DALLAS — As usual, Scott Brooks walked out of the locker room and stood in front of a blue Washington Wizards backdrop. After every game, the head coach has to share some sort of insight about his team’s play and eight times in the first 10 games of this season, Brooks has had to answer for a loss. There have been so many sterile defensive performances and so much evidence of disturbing apathy, that on Tuesday after the latest defeat, Brooks simply played the hits.
“There’s only one way to do it and it’s doing it together,” Brooks said following the Wizards' 119-100 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, using a familiar battle cry from previous defeats.
"Staying together, doing it together and believing in each other,” Brooks continued. “We’ve been here before. We have enough in our locker room.”
Despite the horrendous start for a team that expected to contend in a LeBron James-less East, it appears Brooks, in his third season as the Wizards' head coach, has more than enough collateral within the organization to remain protected from social media uprisings and hot-seat rumors. He also has the unwavering support of his players.
“He’s a guy who’s coming in and doing a job like the rest of us,” Markieff Morris said. “Sh-- happens. You take losses but it’s like, we started like this before. You know what I’m saying? We’re just trying to find it.”
Even more, Brooks has the security of working in Washington.
The NBA can be brutal for the well-dressed man at the front of the bench. In Cleveland, Tyronn Lue was fired only six games into the season. Luke Walton is currently coaching the Los Angeles Lakers but his boss, Magic Johnson, is reportedly growing impatient. It’s never a good thing when “private” meetings with the president of basketball operations become public.
In just about any other NBA market, a 2-8 start from a veteran team that has been together too long to be this disjointed might cast serious doubts on the job security of the easiest target, the head coach. But in Washington, things are different. The coach is safe here.
This is not simply because the Wizards have already batted down the non-story of Brooks not being in the line of fire. No, Brooks will likely remain the Wizards' leader because:
- He’s guaranteed $21 million from an organization that has soared past the luxury tax despite its roster holes.
- He heads a revamped staff with only one longtime assistant experienced in taking over head coaching duties.
- Most of all, he works for an owner who may be willing to press the eject button on his NHL coaches but practices the patience of a monk when it comes to making changes to his basketball operations.
In 2016, when the Wizards wooed Brooks, they went all in. Five years, no options, all guaranteed. Brooks would be the voice through the all-star primes of Bradley Beal and John Wall. Such a long-term commitment didn’t come cheap. Brooks signed for $35 million, giving him one of the highest base salaries among NBA coaches.
But let’s say an alternate universe exists: If Washington can’t pull out of this funk and the organization goes against its long-held ethos of standing pat, Brooks would still be owed the whole shebang while the team places the interim tag on someone on his coaching staff.
Over the summer, the Wizards lost veteran assistants Sidney Lowe and Chad Iske to Detroit and Charlotte, respectively. They were replaced by Robert Pack and Ryan Richman, a young coach who’s in his first year at the front of the bench after spending the last few seasons in player development. That leaves top assistant Tony Brown. Though Brown served as an interim head coach in the 2015-16 season with the Brooklyn Nets, he led that rebuilding team to a 11-34 finish.
There was a time when team majority owner Ted Leonsis did approve Flip Saunders’s in-season firing, but that move was akin to placing a bandage over a bullet wound during the dreadful 2011-12 season. Saunders was 49-115 and the team ranked 21st in the league in home attendance. The disillusionment within the fan base was hard to ignore. The team had to do something. And yet, it took a 2-15 start for Leonsis to do it when Washington Capitals' coaches had been discarded for far less.
Since the Alex Ovechkin era started in 2005, three Capitals coaches have faced the fate of in-season firings. Last season, Barry Trotz, who had won two Presidents' Trophies for the best regular season record, was nearly fired twice (in November and March) before the Caps went on to win a third straight Metropolitan Division title and then the Stanley Cup. The Cup win triggered a clause in Trotz’s contract that gave him an automatic two-year extension with only a modest raise, far below his value on the open market, and he instead chose to resign. The Capitals promoted his top assistant, Todd Reirden, who would have gotten the head job earlier had Trotz not saved his job by winning during the regular season.
On the basketball side, however, Leonsis has shown unprecedented loyalty.
Last fall, Leonsis gave Ernie Grunfeld a contract extension despite the 538-686 franchise record he has amassed in his 15-plus years as the Wizards' lead executive. Under Grunfeld, Washington has advanced to the playoffs eight times but has never made it past the second round. This season, his current roster does not appear deep enough to contend in the East. The bench yet again has been wildly ineffective while playing without a starter and the team’s fourth-highest paid player, Ian Mahinmi, has received two consecutive DNPs.
But these days, a second-round playoff exit doesn’t look so bad with the Wizards getting smoked by 19, the fourth blowout loss this season, to a rebuilding Mavericks team.
In the second quarter, the Wizards fell into a 20-point deficit and Brooks stood several steps away from the sideline, watching over his offense. Morris was called for a foul and as the whistle blew to change possessions, Brooks smacked his hands and retreated to his seat. That seat, despite the outside speculation, is far from hot.
“It’s kind of hard to ignore when you have social media and the world we live in and everybody making rumors about it. It’s — it’s — you hear it,” Beal said, admitting that he’s aware of talk about Brooks’s job security.
“It’s on TV, people are talking about it. No truth to it at all,” Beal said. “But you never really pay attention to it because he comes in and he works every day. He’s here every day. I’m not saying this as a good thing but we’ve been in this position before. We’ve dug ourselves out of this hole before. He’s a well-experienced coach. He’s played in the league. He’s coached an unbelievable team in [Oklahoma City] and now he’s coaching us and trying to get us to that level. So you’ve got to respect what he’s done. You can’t just shoot a man in his foot.”