Scott Brooks has won 191 basketball games in less than four full seasons, directed the turnaround of a dormant franchise in a small market, managed the fragile chemistry of a young team and coached the Oklahoma City Thunder to within a whiff of the NBA Finals.
And still the question roars louder than ever across the landscape of this league: Is he good enough?
If it were only me asking that question, that would be one thing, but it’s not even my question. It’s the Oklahoma City Thunder’s question. And the fact they haven’t answered it with a contract extension hangs over the Western Conference finals like an anvil.
Whenever the Thunder’s season ends — whether it’s this series against the San Antonio Spurs or some time later in June — Brooks will no longer be under contract as their coach. And though industry sources believe Oklahoma City will come to terms with him after the season, the failure to extend him up to this point has brought a message the team may not have intended.
If he can’t get Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to the Finals this time, why keep him?
It may not be fair to make this series with the Spurs a referendum on Brooks’ ability to win a title, but it sure looks like that’s what it is. Maybe that would be an issue no matter what, even if they had locked him up to a new five-year deal in January like they did with Westbrook. But with Brooks in the final year of his contract, it promises to loom over every timeout and every out-of-bounds play Gregg Popovich finds a way to blow up.
That’s the only interpretation Oklahoma City has left us: Win and you can keep your job. Lose and the clock starts ticking. And no matter what you think of Brooks as a coach, that’s not the easiest way to go about trying to win a championship.
It’s not altogether unusual for NBA teams to let coaching contracts go down to their final year before negotiations on an extension take place. Then once the season starts, there’s generally little time to hammer out the deal. The focus is solely on the season, especially this year with a schedule compressed by last summer’s lockout.
But Oklahoma City and general manager Sam Presti have erred here because these are not typical circumstances.
Everything you’ll hear out of Oklahoma City indicates the team believes in Brooks. However, at some point, if the Thunder don’t win it all this year, or at least get to the Finals, they’ll start running out of fingers to point.
Remember, when Brooks got the job in 2008, Oklahoma City was not one of the more desirable locations in the NBA. He was 43 with no head coaching experience, and he inherited a team that was 1-12 under P.J. Carlesimo. Few understood back then what kind of transcendent star Durant was going to be. Westbrook was a rookie widely perceived as a reach as the No. 4 overall pick in that summer’s draft. James Harden was a sophomore at Arizona State.
By the first full year of that trio’s existence, the Thunder had become a tough out for the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. By the second, they were in the conference finals. But rarely will you hear that this sudden run of success is a testament to Brooks’ ability to X-and-O, as opposed to the fact that Oklahoma City had drafted three of the top 20 players in the NBA.
It will be that way for anyone who coaches the Thunder, as long as Durant, Westbrook and Harden stay together, which seems likely given their ages (Durant and Westbrook are 23; Harden is 22) and contract statuses (only Harden is still on his rookie deal, which expires in 2014).
Such is the arrangement when a roster comes together like that under a young coach who is not perceived to be among the best at his profession. Until Brooks wins a title with this group, the issue of whether he’s the weak link will remain unresolved. And when the organization decides to lock up Durant and Westbrook for the future, while deciding to leave Brooks’ status unchanged until after this season, the alarm of expendability has been sounded.
What would the Thunder do if they lose in the Finals, or worse, get stopped cold by the unrelenting discipline of the Spurs? Look, Brooks is clearly a competent NBA coach. But do they reward someone who still hasn’t proven he’s got the goods to win a championship with a long-term contract they might have to revisit in another year if they fall short one more time? Do they cut the cord now, which would seem hasty and unreasonable after so many wins? Or do they try to negotiate a one-year extension, which would be an abject disaster since it would send the clearest message of all that the Thunder only believe in Brooks to a point?
This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Brooks already had a new five-year deal staring him in the face. However, there are no easy answers now, and the end of a contract means both sides have the ability to explore options if things don’t go the right way.
Is Brooks good enough to win it all or just good enough to get to the Western Conference finals? We’re going to find out a little more about that over the next two weeks, but now’s the time for him to deliver. The great unknown waiting for him at the end of this contract demands it.