Scott Brooks, resolute and succinct, set his expectations for this latest revision of the Washington Wizards on Monday afternoon.
“Defend. Play with pace. Share the basketball,” the coach said.
It wasn’t a novel or shocking mission statement, but in his first two seasons coaching the Wizards, Brooks hadn’t been as direct while speaking publicly about his team’s intended identity. There were vague directives about being a balanced, “two-way” basketball team. During times of struggle, there were demands to play with more consistency and focus. But on this day, there was no need to interpret what he wants.
It’s consistent with the way Brooks has spoken in private since last season ended with a first-round playoff loss to Toronto. In conversations with the front office, his coaching staff and players, he has been assertive and clear about the direction he sees the Wizards taking. Everyone has noticed and reacted positively so far.
The words “Coach wants” have been used more often around the Wizards. It’s a level of command that will be tested in the months to come.
Brooks wants the most interchangeable team he has coached. He wants depth. He wants to shoot more three-pointers. He wants centers who protect the rim and an offense predicated on ball movement and featuring more players who can get into the paint and create for themselves or others.
As the Wizards introduced new starting center Dwight Howard on Monday, Brooks unveiled an improved standard, and it was compelling to listen to him speak with greater conviction. Then again, it’s the summer, and meaningful games have yet to occur, and the weather is great, except for a torrential D.C. downpour or two. ’Tis not the season for dissension and hopelessness. In late July, the NBA sourpusses hibernate. It is easier for desire and enthusiasm to dominate.
But what happens when training camp opens? What happens when the season begins? What happens when the Wizards struggle or individuals who are willing to sacrifice in theory actually realize what that means in application? The answers are unknown, and because the Wizards have mercurial tendencies and added more players with mercurial tendencies this offseason, there is a natural skepticism about the future.
So it’s on Brooks — this version of him, not the tolerant, bargaining players’ coach who enabled some of the Wizards’ worst traits last season — to be steadfast in his aspiration to mold this cluster of talent into a dogged defensive squad that gets stops, flies down the court and scores without regard to who is putting the ball in the basket or getting the credit.
“We want to play a style of play,” Brooks said. “We want to build a program that we’re all connected with one another. It’s not going to be perfect everyday. It’s a long season. We brought a competitive group together.
“I think I envision this team being something that our fans can be proud of. I’m a fan of the game, and I want to be able to speak to our fans with conviction about who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. The message is clear, and I think the guys understand that.”
This could be either the hardest or the easiest Wizards team that Brooks has coached. Or perhaps it will be the hardest and the easiest at the same time. To build the deepest and most versatile team of the John Wall-Bradley Beal era, the Wizards had to choose talent over personality fit. They’re better now, without question. They have also become a potentially volatile chemistry experiment, and it’s not like they have a distinguished history of cohesion and leadership to rely upon if the locker room starts to quake.
How do you combat the possibility of infighting and resistance if your roster lacks a great leader? Well, Washington must turn to its $7 million-a-year coach to set the agenda with clarity and force. Brooks seems to have accomplished the clarity part. But can he be forceful enough? I thought he was two years ago, after he signed a five-year, $35 million contract to spur a young team’s growth. But his voice wasn’t as strong last season, and the Wizards reverted to bad habits.
Now he has a team equipped to weather the long NBA season. The Wizards have added three double-digit scorers to their rotation this summer: Howard, Austin Rivers and Jeff Green. They have a legitimate, veteran 10-man rotation, and it doesn’t include rookie Troy Brown Jr., who flashed his mature game during summer league, and big man Jason Smith, who has had some good moments. The only question is whether they can get along enough to reach their best.
“We match up well with anybody,” Howard said. “They’re going to have to worry about trying to really match up with us. We can go very big. We can go small. We can go fast. We can slow the game down, which is going to be great for our team.”
Said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld: “This is probably the deepest team that we’ve had and maybe the most talented.”
But it’s also one that needs to be redeemed. If the redemption of Howard and the Wizards came down to belief, Brooks already would have saved them. Brooks, a most earnest optimist, believes like few do. He has built a career on trust and openness, and while that makes him vulnerable to disappointment and criticism, his longevity and salary indicate his way has been quite successful.
Brooks isn’t just a players’ coach. He is a players’ champion, the classic former NBA baller who brought his playing preferences and insights to the sideline. He isn’t a pushover, but he’ll never be a cynic. He usually doesn’t badmouth his players to the media. He is willing to adapt to the talent around him. But even in the NBA, where star players possess incredible power, a good head coach must be able to make a team bend to his will.
Can Brooks do that with Wall and make him share the ball more? Can he do it with Beal, who regressed defensively and struggled in clutch situations? Can he do it with Howard, a former all-star still learning how to be a winning role player? It will be a challenge, but it will help that what Brooks stands for — and what he wants the team to stand for — rings louder and clearer than it ever has. That’s a solid start. But there may come a time when he needs to reinforce his wishes in a harsher tone than he has used over two seasons in D.C.
That’s when we’ll know what the Wizards and Brooks are about this season.