by Todd Spehr
Scott Brooks looked like he just stepped off a roller coaster.
The Thunder’s head coach sat down for his obligatory post-game press conference, looked out at a three-strong contingent of assembled writers (OKC isn’t exactly overflowing with media folks), and sighed. It was December 29, his team had just lost at home to Phoenix, and, at 3-29, was at a low point.
Brooks just lived through a game where he’d benched his star, Kevin Durant, for not getting back on defense; for letting Jason Richardson leak out for easy buckets on consecutive possessions. He had also watched his rookie point guard, Russell Westbrook, blow a 31-point night by coughing the ball up on three consecutive possessions down the stretch, effectively ending whatever shot his team had of winning.
But for as weary as he looked, for as bloodshot as hit eyes appeared, and with little reason to blurt anything more than the generic, Brooks’ eyes suddenly widened, and he made a vow. One that he, and his Thunder, was going to keep.
“We’re going to get better every day. Every month. Every year.”
Scott Brooks’ name tag still has “Interim Head Coach” on it. Here are five reasons why “Interim” needs to be removed.
5. Offensive and Defensive improvement
The night P.J. Carlesimo was given his marching orders, the Thunder just played their first (and only) national TV game of the year. And they lost by 25. It was one of those snapshot games – one where the entire season, and all its problems, are crammed into 48 minutes for everyone to see. It was the Thunder’s sixth straight double-figure loss, the ninth time in 13 games that they had failed to score 90 points, and at 1-12, it was official that the team had either tuned out Carlesimo, or needed a change. Or both.
Under Brooks, the Thunder are a more solid defensive unit. Even allowing for the fact they have more possessions now, they’re giving up fewer points (103.2 under Brooks compared to 105.6 in the 95 games of the Carlesimo regime), and the average losing margin has dwindled from -12.3 to -4.3. Translation: They are much more competitive.
The offense is better because the shackles have been removed – to the tune of a 9 ppg improvement (98.9 from 88.9). Carlesimo coached the team (sans Durant) with a ball and chain, but Brooks gives them enough freedom to be comfortable, with just enough to snap it back if needed. Kevin Durant is a much better player (read: more efficient) under Brooks, Russell Westbrook is a more confident player under Brooks, and Jeff Green is the most improved player no one talks about — it doesn’t hurt that Brooks text messages the word “Rebound” to him on game-days.
Is Brooks clearly a better coach than Carlesimo? No. But he’s better for this team.
(Note: To put some type of perspective on things in OKC, the average age (20.67) of their top three scorers – KD, Green, and Westbrook – are the youngest for any team in NBA history, according to Justin Kubatko of Basketball-Reference.com)
4. Positive nature
This may not seem overly important, but considering the situation, it is. The Thunder are a young team; a team that responds to a positive voice. Brooks is that voice. Not to say Carlesimo wasn’t (although he was once called an “intense, grumpy, yelling maniac” by a former Seton Hall player), but hey, the results speak for themselves.
“He’s (Brooks) not always negative,” Durant said shortly after the change. Compliment for the new guy? Or a subtle dig at the old one?
Either way, even when the Thunder were playing like your grandpa’s ’73 Sixers, Brooks was still encouraging, still clapping, still refusing to collect moral victories like he used to collect his team’s laundry when he was a coach in the ABA. Even the locker room, when things weren’t exactly humming, didn’t permeate a team dancing with futility. The players seem to genuinely like Brooks — some even call him “Scotty” — and when you like someone, you tend to play hard for them.
Brooks perhaps draws strength from his own playing career. He was a short, white, undrafted and undersized guard, a CBA refugee who ended up sticking around for ten years and winning a title (with the ’94 Rockets). It’s entirely possible Brooks sees this Thunder team going through the same modus operandi as his own life in professional basketball: Success will eventually be born out of hardship, acquired through scrap and fight, where results and respect will be concurrently earned.
Bottom line: He’s an upbeat guy, and his team is eating it up – 18-24 since their 3-29 start, with wins over San Antonio (twice), Utah, Dallas and Detroit since the second week of January.
3. Relationship with Russell Westbrook
Believe it or not, there was a time when Scott Brooks had the same query on the floor as Russell Westbrook: Shoot or distribute? Brooks was shoot-first in college (23.8 ppg as a senior at UC-Irvine) and in the CBA, and while his natural instinct was to score, he toned ‘er down when he got to the League. Same deal with Westbrook. He was primarily a combo guard at UCLA – slanted toward scoring – as a sophomore, yet was asked to play the point, as a rookie, for a young team. Recipe for disaster? Carlesimo must have thought so — Westbrook didn’t start until Brooks took over.
Despite hitting a watered down version of the rookie wall in March, Westbrook’s numbers grew in each of the first four months Brooks was coach. From 12.2 points and 4.1 assists in November, to 20.6 and 5.9 in February. Yeah, Westbrook still can’t shoot, and yeah, he turns it over like a, well, a rookie, but Brooks has given him a license to grow. And he’ll be a better player for it. When Durant and Green missed time recently, Brooks threw the keys to Westbrook, and the Thunder went 5-1.
Favorite Brooks/Westbrook story: After the aforementioned Phoenix game in December, one where Westbrook had a schizophrenic evening that included 15 points (on Steve Nash) in the game’s first seven minutes, a career-high 31 points, and a flurry of costly turnovers in crunch time, Brooks said, like a father about to teach his kid a lesson, that he was going to sit Westbrook down and watch film with him. Show him the good and the bad stuff. When the line of questioning angled towards blaming Westbrook for the loss, Brooks snapped. “This isn’t about Russell,” he told the writer. “This is about our team.” Silence ensued.
2. Allowing Kevin Durant to thrive – by providing structure
Before delving too far, I need to point out I’m not going to give Scott Brooks entire credit for the phenomenon that was Durant Year Two. Durant is, and always is, going to be a limitless scorer. Anyhow…
There’s a substantial body of evidence that suggests Durant isn’t nearly as effective as a shooting guard – which Carlesimo was bent on proving. Actually, it’s about 90 games worth of evidence (77 last season, 13 this season), and while Carlesimo wanted to show KD off as the World’s Tallest Shooting Guard, it clearly wasn’t ideal.
Scott Brooks, in almost his first move as coach, made Durant a full-time small forward.
Notable changes: Durant, underrated for how hard he works off the ball, comes off more screens to score; he’s getting much better looks this year (take a look at his three-point shooting percentage improvement); and my personal favorite, he’s posting up more of late. All of these things, Brooks designed to make Durant not only a better scorer, but a more efficient one. He’s taking just over two more shots under Brooks than Carlesimo, but is scoring six more points, for crying out loud.
Durant last year: “Forcing the issue and getting to the rim is an element of his game that’s missing.” (Carlesimo’s words, not mine). This year: Over seven free-throw attempts per, and he smashed the Sonics/Thunder 29-year-old franchise record for FTM in a January game with the Clips.
Durant went from being a player with questionable shot selection as a rookie, to a more controlled yet more explosive version in his second season. That structure occurring, due in large part, to Brooks.
1. The public backing of his players
“I have [Brooks's] back… I want him to be back as our coach of the future.” — Kevin Durant