Thunder gambling there's a brighter future without Scott Brooks
The Oklahoma City Thunder fired Scott Brooks on Wednesday, and in doing so folded on eight years of relationships within the organization. None among them were more critical than the ties between Brooks, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook. It was under Brooks' watch that Durant grew from a scrawny, out-of-position shooter to the MVP; that Westbrook transformed from a haywire chucker to an extraordinary creator; and that the Thunder, once regulars in the draft lottery, sowed contention on their own terms.
Brooks helped foster a developmental culture so hearty that it made the ascent of those stars (as well as perennial All-NBA defender Serge Ibaka) seem inevitable. In a way, much of the criticism of Brooks is rooted there. His shortcomings are plainly visible—matters of tactics worthy of discussion and criticism. Yet the great irony of Brooks' success is that he made it appear as though anyone could coach the Thunder, no matter the job's incredible challenges. His finest work was to propagate an illusion.
Brooks is not a bad basketball coach. To be fair to the Thunder, though, he also may not be the right basketball coach for what this team has become. The growth Brooks has shown in game planning and management over the past few seasons still leaves OKC underserved. They could do better. Brooks isn't to blame for injuries to any of the Thunder's three stars or the opportunity costs that came as a result. But so long as Sam Presti and his staff were convinced that the head coaching spot stood as a point of potential leverage, this was the most sensible time to take action.
Firing a coach after a trip to the conference finals or NBA Finals risks sending the wrong message. Firing one after the team misses the playoffs entirely—if for reasons that go well beyond the coach's work—offers a cleaner break. This is the window for change. A determination was made that a different voice could draw more from the Thunder than Brooks had, and thus his firing came in service of that greater goal. It is possible to do sufficient (and even impressive) work and still obstruct a franchise's intended course. In a sense, Brooks held the Thunder back.
Still, a coach of his equity wouldn't be released without a suitable replacement is mind. Oklahoma City hasn't fired Brooks so that it can conduct a thorough search. It's moving on toward targeted, considered ends. Perhaps the new head of the Thunder bench turns out to be UConn coach Kevin Ollie, as has long been rumored all along. Maybe Fred Hoiberg or Billy Donovan make the jump to the NBA if Presti isn't sold on the professional retreads available. Regardless, there's something to be said about a change of this magnitude giving a team life at a critical juncture.
Oklahoma City cannot afford for the 2015-16 season to go bust. There's too much at stake in Durant's impending free agency, to say nothing of Westbrook's own the year after. This transition trades security in those endeavors for open possibility. Brooks was a coach the Thunder players had and liked. Whether they respected his work enough to re-sign is another matter entirely, and clearly one of which OKC's front office is skeptical. The right coach could give the Thunder a better chance to win big and retain its core than Brooks would have, and so long as those candidates populate Presti's short list then a change makes good sense.
It's fair to wonder, too, if Golden State's profit in replacing Mark Jackson with Steve Kerr has made teams like Oklahoma City bolder. The situations of Jackson and Brooks are not congruent; in many ways Brooks is the anti-Jackson, a man of whom you'll rarely hear a sour word. He is not being fired for his inability to manage upwards, but for how a change might stoke the Thunder in ways Brooks wasn't suited to. It's fair to see a certain staleness in OKC's operations, even when healthy. Too many of the team's better supporting pieces have moved on, others brought into replace them haven't panned out as intended, and the end result is a touch too familiar and predictable.
The risk in replacing Brooks should be obvious. Teams this good rarely make such a significant change, particularly when the coach had made a run to the conference finals or better in three of the last four years. The Thunder, though, find justification for his firing in the context of how good they wish to be. Brooks was neither the problem nor the answer. He was simply a part of something for eight seasons—at times stubborn, sharp, genial, shortsighted, encouraging, and complicated. Now he isn't. With that the Thunder will soon find out what is to be gained by working along a different strategic track. They'll also learn, one way or another, the value of a coach who earned his players' trust.