At this point, the debate surrounding Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks requires no introduction. Long criticized in many circles for a variety of perceived shortcomings, and with his team in a dogfight just to make the playoffs in a vicious West after multiple major injuries early in the year, Brooks is once again feeling his seat warm up even as the Thunder show faint signs of rounding into form.
In the broadest possible sense, the big money question for Brooks is this: Given the team construct, is he maximizing the talents of his roster enough that the risks inherent in a potential change (there are absolutely risks – more here in a bit) outweigh the potential reward of such a move? It’s a multi-faceted question, one that requires a careful eye for the particulars. So without further ado, let’s break it down into a few relevant areas.
A quick nod to the defensive end before we really get into this section – Brooks has done an acceptable, and perhaps even moderately above average, job with OKC’s defense in his tenure. On the one hand, he’s been handed a roster featuring a consistent All-Defensive team presence in Serge Ibaka, plus very few defensive minuses at any position outside of a few players in bench roles. But on the other hand, Brooks has smartly utilized his strong personnel for multiple years running, employing an active and irritating scheme that emphasizes all the athleticism and length in his rotation. It’s nothing revolutionary and also likely nothing any decent professional coach wouldn’t be capable of, but there are numerous examples of NBA bench bosses badly utilizing what seemed like obvious personnel fits, and Brooks gets credit here for not being one of them.
Unfortunately, as far as schemes and on-court Xs and Os go, this is where the positives end. Here’s a common trajectory for an individual offensive set the Thunder will run:
They start out with a basic high screen for Kevin Durant from Ibaka, and though the spacing is wrong (all three other players are on the same side of the court, not an optimal situation), this is fine – KD is the league’s best offensive player, and Ibaka is more than capable of either rolling to the hoop or popping out for a high-percentage jumper if Durant draws too much attention.
But, in part due to the imperfect spacing, the Rockets blow up the initial set here, and this is where the problems begin. Oklahoma City under Brooks has virtually no secondary action attached to any of their most frequent play calls, a fact that’s showcased here. Despite there still being 12 seconds left on the shot clock as the original set is stymied, the Thunder make no attempt to reset to another action. Rather, while all four other guys stand around listlessly, Durant resignedly passes off to Reggie Jackson, who isolates up top to complete the possession. He happens to score in this particular instance, but these sorts of plays over time certainly don’t represent the most efficient way to generate offense given all the talent on the floor.
Without question, far too many OKC possessions end up this way. It’s enough that the initial sets themselves are common and, after multiple years, mostly predictable – usually the above basic high screen, and at very most one or two off-ball actions generally designed to get either Durant or Russell Westbrook in the post (where they typically operate, once again, in isolation). But combine this with the knowledge that a single successful disruption will crumble the offensive structure, and defenses are being let off the hook way too easily. It’s not enough to kill their overall efficiency compared with the league, for obvious reasons: OKC has two of the league’s premier one-on-one offensive players plus several others capable in a pinch, and their talent level keeps them among the league’s better offenses. But again, a coach’s job is to optimize the pieces he has, and it’s incredibly tough to argue that Brooks’s iso-heavy, predictable style is truly maximizing perhaps the league’s most dangerous one-two offensive punch skill-wise.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”tag” tag=”thunder” title=”More Oklahoma City Thunder articles” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
This isn’t to say that leaning on your best players is the wrong approach, particularly on such a top-heavy team like the Thunder. OKC has several rotation pieces who are very limited offensively, and expecting an equal-opportunity style attack similar to San Antonio or Atlanta would be silly. But they’re far from the only team with multiple weak points in their rotation at one end or the other, and many of those with top-end talent at the helm are making plenty of lemonade, often without superstars who even approach Russ and (especially) KD’s transcendent play. Look at the Los Angeles Clippers, for example, who can barely field five NBA-level players on the floor for 48 minutes at a time due to questionable personnel decisions, yet ride a smart, relatively simple two-way system that optimizes their talent and has them fourth-best in the NBA for per-possession net rating. They do it without any individual within Durant’s stratosphere, too.
Put it all together, and it’s tough to give Brooks anything but a failing grade here. No one is suggesting they overcomplicate things by any means, or even insert any innovations that’d take more than a couple hours of practice and/or video time to implement. Why not try a little more off-ball action down low, like the simple Loop set the Spurs have run for years where the ball-handler “loops” his entire way around the floor after passing off, receives it back on the opposite side after multiple picks, and immediately flows into an appropriate action dictated by how the defense responds (thanks to YouTube user How U for the compilation)?
It may be the intricate Spurs who popularized it, but this is not a complex action to learn. It’s three simple picks, all initiated nicely by the original ball-handler and requiring no special timing. It gives the looping man the freedom to read over-pursuits from the defense and reverse course, and leaves room for each of the three screeners to similarly exploit an opponent leaning the wrong way. Are we to believe that either Westbrook or Durant rocketing around that third pick and getting the ball with momentum to the hoop, as the defense scrambles to recover from multiple screens, wouldn’t more effectively leverage their skills than an endless litany of high iso’s and simple pick sets?
This is just one suggestion. Brooks could run a bit more misdirection, or perhaps utilize the uber-basic pindown sets the Thunder already run to get their stars in the post more frequently and work in baseline cuts to add a layer. Most importantly, he could (and should) add in secondary actions, even if they’re exceedingly basic, to fall back to when initial sets are blown up like in the clip earlier.
