"Trust the process" used to be such a common phrase among the Thunder organization that it's a wonder it was never printed out on a banner for the players to slap every time they walked out of the locker room. It made perfect sense, too, for a team that was rebuilding from the ground up in hopes of becoming a perennial contender.
That rebuilding model - which is now actually referred to as the "Thunder model" in many cases - has been the standard so many rebuilding franchises have attempted to replicate. It's easy to see why, because from 2007-2012, Sam Presti and the Thunder front office took the league by storm during one of the greatest stretches by a GM in sports history when they transformed an NBA bottom-feeder into one of the biggest powerhouses in the league.
And yet, here we are, and the coach that has been at the helm of that rebuilding process basically since the beginning (sorry, PJ) was fired not 24 hours ago. How did we get here?
Instead of simply excusing that firing as another part of the process, it may finally be time to start looking above Scott Brooks and redirect the pointed fingers. The past few seasons have certainly opened up the window for doubt to creep in, but this firing may be the final push over the edge. It's no longer a matter of simply not trusting the process, it's a matter of wondering if the Thunder even knows what that process is anymore.
First, here's what's undeniable: From 2007-2012, Presti and the Thunder couldn't miss. They landed Kevin Durant, they saw potential in Russell Westbrook that no one else did, the same goes for Serge Ibaka, they landed James Harden, and they acquired the proper pieces to surround that young nucleus to get the team a Finals appearance before any of those guys turned 24. Go back and read any column relating to the Thunder following the 2012 Finals, and not a single one of them would have a negative word to say about Sam Presti.
Here's what's also undeniable: Following that Finals appearance, Scott Brooks became the convenient scapegoat for a team that failed to live up to that standard ever since. In that time, the Thunder traded James Harden, and no matter how much I would still defend that trade to this day, it doesn't change the fact that all they have left to show for it is Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams.
In fact, Presti's biggest failure may not have been trading Harden so much as it was trying to replace him long term with Jeremy Lamb. That 2013 team, with Kevin Martin instead of Harden, may have been better than the 2012 team. In this millennium, its +9.2 differential was bested only by the '07-'08 Celtics and this season's Warriors. Brooks deserves credit for that, as does Presti, for seemingly finding the perfect piece to counteract the loss of such a dynamic player.
Only, Westbrook hurt his knee, the season fell by the wayside, and suddenly everyone was asking if the Thunder were doomed without Harden. This, too, was when Presti's magic may have begun to wear off. The Perkins trade was fantastic at the time, but he was suddenly sitting with this albatross of a contract for a player that was becoming less and less valuable by the season. Rather than acknowledge that, Presti backed himself into a corner, constantly searching for ways to avoid going over the cap. That's what led to the failure to resign Martin, and that's what led to additions like Derek Fisher and Caron Butler as supposed saviors to a playoff run.
Ultimately, 2014's failure to reach the Finals was also given an asterisk due to the injury to Ibaka's calf. This was seen as an excuse for Brooks to keep his job, because it wasn't his fault their defensive anchor went down against one of the greatest offensive teams in NBA history. But as last season's conference finals wore on, and it became abundantly clear that the Thunder didn't have the depth to survive, Brooks took the heat while no one really mentioned that it was the front office that gave him such a thin bench to begin with.
The free passes Presti and his team got as a result of that incredible initial run may not have been as prevalent as the years went by, but even as he retooled this past summer and at the trade deadline, it was hard to completely doubt his process. He'd gotten them this far, right?
So why this move? What was it about the firing of Scott Brooks - which many saw as inevitable sooner or later - that pushes it over the edge and turns the blame to Presti? To begin, it's because it happened after this season.
