With Scott Brooks out, Kevin Durant's future in OKC depends on Sam Presti
If Kevin Durant leaves Oklahoma City as a free agent next summer, Thunder GM Sam Presti will be able to look in the mirror and tell himself that he played every card in his hand.
Presti announced the firing of Scott Brooks on Wednesday, parting ways with the head coach who had held his post since 2008. Brooks departs with a 338-207 (.620) record, and his résumé includes three trips to the Western Conference finals and one trip to the Finals. Both Durant and Russell Westbrook, continued their longstanding public support of Brooks as recently as their exit interviews last week, and Brooks will be remembered as the coach who oversaw their development into A-list superstars, but couldn't quite leverage their talent into a title. Brooks was under contract for next season, and he told reporters last week that he expected to return in 2015-16, even as rumors circled around his job status. Three foot surgeries for Durant, multiple health issues for Westbrook and a late-season knee surgery for Serge Ibaka provided Presti every excuse in the book to stick with Brooks, who failed to guide the Thunder to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
This was a proactive firing, not a reactive firing, for one very obvious reason. Presti, known for his calculating manner, didn't simply look at Oklahoma City's 45 wins and pull the trigger out of frustration, longing for the days of the 2012 Finals. Durant's foot issues have dragged along for months, and the Thunder surely understood they were headed nowhere, fast, without their franchise forward. Instead, Presti's decision to part with Brooks mirrors his aggressive midseason moves. With just one season until Durant can become an unrestricted free agent for the first time, the famously deliberate executive is taking every step to ensure he doesn't get left standing alone at the alter.
"This past year we had unique and challenging circumstances and as I have conveyed, not many people could have accomplished what Scott and this team were able to," Presti said in a statement. "This decision is not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain. We determined that, in order to stimulate progress and put ourselves in the best position next season and as we looked to the future, a transition of this kind was necessary for the program."
IThe Thunder's "evolution, progress and sustainability" is entirely dependent upon keeping Durant and making the absolute most out of his talents. This past season provided a long taste of life without Durant, and Oklahoma City devolved, regressed and, ultimately, collapsed in the final two weeks of the season. Without Durant this season, Oklahoma City was 27-28, another mediocre team with no hope of competing in the West, even as Westbrook blossomed into an MVP candidate. It was one of the most thrilling meaningless rides in recent memory. Durant is the substance to the Thunder.
Presti understands this better than anyone. Arguably the most emotional statement of his career came in response to speculation that he might trade Durant. "He personifies the Thunder: past, present and future," Presti said. "When he's done playing there will be streets named after him throughout the state and younger generations of Oklahomans will learn about the role Kevin has played in elevating this community in ways beyond basketball."
At the same time, Presti surely realizes that the Thunder need to elevate Durant. Publicly, Durant never wavered in his support of Brooks, and he made headlines for getting frustrated with the media at All-Star Weekend for quizzing him on his coach's job status. As anyone who watched his 2014 MVP speech knows, Durant is loyal to those around him. At least some of his frustration with reporters must have come from the fact that they were asking him questions he simply couldn't answer honestly even if he wanted to. Being boxed into that particular corner, for years, would surely get tedious.
That's not to suggest that Durant soured on Brooks, but to explain one possible motivating factor for Presti's proactive move. Malaise doesn't help him keep Durant. Blindly sticking with the status quo doesn't help him keep Durant. Expecting Durant to carry the team year after year, without seeking out major potential improvements via trades and a coaching staff change, doesn't help him keep Durant. That approach could easily fuel a "You need me more than I need you" line of thinking come next summer.
Instead, Presti has taken the opposite approach. He cashed in a beloved draft pick to take a shot on Dion Waiters. He cut ties with Thunder mainstay Kendrick Perkins and orchestrated a multi-team deal that landed Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler in an effort to fortify his roster for a postseason run. And, now, he's dumped Brooks and covered a key base for next summer. The James Harden trade and the ownership's reluctance to pay the luxury tax as its roster developed has created a "They are content with what they have, rather than willing to do whatever it takes to win" narrative. Firing Brooks, if nothing else, pushes back on this theory.
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The problem for Presti, though, is that this move also conveys upon him all of the risk should the coaching change backfire. Yes, he's avoided the possibility of scrambling to fire his coach, a la Cleveland in 2010. Yes, he's set up the possibility that the arrival of a Billy Donovan or Kevin Ollie could produce a Steve Kerr-esque breakthrough. But he's also made himself the obvious target if things go wrong. What happens if Durant and Westbrook struggle to adapt to a new offensive system? What happens if the next system can't strike the right balance between the two scoring champions? What happens if their bond with their next coach isn't as strong as it was with Brooks? What happens if the Thunder draws a horrible first-round matchup, like the Clippers and Spurs this year, and are eliminated quickly? Will Durant wonder if "the old way" was given a fair shot?
On balance, this looks like a calculated risk for Presti and one worth making, especially if he already has his next coach in mind and a vision for how Oklahoma City can take the next step. The Thunder are too talented to be dragging along, burdened by the same old doubts and frustrations about Brooks' abilities. This is a team that should be free and happy, and Durant is a player whose gifts for the game are so pure that he should never be grumbling.
In a recent television interview, Durant said that he likes the idea of sticking with one franchise for his whole career. The worst thing Presti could have done was take those words for granted. There will be no breathing easy until Durant puts pen to paper on his next contract, and there shouldn't be. After eight years together, Presti owed it to Durant to prove that his talk about street signs and community elevation wasn't just words. The next 15 months should reveal whether basketball's best scorer appreciates Presti's willingness to take his shot with the Thunder's future on the line.