OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Brooks does a bad job of bragging. As he continued to redirect credit for Oklahoma City’s ongoing success to a meticulous organizational structure and its young stars, the Thunder’s coach, self-deprecating to a fault, spotted Wilson Taylor in the distance.
Taylor is the club’s 30-year-old manager of team operations. The morning shootaround had ended moments earlier and Taylor was busily attending to some normally behind-the-scenes tasks at the other end of the team’s sprawling, immaculately lit training facility eight miles north of downtown. Like Brooks and multiple members of OKC’s staff — general manager Sam Presti, superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, roster rock Nick Collison – Taylor’s been with the team since it opened shop here in the summer of 2008.
“People don’t talk about this, but Sam has done a great job hiring, not necessarily me, but everybody in this building,” Brooks said in an interview last week with NBA.com. “You talk to Wilson right there, he understands that his job is to get our players better. And we all have the same mentality, from our therapists, from our sports scientists, from our trainers, from our equipment managers; we all understand our job is to get our players better, and I take pride in all those guys.”
Still, Brooks, 48, is the coach. And he’s overseeing one of the most unique and potentially historic team-building processes in the modern, free-agent-frenzied NBA. From the start of his career, Brooks has been coaching a rising icon (Durant), a perennial all-NBA player (Westbrook) and a roster that boasts, even after Jeff Green and James Harden‘s departures 20 months apart, seven homegrown players and six who are 25 or younger.
In the last four seasons, the Thunder have challenged the Lakers in the first round, made the West finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals in 2012 before last season’s hope got short-circuited in the West semis after a Westbrook knee injury.
Now here they are again.
The bedrock for all this success lies deeper than shrewd drafting. It lies with the bond Brooks forged early on with his two divergent stars. That put the youthful crew on a developmental fast track and put OKC on the map.
On Sunday, Brooks will coach the Western Conference All-Stars in the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans because his Thunder sit atop the heated Western Conference with 42 wins in 54 games. Holler if you called that following Westbrook’s third knee surgery the day after he dropped a Christmas Day triple-double at Madison Square Garden.
This is arguably the deepest OKC squad ever and, assuming Westbrook resumes his season in the coming days, the Thunder are the favorite to win the West.
Yet Brooks’ role in all this — in developing high and low draft picks, steering through ego brushes and media-inflamed conflict (see: Can Westbrook and Durant co-exist?), maneuvering through stinging trades (see: Green and Harden) and now through injury — seems to get diminished.
An elementary tactician. Unimaginative in clutch-time huddles. Dependent on the athleticism of his stars. Too stubborn to stray from his rotation. These are the repeated gripes.
“I wonder who’s saying that?” Durant said sternly to NBA.com. “How can you knock a guy who I think should be coach of the year this year with us losing Russ for so long and us staying on top of the best conference in the league, winning games against big teams on the road and he’s putting us in position every single game to be successful; who’s won 50 games, 55 games, 60 games, 47 games in the lockout [season], and we’re on pace for 60 now? I mean, what can you say?”
Critics did offer a mocking golf clap during the Thunder’s recent rampage over Miami (see Twitter) as Brooks finally recognized what every armchair coach has screamed since the 2012 Finals: Plodding Kendrick Perkins has no business on the floor against the Heat’s smaller lineup.
“Some of the hits were fair: Our offense needs to get better, our execution needs to get better,” Brooks said. “But peoples’ expectations are sometimes unrealistic. When you have a group, a young team, you have to get better day by day. You can’t expect to know algebra before you know basic math. And with our group, we had a plan in place that we had to reach before we could go on to the next level. Our guys have done a great job of being process-oriented to put us in this position we’re in now.”
Westbrook was killing it before his sudden departure for the operating table. For six weeks now he’s slapped hands and chest-bumped teammates before tipoff in skin-tight sport coats, skinny pants and colored spectacles. He hadn’t missed a regular-season game in his career until this season’s opener because of complications from last April’s initial surgery. He missed two games of what was initially said to be a four-to-six week sit-down. Then came the post-Christmas shocker that he’d be out again. This time doing the full time.
After a brief hiccup in which the team backslid, Westbrook, 25, has witnessed his team accelerating while he sits. For Brooks, that’s progress.
Brooks and his staff underwent a self-examination after the second-round playoff defeat to Memphis following Westbrook’s injury. They made a couple key discoveries.
