 in 2013-14), but he hasn’t had a full-strength roster in the playoffs since their Finals appearance. We’ll never know if the lessons learned during the 2011-12 NBA Finals, and the seasons that followed, could be implemented in a return Finals appearance with Brooks at the helm.
Was it fair to drop him before allowing him to coach the deepest Thunder roster yet? Didn’t Brooks deserve to play out the last year remaining on his contract?
Brooks took what was then a 1-12 team from ousted head coach P.J. Carlesimo during their first year in Oklahoma City and turned it around quickly. He worked tirelessly with then-future superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and when roster changes occurred – and there were an abundance of them – he rolled with it. The national pundits say Brooks was too laid-back, too uncreative in designing plays and too non-confrontational toward players. That might be true to some extent, but Brooks clearly did a lot of things right to get the team playing at such a high level in such a short amount of time.
Brooks connected not only with the players but with the residents of Oklahoma City. They saw in him what those in the heartland value most: humility, sincerity, unpretentiousness, a down-to-earth attitude, hopefulness and good old-fashioned determination and hard work. He always let off a certain air that made it crystal clear he was grateful to be there. He continually spoke of coming to the next game a better team than the last. It was the Thunder Way. It was the Scott Brooks Way. He understood such commitment was the Oklahoma Way. And fans loved him for it. There was rarely a post-game interview where Brooks did not single out fans as being instrumental during games. He seemed astounded by their constant support. Win or lose, he made mention of the fans. His calm demeanor laced with self-deprecating humor won the city over. Now if he were just simply a nice guy who didn’t win basketball games, that’s one thing. But he was a nice guy who put the Thunder on the NBA map.
In game timeouts, Brooks was more often overheard saying things to his players like “guys, you can do this!” and “play hard and play for each other!” than spewing criticisms. Optimism was his middle name. The bonus aspect of Brooks as coach is how much his players liked playing for him. Durant and Westbrook have been vocal about that through the years. You could see the relationship and camaraderie Brooks had with each of them. They’ve always wanted to win for him. They trusted him. Even when the Thunder performed poorly, he was never one to call out a player by name. He would get upset, but he would go to great lengths to avoid throwing anyone under the bus. He would never use all the injuries and surgeries (five for Westbrook and three for Durant) as an excuse for a bad game.
One thing that is hardly ever addressed is the assistant coaching staff the front office put together. Can you name any of them? A lot of people can name who isn’t there anymore. Defensive guru Ron Adams instilled principles on that side of the ball early on. Adams is now with the contending Golden State Warriors, and the Thunder never added a defensive-minded assistant coach of his caliber. There was the no-nonsense assistant coach that Westbrook adored, former NBA All-Star Mo Cheeks, who worked with the guards. Last summer, wing specialist and player development coach Brian Keefe (known as “Kevin Durant’s Guy”) left OKC after seven seasons to join Derek Fisher in New York.
As much credit as Presti gets, he’s made some questionable decisions, as most general managers do. Byron Mullens, Cole Aldrich, Kendrick Perkins (that contract!) and Hasheem Thabeet, to name a few. Above all, trading Harden for one year of Kevin Martin, the under-achieving Jeremy Lamb and the draft pick that landed them Steven Adams was the most dissected. At least Adams looks very promising. Overall, Presti has made great decisions over poor ones. His impressive track record will help sustain the “In Presti, We Trust” mantra Oklahoma City fans have adopted over the years.
Of course, perhaps something else was happening behind closed doors that led to the Brooks’ firing. Personalities can clash. Goals and direction among the parties may not be aligned. Sometimes change, however difficult, yields results desired. What is known is that Brooks was not ready to leave. Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka did not want Brooks to leave. It appears Presti did not consult with his stars before making the decision nor was he required to. The players are professional enough to know the importance of supporting the decision. Still, the franchise is taking quite a risk with this move one year before Durant can be a free agent.
Presti would be wise to not prolong the naming of a new head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s affording fans and supporters too much time to think about and talk about and question what happened instead of placing their energies into imagining how the new coach will lead this now-deep team.
Thunder fans will put away the emotions in time. Remember, they’re relatively new at this business of enjoying a professional sports team. Most of them are now understanding that having the same coach for nearly seven years is quite remarkable. They will celebrate Brooks’ success elsewhere. They will applaud him personally when he brings his opposing team to the Chesapeake Energy Arena to face the Thunder. But many of them will always think he got a raw deal.
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