In his five full seasons as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Scott Brooks has won almost 69 percent of his games while reaching the conference finals three times and the NBA Finals once. The only time his team underachieved relative to its seed was last season, when Russell Westbrook was hurt.
Brooks' regular season winning percentage (minus that interim stint cleaning up the mess inherited from P.J. Carlesimo) would put him third all-time behind Phil Jackson and Billy Cunningham. His postseason record isn't quite as stellar, but it's comparable to Stan Van Gundy's in both winning percentage and accomplishments.
The preamble is necessary because no coach operating at this exalted level takes as much shit as Brooks does. His crimes against basketball are apparently numerous, but they essentially boil down to two things: a failure to install an innovative offense that takes pressure off his two stars to create everything for themselves and an overreliance on aging veterans at the expense of promising, albeit unproven, young talent.
Time to move on
Time to move on
Both things can be true. Brooks can be both lauded for winning at a high level with Kevin Durant and Westbrook as well as faulted for not getting more out a team with two superstars and an array of interesting complementary pieces. Somewhere between the almost-universal derision that greets his in-game tactics and the overall record lies a coach that is not as good as the situation demands and not as bad as his detractors make it seem.
Take this conference finals with the Spurs, for example. Without Serge Ibaka for the first two games, the Thunder looked lost and hopeless. A better coach would have come up with something -- anything -- to counteract the loss of one of his best players. With Ibaka back in the lineup, the Thunder rolled to two convincing victories and Brooks made better use of players like Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb. Proof, perhaps, that he's only as good as the talent at his disposal.
Brooks' virtues are not the kind of thing we tend to congratulate coaches for having. During his tenure, Durant has grown from a physically-overmatched rookie into arguably the best player in the league, or at worst the second best. From the beginning, Brooks has let Westbrook be Westbrook despite the cries and protests from the traditionalist wing of the basketball establishment who bray that point guards just aren't supposed to do those kind of things.
How many other coaches would have pulled tightly on the reins and suffocated Westbrook's manic creativity? For all the coach's faults, Brooks didn't screw up a good thing. There's a long line of coaching retreads who failed at that simple assignment.
Photo credit: Stephen Dunn
Brooks also carved out space for James Harden to be a 2A star instead of a subservient role player and shepherded Ibaka from raw specimen into productive big man. It's possible that all those things would have happened naturally if the P.A. announcer was coaching the Thunder -- Durant's emergence most obviously -- but that gives short shrift to the environment that has taken shape under Brooks' watch.
Allowing talent to flourish is the common thread that connects the true sideline geniuses from Red Auerbach to Phil Jackson to Gregg Popovich. What separates them is an ability to coach to specific series, games and even moments, a quality that has so far eluded Brooks. If the old football coaching cliche holds true -- he could take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n -- you wouldn't take Brooks against say, Rick Carlisle, all things being equal.
But consider this quote:
"Sometimes in timeouts I'll say, ‘I've got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody's holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out.' And I'll get up and walk away. Because it's true. There's nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls-, and act like I'm a coach or something, but it's on them."
Pop said that earlier this year when talking about the genesis of the Spurs' offense that averaged 110.5 points per 100 possessions and was hailed as a benevolent dictator. That's the exact same number the Thunder produced this season, and if Brooks said something similar he'd be admitting his shortcomings. One would never confuse the Spurs' efficient machine with OKC's movement-optional approach, but the results have been remarkably similar.
None of that excuses the other stuff: The offensive design that lacks creativity, the overplaying of non-productive veterans at the expense of lineups that have been scientifically proven to work, and the out of timeout late-game sets that too often are left to the whims of hero ball. The very nature of the Thunder's talent demands a coach who can maximize their abilities and take them beyond basic expectations.
Perhaps another coach could do better with this team. The obvious example is when Phil Jackson took over the Bulls from Doug Collins and installed a system that was designed to foster trust instead of relying on Michael Jordan to save the day. That's all true, but the yin to the triangle's yang is that it empowered Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant to emerge from Jordan's considerable shadow. That has never been an issue with OKC where Durant and Westbrook have peacefully coexisted (more or less) as co-superstars.
If the little details trip him up, Brooks has excelled at the big picture stuff. He won't get credit for Westbrook going supernova in Game 4 or for Durant hitting 25-footers over defenders, but praise is due for keeping his team on course despite getting blown out in the first two games.
The only way for Brooks to counter the charges against him is to win the whole thing and consider the gauntlet that would ultimately require. From the Grizzlies' impenetrable defense, to Doc Rivers' Clippers, Pop's Spurs and perhaps LeBron's Heat, there is no tougher course in basketball and Brooks has them two-thirds of the way to the finish line.
That's the curse of coaching great talent and Brooks will find no sympathy along the way, nor should he. But maybe, possibly, he's not quite as overmatched as we make him out to be.