But more than any other slogan he became known for, there was one phrase Brooks could have patented: We gave ourselves a chance.
He would recite these words when he added a postscript to a big win or he stewed over a defensive collapse. So on Wednesday night in Philadelphia when Brooks, arms crossed, stood on the sideline and watched his team lose to the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, a question had to be considered.
Did Brooks give himself a chance to return as the Wizards’ coach?
“I don’t worry about my position,” Brooks said to one of the many postgame questions about his future. “I worry about doing my job.”
Brooks, 55, has reached the end of his contract, a five-year deal that reportedly was worth $35 million. He largely spent that time creating Frankenstein lineups — first from aging, overpaid and underperforming rosters, then with players who could legally toast big victories only with milk. Even as the roster changed, injuries remained the consistent thread. He coached a healthy John Wall for one season. And this season, he couldn’t coach at all for 10 days after covid-19 ravaged the locker room.
“You guys know a lot of things that happened but not all the things that happened,” Brooks said, reviewing the 2020-2021 season. “And we just kept fighting and fighting.”
Majority team owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t tipped his hand on how he examines a half-decade of Brooks, who has had a longer tenure than all but three coaches in team history.
Will Leonsis look at those five seasons and celebrate the three playoff appearances? Or cringe over the fact that his franchise finished better than .500 only twice during this time?
Will he delight in the evolution of Bradley Beal as an all-NBA-caliber player and the progress of second-year player Rui Hachimura? Or detect a regression in the Wizards’ defense?
“We start every season with every one of our teams as we have to make the playoffs. If we can make the playoffs, then you can aspire to winning a championship,” Leonsis said during a May 14 news conference.
Expecting the playoffs for these Wizards, even after they acquired Russell Westbrook in a trade for Wall, seemed unrealistic. The roster was constructed with veteran guards but little experience on the wing. Nothing about the roster inspired visions of a championship parade down Constitution Avenue.
In the season tip-off against the 76ers, Washington paired its dynamic backcourt with Thomas Bryant, rookie Deni Avdija and Isaac Bonga. On their final night of the season, again facing the 76ers — who emerged as the top team in the East — Bryant (left ACL injury) was not with the team, Avdija (right fibular hairline fracture) did not play, and Bonga only checked in for garbage minutes at the end of a 129-112 loss.
Yet the Wizards made the playoffs as the eighth seed, even after collapsing at one point to a season-worst 15 games under .500 at 17-32. Washington had a 0.4 percent chance to make the playoffs. Those odds, however, were helped by their remaining opponents. By the end of March, the Wizards’ had the easiest strength of schedule, according to the website tankathon.com.
Facing non-playoff teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Charlotte Hornets (twice) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (three times!) had something to do with the Wizards finishing the season 17-6. So did Westbrook gobbling up triple-doubles and Beal going for the scoring crown. But coaching played a role, too, and Brooks was the Eastern Conference coach of the month for April after directing his team’s resurgence.
In Game 5, Brooks rolled up the sleeves to his gray pullover as if he wanted to insert himself during the first quarter. Such intensity is one of the reasons he didn’t lose the locker room and why his team didn’t roll over at the start of this game, when it built a seven-point lead.
Beal described Brooks as “true player’s coach.” Westbrook, too, spoke up as a Brooks ally.
“Me personally, I don’t think Scott should go anywhere,” said Westbrook, who previously played under Brooks in Oklahoma City. “When I got here, I was able to see it first hand. He’s the same Coach Brooks. He brings intensity, he brings the effort like he was playing, but he’s the coach.”
Under Brooks, the Wizards’ defense hovered around the lower tier in the league. The franchise’s winning percentage deadened at .469 (183-207 overall). His winning percentage was slightly worse than that of his predecessor, Randy Wittman, who also won more playoff games in fewer chances. But by rallying from irrelevance in this turbulent season and advancing to the playoffs, reaching the yearly goal shared by his boss, Brooks gave the Wizards a chance. Now Leonsis will have to decide whether that’s good enough.