Blessing In Disguise: The Ouster Of Scott Brooks Might Actually Be Good For Him

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Scott Brooks
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Talent does not develop in a vacuum. No matter how unimpeachable or tireless the work ethic, how era-definingly immense the potential, every player needs a guide to help them become the player they’re meant to be. This was true for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and both can credit the same coach for helping them become two of the NBA’s biggest stars. He was fired earlier this week, and everyone with an opinion on the NBA more or less agreed that he deserved it.

For seven seasons, Scott Brooks was the guide to the Thunder’s wealth of young talent. He helped transform Serge Ibaka from a goaltend-prone, pump-fake-biting study in rawness into an elite two-way player, just as fearsome on offense as protecting the rim. He showed Russell Westbrook the ropes of the point guard position while resisting the urge to force him into a more traditional player. Kevin Durant is not Kevin Durant without Scott Brooks.

This would seem to be the sort of thing that keeps a coach employed, and it was enough to keep Brooks on the job for years. But the problem, and what ultimately doomed Brooks in Oklahoma City, was that as much as he developed the Thunder, he couldn’t do the same as a coach.

That is not to say Brooks didn’t develop at all on the sidelines — he did. Players and coaches alike evolve and change; although, it’s just much harder to notice when it comes a basketball team’s coach, if only because a coach’s success remains dependent upon the talent and drive he has around him. A coach draws up a play, and the player executes it; if a player fails to set the right screen or turns the ball over, the intention doesn’t matter much, and it’s a challenge assigning the correct blame for the mistake. Whereas Kevin Durant only had to cross his defender over to display his improved handles and Serge Ibaka just had to stay planted with arms held high, rather than biting on yet another pump fake, to show off his newfound patience and discipline, the progression of Brooks was a lot harder to quantify or even see. And if a play breaks down — say, Westbrook going rogue and taking his man one-on-one instead of passing to the wing, as the play instructs — it becomes an indictment of Brooks. Only the five players on the floor for the Thunder at any given moment knew the actual design of the play drawn up on the sideline or in the locker room.

While Brooks did show tangible growth as a coach — shifting KD to the four more often, utilizing Serge Ibaka as a stretch four or five, taking greater advantage of the spacing provided by his roster, and an increased cleverness on the defensive side of the ball — his improvements were always more subtle than those of his players. The one area where he oddly didn’t evolve was most visible to fans and analysts, and may have been the one that cost him his job. That’s strategy, and it’s why a coach with a career .620 winning percentage would be routinely associated with drawing up plays that lead to the most desolate of face-palms.

Kevin Durant, Scott Brooks, Russell Westbrook
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The enduring image of the Scott Brooks era isn’t a single scene but a collage of near-identical instances. It’s a patchwork, spanning years, of the dying seconds in the fourth quarter when the Thunder have one last chance to tie or win, and meet that challenge with Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook jacking up a contested jump-shot. It looks like — and really seems to be — a direct result of Brook’s unimaginative, late-game sets.

Everyone, from the defense to the fans, knew what was coming in those moments. Time and again, Brooks’ end-of-game plays would amount to nothing more than an isolation for one of his star players. Not every coach is a crunch-time maestro like Gregg Popovich, Terry Stotts or Doc Rivers, but Brooks’ lack of ingenuity was startling, and all the more so for how persistent it became. How could a coach so clearly gifted in other areas be so stale in perhaps the most important one of all? It’s possible that Brooks was perhaps not a victim but a casualty of “too much, too soon.” The Thunder job was Brooks’ first as head coach, and given how rapidly Durant and Westbrook improved, it was no doubt easy and tempting — and not always wrong — to just let them do their thing at the end of a game.

While Brooks’ lack of late-game imagination doomed him in OKC, it does not, and probably will not, define him for his career. It wasn’t until his second head coaching gig, with the Boston Celtics, that Doc Rivers gained notoriety for cunning and clever sets and an ability to get his stars to buy into the concept of the we over the me. But Scott Brooks has not gotten his second NBA head coaching job yet.

This is the hope for Brooks moving forward. He may never guide a team as talented as the Thunder, but he could become a better coach because of it. He’ll almost certainly be the coach of another team, and soon — the Magic and Nuggets are possible landing spots. As coach of a less-gifted team, without Durant and Westbrook to close the game, he’ll be forced to get more creative with the dry erase board.

Our flaws do not have to define us. We’ll never be perfect, Scott Brooks or the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be better. A person wracked with self doubt can grow to love themselves. The close-minded can come to see another’s point of view. Scott Brooks can learn how to draw up a damn play at the end of a basketball game. Probably.