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Scott-Free: The Thunder Imagine a Future Without Scott Brooks

The Thunder didn’t win a title with Scott Brooks as a coach. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.

There are members of the Miami Heat who will whisper to you, in honest moments, that they literally could not believe their good luck that Scott Brooks just kept rolling out Kendrick Perkins during the 2012 Finals. When they realized the Thunder would not change — that Perkins would start in big lineups that couldn’t scamper with Miami’s small-ball groups — the Heat knew they had a ring in the bag.

It’s tempting to suggest that the Thunder should have fired Brooks then, instead of signing him to an extension a few weeks after that series ended. He just didn’t appear to have the in-the-moment strategic vision that becomes more important in the playoffs. Coaches reserve sneak attacks for specific opponents, pick on weak spots until they gush blood, and go to more creative lengths to hide the deficiencies on their own rosters. Being two minutes late finding the right countermove can cost you a game, a series, a championship. The margin for error is that small, and Brooks seemed not to have the goods.

But look again at that Finals run. The team’s four best players, including a star who would never play for them again, were all either 22 or 23 years old. They were talented, but they were also way ahead of schedule, and when you read those ages, it’s not shocking that the Thunder looked a little out of their depth against a veteran Miami team. Brooks didn’t put them in the best position to win, but by Games 4 and 5 in Miami, the Thunder players were coming undone in ways we might expect from young guys still learning sophisticated NBA basketball. The Heat’s pace-and-space system confused them; on some defensive possessions, it looked like the Thunder had no idea where to go next.

The Thunder offense that season was powerful but predictable. It wasn’t a system that flowed, a shape-changing organism in which the players were free to improvise reads. It was a rigid set of plays — a pin-down for Kevin Durant, then a Russell Westbrook–Serge Ibaka pick-and-roll, and then a Durant-Westbrook two-man action. Any thinking team could see what was coming, craft the best possible response, and execute it until the Thunder retreated into another set piece.

They had the talent to put up explosive regular-season numbers within that rote non-system — they always did — but postseason defenses in 2013 and 2014 ground it down. Those defenses were more prepared to pounce on the Thunder’s pet sets. They took an extra step or five away from Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, to the point that the Thunder’s starting lineup became borderline unplayable. Predictability can win in February, but not in June — not in a smarter NBA more attuned to spacing and shooting on both sides of the ball. The Thunder under Brooks were doomed, and they should have known it after those 2012 Finals.

But then think back to the conference finals in 2012. The lottery that season was held the day after San Antonio had taken a 2-0 lead over the Thunder — the Spurs’ 20th straight win. The team executives gathered in New York that night could not stop talking about the Spurs. They were fun to watch, unbeatable, a model everyone would strive to emulate. They might not lose another game. The rest of the playoffs were a coronation.

And then, bam: The Thunder — the predictable Thunder with the clueless coach — absolutely trampled all over the Spurs. San Antonio couldn’t stop that vanilla offense, and when the Spurs tried marching to the rim as they had in Games 1 and 2, they found Thunder defenders walling off the paint at every turn. The turnaround was jarring and, if you were a Spurs fan, a little bit sickening.

Anyone suggesting that Brooks is a dolt, or that his schemes couldn’t work in the playoffs, has to reckon with that series. That whitewashing of San Antonio, and much of what came later, suggests that there wasn’t much separating Oklahoma City from a championship. Coach and players needed time to grow together, in addition to the usual combination of health and luck.

They only got the time. The Thunder traded James Harden1 before the 2012-13 season, and finished 60-22 — the no. 1 seed in the West. They might have won the title that season had Patrick Beverley not collided with the wrong part of Russell Westbrook’s knee in the first round.


1.

A deal I’ve rehashed here, here, and here.

They lost Kevin Martin, the key veteran piece from the Harden trade, and still went 59-23 in 2013-14. They were primed to challenge the Spurs in the conference finals — until Serge Ibaka, the flying condor at the back line of their defense, suffered a calf injury that cost him the first two games of that series.

The Thunder didn’t win a title with Scott Brooks as a coach — but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have.

And even so, this is a fair decision. Brooks evolved after those 2012 Finals, but he was never a coach who could tilt the odds in Oklahoma City’s favor during a playoff series. The same issues always cropped up: He overplayed Perkins, underplayed lineups featuring Durant at power forward, favored aging veterans who couldn’t play anymore, failed to stagger the minutes of his stars, bizarrely had his big men hedge out 35 feet from the basket on nonthreatening pick-and-rolls, and waited a game or a quarter too long to yank lineups that just weren’t working. Brooks’s hook was faster in 2014 than it had been in 2012, but it wasn’t fast enough.

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Scott BrooksLM Otero/AP

The difference in quality among teams at the highest level is minuscule. Everyone is really freaking good. When you reach that point, the smallest decisions take on a greater importance, and you never got the feeling Brooks could nail enough of them — that he could compete with Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, and Rick Carlisle.

That doesn’t mean that the Thunder under Brooks couldn’t have won a title. It just means Brooks wasn’t helping the cause as much as a great coach might.

