Last week, Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and vice president Tommy Sheppard flew to Newport Beach, Calif., with one directive from their boss, owner Ted Leonsis: Convince Scott Brooks to become the franchise’s next coach.
Grunfeld, Sheppard and Brooks met in a hotel for 10 hours, with the Wizards’ executives pitching the team’s talented nucleus and ample cap space this summer. The Wizards, they insisted, were on the cusp of joining the NBA’s elite, and Brooks was the right coach for the task. Brooks didn’t need much cajoling. Other organizations were interested, but the former Oklahoma City Thunder coach already had decided he wanted the Wizards job if it became available to him.
Twenty-four hours later, the two sides came to terms on a five-year, $35 million deal to replace Randy Wittman. Brooks signed the contract Tuesday and was introduced at Verizon Center on Wednesday as the 24th coach in franchise history.
“I got everything I wanted, and I wasn’t looking for anything else,” Brooks said. “This is where I wanted to be.”
The feeling was mutual. The Wizards honed in on Brooks, 50, from the outset of their search, partly out of fear that other franchises, including the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, would pounce. Washington didn’t interview any other candidates and moved rapidly with a grand offer. Brooks is now one of the six highest-paid coaches in the NBA and tied with Dallas’s Rick Carlisle as the highest-paid coaches who don’t also serve as team presidents.
“He was in demand because of his record, and so we moved quickly, although I don’t want anyone to think we didn’t know who he was,” Leonsis said. “We certainly had been studying for years and years. You always have to do your Plan B planning.”
One part of Brooks’s background stands out as the Wizards enter a pivotal summer: his history with impending free agent Kevin Durant. Brooks was with Durant for the Montrose Christian product’s first eight NBA seasons — first as an assistant coach for the Seattle SuperSonics — and it is no secret that the Wizards will go after Durant when free agency opens July 1. The combination fueled speculation that the Durant pursuit was a significant factor in hiring Brooks.
Asked whether he was going to bring Durant with him, Brooks adeptly sidestepped the question and praised the players currently on the roster. He said John Wall has the potential to reach “two or three levels” higher and gushed over Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. Grunfeld later played down the theory.
“I like Scott Brooks as a basketball coach,” Grunfeld said when asked about the Durant speculation. “That’s why we got him.”
Leonsis highlighted various other reasons for hiring Brooks. He mentioned Brooks’s experience cultivating young talent in Oklahoma City, where Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden developed into all-stars. He complimented the “culture of accountability” Brooks created with the Thunder, which he coached to a .620 regular season winning percentage, three Western Conference finals appearances and a trip to the 2012 NBA Finals over six-plus campaigns.
Behind the scenes, Wizards players grew frustrated with the lack of accountability across the roster from Wittman this season and tuned him out over the course of the campaign.
“I’ve always felt the best teams in the history of this great sport are the teams that hold each other accountable, and we will work on it on a daily basis to get that performance every night, to hold each other accountable,” Brooks said. “We will have a standard of play, and anything below that will be unacceptable. I believe in players, I believe in coaching up, I believe in moving forward to the next play, but I won’t tolerate slippage in areas I believe are important.”
Brooks was regularly criticized for relying too heavily on isolation basketball with Durant and Westbrook — two of the world’s top offensive talents — but Leonsis said he expects Washington to implement a more “sophisticated” offensive scheme under Brooks without sacrificing defense, which the Wizards did this past season en route to posting a 41-41 record and missing the playoffs.
Leonsis said he expected to qualify for the postseason and that Wittman was fired hours after Washington’s season finale in April as a result. But Leonsis maintained that the Wizards remain on track with the plan he and Grunfeld outlined when he took over as majority owner in 2010. The season was an unexpected disappointment, Leonsis admitted, but the setback wasn’t detrimental to the bigger picture. Grunfeld’s job, therefore, was never in danger.
“We were executing to the plan,” Leonsis said. “If we had varied from the plan and the plan didn’t work, then I would’ve been within my realm of responsibility to take a look. But we were executing a plan that we agreed to when I bought the team five years ago.”
But failing to advance to the playoffs is no longer an option, Leonsis emphasized. The Wizards have reached the stage at which postseason berths are mandatory. They now have the coach they sought and nearly $30 million in salary cap room to find the players they want.