My WTLC colleague Ali AlShowaikh put together a reasonable post arguing that it wasn't fair to fire Scott Brooks following an injury-decimated 2014/15 season. Brooks hasn't had a healthy squad for a full playoff run since taking the Thunder to the 2012 Finals, and Ali thinks competing for the eighth seed this season was as good as you could expect.
Perhaps. But, as Thunder GM Sam Presti said, Brooks' failings this season aren't what led to the decision. The future--where OKC can finally cash in on a young roster that once seemed poised for a dynasty run, or lose one or more of the league's most transcendent talents to free agency--can't be about one more chance. OKC is running out of those, even if poor health has been the biggest culprit to this point.
Is that fair? Maybe not. It's a cutthroat league, and I do hate how easy it is to jump into speculation about the livelihood of other people. The idea of fairness, or whether Brooks deserved another go at it, just aren't in play if and when a title is the bottom line. That's where we're at. If Presti believed that Brooks' flaws would come back in full force next season when, you know, the Chosen One plays out the last year of his contract, then he was right in pursuing someone he feels will be a better fit.
While last postseason has the asterisk of Serge Ibaka's calf injury next to it, there was still plenty of title-or-bust evaluation material to be gleaned regarding Brooks' coaching job. OKC needed near-miracle moments (Reggie Jackson's explosion, Zach Randolph's suspension, Chris Paul's meltdown) against the Grizzlies and the Clippers to even get to the conference finals. To his credit, Brooks was taking chances and coaching with some desperation along the way. Less Kendrick Perkins, more Steven Adams. An ineffective legacy starter (Thabo Sefolosha) gets benched. Good stuff.
But there was also plenty of frustrating coaching going down. After replacing Jeremy Lamb in the rotation with Caron Butler late in the season, Brooks stuck with Butler in the playoffs despite an absolutely atrocious run for the veteran. Butler shot 32% throughout the playoffs, and had the worst defensive rating (113) of any Thunder rotation player in the postseason. Brooks eventually, mercifully, stopped playing Butler so much, but that was because he basically stopped playing the entire bench.
Game 6, the last of OKC's season, was ugly. The Thunder collapsed in the third quarter as a 7-point halftime lead turned into a 10-point deficit heading into the fourth. Brooks' lack of trust didn't extend to Derek Fisher, who joined all-time greats like Kareem, Karl Malone and John Stockton when he played 32 minutes of that heart breaker at age 39. Fisher shot 32% for the playoffs with a 110 defensive rating. Non-Hall-of-Famers never get those minutes in the playoffs at age 39 or over, let alone players stinking up the joint. Let alone in an elimination game. While the world marveled at how clutch Tim Duncan still was at his age, I was rage texting about how he was doing it against Fisher and Reggie Jackson, since Brooks' switch-everything defensive strategy had Duncan backing down whoever the Spurs wanted in the most important game of the year.
While it is remembered as a competitive series, close enough to wonder if OKC could have won had Ibaka not missed the first two games, Gregg Popovich wasn't coaching like he was worried. He was working with a wide margin for error against Brooks and the Thunder. Popovich pulled his starters midway through the third quarter of Game 3, conceding the loss to rest up for the next contest. A couple games after Ibaka's mythic return helped the Thunder even the series at 2-2, San Antonio blew out OKC. Pop also yanked Tony Parker for the second half of Game 6 due to a minor injury. Had the Thunder eked out an overtime win at home, they would have flown right back to San Antonio where "anything can happen" was their best hope of a victory.
Popovich is the best coach in the league, and the Spurs are an all-time great team, of course. But KD and Russell Westbrook could be an all-time tandem. Presti has enough evidence to suggest the coaching staff that has gotten them this far probably doesn't have what it takes to get them farther. My only qualm is that installing a new coach in KD's potential last season is worse timing than doing the same last offseason would have been. It feels even worse because of losing 2014/15 to injuries--that's precious time a newcomer could have used to implement that new system. Like Golden State a year ago, OKC is hoping that it can find the perfect hire to coach this team to its ceiling, and it only gets one shot.
I've long thought the hate for Brooks has gone too far. His strengths (player development, defense, motivation) are taken for granted while his flaws (in-game management, a weird blend of stubbornness and inconsistency in rotations) are highly scrutinized. It's no shock that he's immediately a leading candidate for young teams in need of his aforementioned strengths--dude can coach. And by all accounts, Brooks is made of class, and won't want anyone to feel sorry for him. This was a tougher decision than many in the anti-Brooks faction made it out to be, but it was the right one.