The Thunder brain trust had to have known this before today, which is what makes the timing so curious — in some ways. They probably knew it after the playoffs in 2013 and 2014, when the Thunder offense looked increasingly antiquated — a star system that couldn’t adapt. Nothing that happened this season should have impacted the franchise’s view of Brooks.

He barely got to coach the real team. Durant and Westbrook were out early, and Brooks talked of using their absence as a chance to build a Spurs-style motion offense. The Thunder took baby steps toward that goal, but they never had a chance to get beyond that. Durant got hurt again, and Sam Presti, the team’s GM, turned over damn near half the roster in an attempt to add two blue-chip pieces who might contribute this season and beyond.

No coach could mold a complex motion offense midstream with a brand-new roster — especially since those two blue-chip players, Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter, aren’t exactly models of Spurs-style selflessness. Neither plays any defense, and when Ibaka went down with a knee injury that required surgery, the team didn’t have enough average defenders left to compete on that end.

The Thunder won 45 games amid complete tumult and missed the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker. Where, precisely, is the fireable offense there? Firing Brooks now suggests that the Thunder have concluded he’s not the coach who can take them over the hump, and that they need to find that coach in short order, before Durant (and then Westbrook) can bail in free agency.

They couldn’t possibly have concluded that based on the events of this season — something Presti acknowledged during a press conference on Wednesday. If they have the conviction to can Brooks today, they should have had the conviction to do it in 2013 or 2014. The championship window has been open all along.

Now they have to find a new coach who can earn the trust of stars who have played for Brooks since they were kids. Moving on from Brooks earlier would have given that coach more time to do that. It also would have cost the Thunder more money, and it’s fair to wonder given the strange circumstances of Brooks’s firing if concern over paying two coaches at once for multiple years pushed the Thunder to hold off.

Presti told reporters in Oklahoma City on Wednesday that the team did not seek approval from Durant and Westbrook to fire Brooks. That’s a gamble, but it’s hard to believe the franchise took this step without doing enough legwork to be comfortable the decision wouldn’t alienate them. Either way, Brooks is gone, and the Thunder can’t afford to miss with this hire.

The hottest names, per league sources, are Billy Donovan and Kevin Ollie — the latter a beloved former Thunder teammate of Durant and Westbrook. This does not seem like a job for one of the league’s respected young assistants — Jim Boylan, Kenny Atkinson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Alex Jensen, Kaleb Canales, James Borrego, David Vanterpool, David Fizdale, and others. That would be a hard sell: “Hey, Kevin. Remember that coach you really love — the guy with the thick glasses? We’re firing him to hire this guy whose face you might vaguely recognize.”

If those coaches stay in school, the Thunder will look hard at both Mike Malone, late of the Sacramento circus troupe, and Alvin Gentry. Both are good, but Gentry would be fantastic. He’s an offensive guru who took the spread pick-and-roll baton from Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix and helped Steve Kerr turn a static star system into the league’s most multifaceted scoring machine. He’s an affable guy (perhaps too chatty for the staid Thunder) who gets along with everyone, keeps things light, and could turn this offense into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Thunder should look carefully at what happened in Golden State this season. The Warriors under Mark Jackson had a decent offense — not as good as Oklahoma City’s, but solid enough when Stephen Curry was on the floor. With more seasoning and good health, the Jackson Warriors could have been a top-10 or even top-five offense. The talent is that strong.

But Kerr, Gentry, and Ron Adams saw the chance to craft something more powerful. In the end, the current Warriors offense might produce only a couple more points per 100 possessions than Jackson’s offense could have in time. That doesn’t sound like much, but that small difference in quality could mean everything in the last two or three rounds of the playoffs. Perhaps Gentry could do something similar for the Thunder. The stats might not change much, but if the system does, those stats could be more sustainable in the games that mean the most.

Brooks will land a head job somewhere, this summer or next. He’s well liked, and he’s damned good at some parts of his job. The players loved him, they played hard for him, and he kept their attention for seven seasons —  about three Scott Skiles head-coaching stints. Players got better, and expanded their games, under Brooks and his staff. Durant became a better ball handler. Westbrook discovered more passes and learned when to make them. Ibaka became a real 3-point shooter and a more reliable defender.

Some young guys stagnated, including Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III, but no team gets everyone to improve at the same rate. Brooks would be a good fit on a young team, and given the ties between Magic GM Rob Hennigan and the Thunder, Brooks is a natural candidate for that job.

One word of caution there: The Magic are a team of strange pieces, including a point guard who can’t shoot at all and a shooting guard who only sort of can. Crafting a workable offense out of that strange brew will be tough, and the Magic might do well to look at coaches with a record of helping shape real offensive systems.

But the Magic need help at the other end, and Brooks could instill a culture of work and attention to detail there.

Brooks did well in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder had good reasons to suspect he was more Chicago Doug Collins than Chicago Phil Jackson. Jackson had at least a little time to build something in Chicago — time to lose in the playoffs, learn some things, get some new players, and go for it again. Brooks’s successor might not, and if things go badly, the job could look very different in 2017 from how it does now. Good luck, coaches.