- Royce Young, ESPN Staff Writer
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The order of operations in assigning blame following a Thunder loss typically goes something like this:
1. Scott Brooks
2. Scott Brooks
3. Russell Westbrook
4. Scott Brooks
5. Kendrick Perkins
6. Sam Presti trading James Harden
874. Kevin Durant
Since winning NBA Coach of the Year in 2010 after leading a group of 20-year-olds to 50 wins and a postseason berth, Brooks has steadily seen his reputation drained to a punch line. He's ripped for his commitment to veterans such as Perkins and Derek Fisher. He's ripped for the Thunder's frustratingly simple offense. He's ripped for not getting more out of two outrageously talented superstars.
But I can't shake what Durant said during his MVP speech.
"I've never met anybody like you, so selfless," Durant said to Brooks. "You don't take the credit for nothing, even though you deserve all of it."
Take Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Spurs. The Thunder stormed their way to an emotional 106-97 win, and the prevailing storyline was Serge Ibaka's return (and rightfully so). They appeared fixed and whole again. But within that was Brooks' shrewd move to add slashing guard Reggie Jackson to the starting five, putting more defensive pressure on the Spurs, opening up weakside options and more driving opportunities for Westbrook and Durant.
Barely went noticed.
Maybe the biggest criticism Brooks has faced in his five-plus seasons as coach is his staunch loyalty to his starting five, resisting change even when evidence suggests an adjustment may be in order. The Thunder have enjoyed remarkable consistency with their starting five since acquiring Perkins, trotting out that lineup 137 times in 165 games before this season.
This season was different. With Westbrook recovering from knee surgery and a couple of injuries to Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, Brooks was forced to tip off 55 games without his favorite five.
Maybe because of it, Brooks' mind opened more to the idea of switching up his starters. As the Thunder headed to Memphis down 3-2 to the Grizzlies in Round 1, the storyline centered on Durant and the "Mr. Unreliable" nonsense. But Brooks tweaked his starting five, subbing the more offense-minded Caron Butler for Sefolosha. The Thunder played their two best offensive games of the series and finished the Grizzlies in seven games.
Against the Clippers in Round 2, Brooks went back to his traditional starting lineup, and stuck with it despite building criticism, especially after a disastrous Game 1 loss. But as the Thunder advanced in six games, that group was maybe the Thunder's best combination for the series, posting a net rating of plus-11.1 in 77 minutes.
Against the Spurs, Brooks was again forced to make a change, but not out of choice. Ibaka was out, and Brooks tabbed steady veteran Nick Collison to replace him. The lineup was an abject disaster the first two games, as Collison, Perkins and Sefolosha combined to score nine points in San Antonio. With the Thunder’s backs to the wall down 2-0, Brooks was handed an obvious alteration. Ibaka was back, but he resisted the urge to just pencil in the status quo, instead opting for Jackson.
"It's a major decision," Brooks said Monday on switching his starting five. "We've been successful. I get knocked as a coach that we don't make changes. ... We've won a lot of games [with that starting five]. But there's times that we have to change in a series. I think our guys have adjusted well the last two times we've done it. We might have to do it again."
Not only was the new starting five electric (150.4 points per 100 possessions), but Brooks handed mainstay Sefolosha a DNP-CD. How's that for bold?
Brooks definitely has his faults, though. The Thunder sometimes appear like a team that's just winging it, trying to get by on raw talent, rather than having any semblance of a plan. The offense often teeters between best-in-the-league and oh-my-goodness-what-are-they-doing. Their half-court attack dissolves into a mushy mess, and the defense is maddeningly inconsistent. Many of their big shots come in transition or as Hail Marys off broken plays. And if well-conceived stuff is being drawn up in the huddle, it rarely seems to make it onto the floor after a timeout.
Durant and Westbrook get lost in their own games at times as Brooks extends a lengthy leash without much accountability. The rotations can be head-scratching and the veteran loyalty confusing. And Brooks does himself no favors with his comically empty "miked up" segments on the bench or his bland media sessions that leave you wondering if it's a tactical diversion or if he just doesn't know how to answer a question.
When the Thunder win, it's because Westbrook and Durant are that good. When they lose, it's because Brooks isn't. It's the plight of a coach, especially one with superstars, forced to accept responsibility while rarely getting to share in the glory. Coaches don't get credit when a team does what it's supposed to. It's when a team overachieves and surprises that we take notice. And then we build them up just to tear them back down. Let's see how everyone feels about Jeff Hornacek, Brad Stevens and Terry Stotts in a few seasons.
Brooks isn't deaf to the criticism, but he also isn't all that bothered by it. The Thunder have experienced success under him -- five straight postseason appearances, three of the past four conference finals and one NBA Finals trip with a core roster that still isn't older than 25.
Durant is the Thunder, the heart of the franchise who has defined the culture with his work ethic, character and humility. But Brooks has cultivated and fostered that environment. He's the Walter White of locker room chemistry, concocting what might be the tightest roster in the league. His players play for him, and most important, his superstar loves him.
Brooks has stretched this postseason, and his big moves have resulted in big wins. Still, even when Brooks makes an effective change, the focus is often about how he was two games late with it. Heck, he was two years late in benching Perkins against the Heat, and Thunder fans still haven't forgiven him for it.
But he has won a lot of games. He's overseen the development of a number of incredibly talented young players such as Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Jackson and Steven Adams. Presti, the general manager, has drafted some players for Brooks to work with, but they've also entered into a setting keen on building them. Brooks reinforces positives and basically lives on the message that playing hard can cover most mistakes. The Thunder have a tangible culture that a lot of teams are trying to copy, and a lot of it starts with the coach.
The question is, though, has he taken the Thunder as far as he can? There's a parallel some have drawn between Doug Collins and Brooks, with Durant needing his Phil Jackson to get to that next level. When you have a transformative player like Durant, you can’t waste him. Not even for a year. The time is always now, and the seat is always hot. Erik Spoelstra felt it and then some before LeBron bailed him out in Boston in Game 6. You don't start getting credit until the job is done. It's not fair; it's just reality.
10dJustin Rao and David Rothschild, Special to TrueHoop