“Kevin can impact the game with his passing and defending more than I allowed him to do last year [in the playoffs],” Brooks said. “I didn’t put enough emphasis on it because the natural thing was for me, and I’m assuming for most coaches, is you just lost 24 points out of your lineup, and we were playing good basketball, we were moving the ball, Russell was finding guys and giving open shots to a lot of guys; so the natural thing was Kevin had to score six or seven more points, K-Mart [Kevin Martin] had to score more, Serge [Ibaka] had to score more.
“Now this year going into it, I put more emphasis on Kevin: You have to impact it more defensively, and he has with Russell and without Russell. Kevin, you have to impact the game more with your playmaking, with Russell or without Russell, and he has. In this incredible run that he’s been on, his assist level has gone up and his defense has maintained at a high level, and last year I thought I focused on him trying to score too many points in the playoffs without Russell.”
Durant, 25 and in his seventh season, is averaging a career-best 5.5 assists; 6.2 without Westbrook. OKC is one of four teams allowing fewer than 100 points per 100 possessions; and only 101.1 without Westbrook, sixth-best during this stretch.
A familiar trust
Upon being hired away from San Antonio’s front office to run Seattle’s in 2007, Presti hired P.J. Carlesimo, a trusted Spurs assistant and former NBA head coach. Carlesimo needed assistants and hired Brooks, a 5-foot-11 former point guard who scrapped his way through 11 NBA seasons including a title run with the 1994 Houston Rockets.
“Scotty, my rookie year, he was an assistant and he was my favorite assistant,” Durant said. “No matter how I was playing he was encouraging me. I remember he flew from California to D.C. one summer and worked me out in a gym. He left his family for a few days and worked me out, and I could just tell he cares about people. He wants to serve people and that’s the type of person I love.
“It’s much more than just coaching, it’s his character as a man that stood out to me and drew me in to him. We’ve always had that bond. We go after each other. You know, he gets after me a lot and I respond pretty well. Sometimes we go back-and-forth, but that’s part of life out there.”
The dynamic has a distinctly Spurs feel. Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich are in the 17th season of a partnership that’s produced four championships in one of the NBA’s smaller markets. When Duncan could have left in free agency, he chose to stay. The young stars who would join him, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, later followed suit. Popovich has long stated his admiration for Duncan begins with the future Hall of Famer’s willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Brooks said. “If your best players don’t buy in, you have no shot, you have no shot. Our personalities match, Russell and me, and Kevin and me. They’re such different personalities between those two, but for some strange, crazy way, my personality matched with theirs, individually and together.”
It allows Brooks the freedom to coach unconditionally.
“They can tell you, I don’t like to talk about it, but I coach Russell hard,” Brooks said. “I coach KD hard, and I still get on them more than any other guys on the team because I feel they have a responsibility to the group. And they understood that at a young age, that their responsibility to the group was more important for their success.”
Durant smiles: “I’m considered a leader and guys are watching me. If he can get after me, he can get after Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, and they’ll respond well. Sometimes I got to take it because most of the time — well, 100 percent of the time — when he gets on me, I’m wrong.”
Fairy tale or bust?
Presti quickly viewed the affable, consistently even-keeled Brooks as an ideal fit in his vision for the salary cap-conscious organization: Attain and sustain success through the continual acquisition and development of young players.
When the Thunder started the 2008-09 season 1-12, Presti made the move to Brooks. Since that first interim season that ended 23-59, Brooks’ team is 253-122. Durant is closing in on his third scoring title and a potential first MVP. Westbrook was headed for a fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. Ibaka, 24, has worked hard to become a two-way force. Jackson, 23, Lamb, 21, and Steven Adams, 20, have all carved out key niches in the rotation. Jones, 22, is gaining traction.
And Brooks, who will coach his second All-Star team this weekend, makes sure they all stay on track.
“He continues to find ways to get better,” Presti said of his coach. “This season in particular he’s done an excellent job of working to establish the depth of the team, building the depth, looking for ways to optimize the group as a whole so we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the season.”
It’s almost a fairy tale, the young team in the small market with the franchise-first credo. But what of the happy ending? Payroll constraints of the collective bargaining agreement are not designed to keep talented, young teams together for long. Durant has told Sports Illustrated and “60 Minutes” that he’s tired of finishing second.
Already there’s talk of where Durant, under the guidance of newly hired agent and rap mogul Jay-Z, eventually will play. New York? Brooklyn? With the Wizards? Durant’s current contract runs through the 2015-16 season, the same ending point as the extension Brooks signed in the summer of 2012.
“All the rhetoric about what’s going to happen three years from now, I kind of smirk and laugh about it,” Brooks said. “It’s crazy. Who knows? What our team believes in is what I believe in. I believe in coming to work everyday, I believe in giving your best, I believe in being solid on and off the court.
“Those are staples that this organization is about.”