Simply put, this is part of an NBA coach’s job. Brooks has strong-willed stars, but so do plenty of his peers – if he can’t dictate even such simple offensive additions to his team, something he’s shown to be the case for several consecutive years, then perhaps a change is (or has been) necessary.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”570″ title=”More Coaching Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Criticisms of Brooks began in earnest a few years back over his ineptitude with basic rotations, and they remain his most visible wart. His initial complaints stemmed from a multi-year period in which he simply refused to recognize or act upon Kendrick Perkins’ growing inability to contribute, something he’s only partially weaning himself off of recently (Perkins continues to steal minutes from the better-in-every-way Steven Adams in curious situations, though far less so than in recent times).
A list of peculiar rotation moves stretches on quite a ways, highlighted by items like Reggie Jackson’s curious struggle for minutes and Andre Roberson’s continued presence in the starting lineup (recently, he’s been starting each half before sitting indefinitely after subbing out – what exactly is the point of this?). Brooks has been consistently slow in recognizing mismatches, incapable of pulling the plug when his preferred units aren’t succeeding. His end-of-game substitution patterns are routinely ludicrous exercises highlighted by a remarkable lack of consideration to relevant context (his clock management and timeouts are equally laughable). He’s given Waiters high profile minutes in clear-cut defensive situations down the stretch more than once already since acquiring him, which combined with the above nugget on Roberson (the literal definition of a defense-first wing) is just pure comedy at this point.
Worst of all, Brooks is badly inconsistent with his rotational patterns. In a January 9th game versus the Utah Jazz, the Thunder went over ten minutes throughout the course of the game without any of Durant, Westbrook, or Ibaka on the floor, minutes where OKC was outscored by 17 total points, well over a point per minute. Meanwhile, with at least one of the three on the floor, OKC held a 22 point advantage. The Thunder very nearly blew this game, the equivalent of a must-win given their place in the West, before some late individual heroics from their stars saved them.
It’s pretty easy to assume they’d have had far fewer issues had their coach more effectively layered their substitutions, something he’s been doing more often since – why does it feel like he’s still learning this stuff as he goes along? Again, while these elements are only a part of a given coach’s job, is there real evidence he’s maximizing what he’s been given? It’s tough to responsibly argue as much.
None of the above are elements unique to Scott Brooks. A number of coaches in the league today struggle with some of these same issues; many see their flaws exposed more prominently due to a lack of transcendent stars to cover up some of the warts.
What is unique, though, and what makes Brooks’s situation far more untenable than the majority of these other cases, is the state of the Thunder. Summer of 2016 is fast approaching, and with it comes both Durant’s hugely anticipated unrestricted free agency and the league’s expected salary cap jump due to the infusion of new TV money. OKC, in relative terms, has been very successful over the last half-decade – many franchises would kill for five straight playoff showings, three different appearances in the conference finals, and 2012’s run all the way to the NBA Finals.
But OKC simply isn’t “many franchises”, and the same set of relative expectations doesn’t apply when a likely top-20 player of all time in his physical prime sits on your roster with the option to bolt for nothing in under two years. Brooks isn’t the only negative here; a laundry list of cheap and shortsighted moves by the front office, highlighted by the James Harden trade, has damaged the Thunder’s title chances and, by assumed extension, their chances of retaining Durant. But a coaching liability is a real detriment to any title contender in today’s ultra-competitive NBA, and for a franchise with such a small margin for error, it remains surprising that no alternative has come to the forefront.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”537″ title=”More Team Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
The actual manner of replacement is more complex than some might think, as properly noted by my colleague Seth Partnow in our podcast discussing this very issue. Timing is one thing, as it’s very late in the game at this point in the season to consider disrupting things behind the scenes with a high-profile change. But it’s not like Brooks has only become a problem this year, and the Thunder have had several opportunities to at least examine such a move over the last couple seasons.
More difficult would be assuring themselves a superior replacement, which, as Seth correctly points out, is far from an exact science. Despite his flaws, one could absolutely do worse than Brooks (a few NBA teams still do), and the wrong hire combined with the fallout from a hypothetical Brooks dismissal might combine to cause more issues than before. But at the same time, a number of strong candidates have been without jobs in this period, including guys like Stan Van Gundy (Jeff too, though he reportedly enjoys the commentator’s booth enough to make his hiring unlikely), Steve Kerr, or even newcomers like Jason Kidd or Quin Snyder. And while this is of course subjective to a point, to many the risk-reward calculus firmly indicates that no such attempt by Oklahoma City was indeed a potentially fatal error.
In the end, to this eye, there are just too many marks against Brooks. He may indeed be a positive influence in the locker room from a motivation standpoint, and his players may indeed respect him highly. But this is the NBA, and every coach is expected to do these things. “Good enough” simply isn’t good enough for this particular franchise, and they’ve spent far too long hiding behind this blanket instead of making prudent moves to shore up their chances of holding onto the only all-time superstar in the franchise’s history. As one example of this lack of action, Brooks has failed time and again to maximize the tools at his disposal, and the Thunder need to strongly consider bringing in someone who can succeed.