Presti made it clear in his released statement that this season - in which the Thunder missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009 - was not the reason for Brooks' firing. He doubled down on that in his press conference:
Presti: "Decision was about what was next...we could not make this decision based on the past. "— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 23, 2015
That's reassuring, because you could argue that this season was Brooks' finest coaching job yet. He took a roster that faced more injuries to key players than any team in recent memory and took them to 45 wins. It wasn't enough for the playoffs, but they missed out by simple virtue of a tiebreaker in an absolutely loaded Western Conference.
Look at it another way: If the Thunder is in the Eastern Conference, they finish as a 6-seed, and there's a good chance we're all talking about what an incredible job Brooks did managing the injuries - as well as the new additions - and getting them into the playoffs. That's how arbitrary things like "playoff appearances" can somewhat skew our judgments on coaches.
But, again, Presti said it wasn't about this season which, on paper, sounds like he's more concerned with the bigger picture. That's fine, but the question then becomes: if this was a longstanding issue, why not pull the plug last year after a shaky performance that saw the Thunder nearly eliminated in the opening round by Memphis. Are we supposed to believe that this season really revealed more doubts about the future than last?
If the Reggie Jackson game doesn't happen, there's a good chance the Thunder doesn't get out of the first round, there's a good chance Brooks gets fired then, and there's a good chance Steve Kerr is on the sidelines for the Thunder.
Instead, that game does happen, the Thunder extend the playoff run, and Brooks is saved by the Ibaka injury excuse. If you're Presti, why give him a pass after that string of events, but not this season's? Why should we trust his vision again?
There's also the giant elephant in the room - Durant's looming free agency following the 2015-16 season - and making this move is a gigantic risk in upsetting the franchise's No. 1 asset. Presti has likely discussed his plans for the future with Durant, but it's interesting that, as reported by Sam Amick of USA Today, Durant nor Westbrook nor any Thunder players were consulted on the decision to fire Brooks.
Normally, it makes sense to keep players out of the decision-making process. But this is a unique situation, one that absolutely calls for special circumstances. Durant, is his usual way, was professional about it and voiced his support of the organization in an Instagram post, but that's a giant risk by a general manager asking his players to trust him after so many of his recent moves haven't exactly warranted that trust.
Let's recap: Presti trades Durant and Westbrook's best friend in Harden, expects them to mold young faces in his place, finally recognizes after two years that that may have been asking too much, makes a solid signing in the offseason (Morrow), then gets a one-dimensional piece (Kanter) that may solve some of their offensive issues while opening up and entirely new set on the defensive end, and then he fires the only coach they've ever really known without even running it by them. Durant and Westbrook have always been professional and seem capable of adapting to anything, but none of those moves really screams "trust me," does it?
It's entirely possible that Scott Brooks never would have taken the Thunder over the hump to a championship. It's also just as possible that a string of bad luck and poor decision-making by his bosses made it impossible for Brooks to ever take the Thunder over the hump to a championship.
Some are jumping for joy that Brooks was finally sent packing. That's fine if you believe he wasn't the right guy, as Presti seems to be indicating. It's just hard to look at his record as anything another coach could have improved upon. His .620 winning percentage is good for 20th all time. He took his team to three out of four Western Conference Finals, and was likely a Westbrook knee injury away from making it four straight. They were a top 10 team in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency for five years running until this year's season from hell.
More than that, they had a real identity. It was often written off as lack of coaching, that the offense was so heavily reliant on Durant and Westbrook, but doesn't Brooks deserve credit for that? How many coaches would have recognized what a talent Westbrook was and given him the leash to learn to make plays that no one else in the league can make? Isn't his "system" of letting KD and Russ absolutely dominate their opponents kind of perfect for what this team needed? The numbers certainly reflect it, as does the playoffs success. It's easy to say "Durant and Westbrook just need a real system to play in," but are we so sure that won't have the opposite effect and prevent them from being the superstars we know they can be?
Now that Brooks is actually gone, these are questions that will become even more pressing and, based on his recent history, we can no longer trust that Sam Presti has all the answers. His entire "process" may be crumbling, and time is running out for him to put it all back together.