As the NBA’s regular season was winding down and teams were beginning the process of looking for new head coaches, the resume of one of the top available coaches, Scott Brooks, was out there for everyone to see.
During his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooks became known for several things. He presided over a young roster that saw tremendous development under his watch, and his teams were strong defensively and played hard for him. But much of the conversation around him was over things that he wasn’t doing, from lineup changes to the Thunder’s offensive play calls late in games to relying too heavily on veterans over youngsters. Despite the Thunder always ranking near the top of the league in offense during Brooks’s tenure – finishing inside the top 10 in four of his final five seasons, and finishing 11th in the other when Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka missed a combined 88 games – he was always criticized for presiding over a fairly unsophisticated offensive scheme.
That’s one of the fascinating things about Brooks, and about his hiring by the Washington Wizards: Unlike his previous stop, it’s unclear exactly how this team will look going forward. After spending the first act of his coaching career in the shadow of Durant and Westbrook — to be clear, a situation any coach would dream to be in — the spotlight in his second will be squarely on Brooks himself. Brooks has a better track record of success than anyone available this summer, but the credit for it goes to the players he left behind in Oklahoma City. Now is his chance to back that track record up, whether he’ll admit to it or not.
“The way I’ve always lived my life, I’m not looking for credit,” Brooks said after Wednesday’s afternoon news conference introducing him as the Wizards’ head coach. “I don’t listen to the noise … I focus on the job at hand. I focus on the team. I know what I can do with the group I have, and I am excited about it.”
Unlike Mike D’Antoni, who is well-known for his pace-and-space offensive system, or Tom Thibodeau, who is equally well-known for his rigorous preparation on defense, Brooks is known as the coach who presided over Westbrook and Durant in Oklahoma City. But it’s hard to argue with his success rate: Oklahoma City reached the NBA Finals in 2012, made three trips to the Western Conference finals, and became a consistent championship contender under Brooks.
Given the only thing that’s been consistent about the Wizards is that they’ve been also-rans, if Brooks can replicate anything close to that level of success in Washington, he’ll be a smashing success. And, as Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said with a smile on Wednesday when the question was broached of whether Brooks might have relied too much on Westbrook and Durant: “You have a better plan than that?”
Still, it’s not often that a team pays a coach the money the Wizards gave Brooks – a total of $35 million over the next five years – without being able to project a clear vision for what his team will look like on the floor.
It’s part of what makes the hire so intriguing – including to Brooks himself, who sounded excited about the possibilities for this group. He may not have Durant and Westbrook any more, but he inherited another all-star point guard in John Wall, and the Wizards will have other offensive weapons in Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat.
“I love the opportunity to coach the group that I have,” Brooks said. “I like playmakers, and we can throw on the floor a lot of playmakers. And I’ve always told players that I’ve coached in the past, and I will tell the same to players I coach this year and in the future: that it’s about making the right play.
“John has the ability to make the play throughout the game, Bradley has the ability to make plays throughout the game. There’s going to be times where the right play is to shoot, and there’s going to be times the right play is to make the extra pass. And they will know I trust their decision making, because we’re going to work on that. We’re going to drill on those types of situations.”
Even with Brooks on board, there is plenty left to be determined about how the Wizards look next season. After heading into this past season with a determination to play a smaller lineup, no one – including Leonsis – was ready on Wednesday to commit to a style of play under Brooks next season. That’s smart, considering the Wizards only have five players under contract (with Beal making it six once he signs the maximum contract offer he is expected to receive in July). In short, Grunfeld and vice president Tommy Sheppard will have plenty of work to do this summer to fill out the back half of the roster.
However that process plays out, the Wizards will enter next season as a bit of a mystery. With Brooks as coach, it’s safe to assume they will play hard, and his developmental track record is a positive sign for a roster featuring five players, including Beal, who are 26 or younger.
One thing they won’t have, though, is a clear vision of what they’ll look like on the court. When Brooks was hired, everyone knew Washington was getting a coach known for defense, relationship building and player development. How it all will look, however, remains to be seen.
Leonsis and Grunfeld have bet big on Brooks. They made it clear he was their top choice, and they did what it took to hire him as quickly as possible.
Starting this fall, Brooks will get the chance to prove they made the right decision.