Worry not about Scott Brooks, fired Wednesday as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
If he chooses, he’ll remain unemployed in the NBA for, say, five minutes. He has earned his reputation as one of the best developers of young talent in the game. His .620 regular-season win-loss percentage (338-207) is the best by any coach in NBA history who hasn’t won a championship ring.
Those numbers look downright enticing for the Denvers, Orlandos and Sacramentos of the hoops world. Brooks will find work, for sure, because he’s earned it.
Valley basketball fans always have invested in Brooks, raised in Lathrop and a graduate of East Union High School of Manteca. They related to his hardscrabble upbringing – the youngest of seven children – and his unlikely climb by an overachieving 5-foot-10 guard to the bright lights of the NBA.
Brooks never took a shortcut. He outworked the process and proved skeptics wrong from East Union, to TCU, to San Joaquin Delta, to UC Irvine and through a remarkable 10-year NBA career peaking in 1994 as a member of the champion Houston Rockets.
As a coach, he followed the same plan with his start in lower-level pro leagues. Sam Presti, the young and forward-thinking Thunder executive vice president and general manager, took a chance on Brooks when the team unloaded P.J. Carlesimo after a 1-13 start in 2008. The team continued to free fall to 3-29 but eventually stabilized. The Thunder won 50 games the next season and Brooks was named NBA Coach of the Year.
From there, the Thunder reached the conference finals three times in the last four years and the NBA Finals in 2012. Brooks’ greatest accomplishment was his guidance of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook (Merced’s Gerald Madkins, former director of scouting, had a hand in drafting Westbrook), James Harden and Serge Ibaka.
The only thing Brooks didn’t do in Oklahoma City was win an NBA title, and that’s why he’s an ex-coach today. Misfortune always gnawed at the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook, one of the league’s most dynamic tandems, were often not on the court at the same time when it mattered the most. Injuries dogged both.
The issue reached critical mass this season when Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka missed 88 games, 55 by Durant. That was too much to overcome, though Westbrook nearly lifted the team into the playoffs by himself.
Durant’s foot injury and Brooks’ firing are connected events. Also instrumental was the success enjoyed in Oakland by first-year coach Steve Kerr.
The Warriors fired Mark Jackson, a winning coach, and hit the mother lode in Kerr, whose Warriors rolled to a historic 67-15. This wasn’t lost on Presti, who’s stressing over the Thunder’s future. Durant’s contract ends after next season, and Presti is trying to hold that prized roster together. By the way, Brooks’ contract also was set to expire next year.
Simply, the Thunder bets that a new voice could lead to Warriors-like success and – it hopes – Durant after 2016.
That said, the jettisoning of winning coaches is a tricky business. It worked for Golden State but failed elsewhere. The Kings haven’t yet recovered from the firing of Rick Adelman. It took the Giants nearly a decade to win a World Series after the exit of Dusty Baker. The 49ers may feel the sting of pulling the carpet beneath a first-class staff headed by Jim Harbaugh.
There will not be much middle ground about the Thunder’s results next season. It will either bounce back in a big way under Brooks’ successor, or it will drop into the pack. Another failure means Durant departs – he might leave anyway – to another address.
Brooks believes one of the most important duties of an NBA head coach is to get along with his superstar, or superstars if he’s lucky enough to have more than one. His bond with Durant and Westbrook was tight, and that often wasn’t easy with the combustible Westbrook. It’s one more reason why Brooks’ firing is a dice roll for the Thunder.
Brooks, who’s been fired or cut too many times to count, can handle any setback. How can you argue against someone who says hard work is a talent?
Oklahoma City may rue the day it let Brooks go. As for Brooks, he’ll land on his feet. He always does.