The Oklahoma City Thunder have an elite team, built around elite talent. However, unfortunately, they do not have an elite coach.
While I like Scotty Brooks, and I think he is a very good coach, over the last two seasons he has shown that he is not an exceptional offensive or defensive mind who can out-coach rivals like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers.
He also is obsessed with intangibles in players, which has led to players like Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher receiving minutes far in excess of their actual value on the court. He is a less-than-stellar play-caller, and it seems that his best late-game play is to run Durant off a screen then isolate. Hardly Popovich-ish.
Therefore, I believe that moving on from Brooks would be best for the Thunder's shot at a championship.
However, the big challenge with this is that all the top coaches are always signed to contracts. While there are lots of young coaches with potential to be great, like Brad Stevens, the Thunder need a proven commodity if they want to replace Brooks. The players love him, and handing a championship-calibre team over to a rookie could kill off the Oklahoma City dynasty before it has a chance to start.
Any other offseason, this would end the search before it started, since no proven elite coaches are ever available for long. However, 2013 is the exception to the rule, as one offensive mastermind and one defensive guru remain as "free agents."
These are, of course, George Karl and Lionel Hollins, who were not brought back by the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies respectively. Both men have had recent postseason success while leading teams without a superstar, which to me is the mark of a coach who can lead a team from a matchup standpoint.
Also, since they have been sitting on the outside looking in for most of the offseason, they may be willing to sign a much smaller contract than usual for a coach of their calibre and record. This would be another bonus for the money-conscious Thunder owners.
The prize of the two out-of-work coaches would of course be George Karl. As the seventh coach to achieve 1,000 career wins in the NBA, he has the track record to come in and replace a very popular coach without causing a mutiny.
Karl is also well-known as one of the greatest offensive innovators in basketball, and it would be a treat to see him scheme for a team with the type of offensive firepower that the Thunder have. Kevin Durant could be looking at a season for the ages, since despite being the NBA's best scorer, he does this in an offense that only really isolates him or runs him off screens.
Karl would be much more likely to develop plays that give him, and the rest of the roster, easier shots. Durant's team-first attitude and greater efficiency should make him even more lethal than Carmelo Anthony was under Karl.
Also, since Anthony was shipped out of town, Karl's Denver teams have been very good at moving the ball and getting out in transition. The later is already a big strength of the Thunder team, and the former is something Oklahoma City would really benefit from developing.
While most people would agree that Karl's offensive wizardry would help the Thunder, and his play-calling skills would make them a more potent close-out team, it could be argued that they do not really need an offensive whiz. After all, the Thunder scored the third most points per game in 2013 and were also third in three-point and field goal percentage.
While they were not a bad defensive team last year, they definitely could improve more in that area than on offense, and recent Karl teams have never fielded great defenses. However, this was more due to personnel than scheme.
With his undersized and young Nuggets team of the last few seasons, he lacked a consistent shot-blocker or lock-down perimeter players until Andre Iguodala hit the scene. And before that Carmelo Anthony was busy saving his energy for offense.
However, going back to Karl's earlier teams, especially the Seattle Super Sonics of the 1990s, paints a different picture.
That Sonics team is the other great one of the Seattle/Oklahoma City franchise, and it had an elite trapping defense that was very similar to the one that the Miami Heat now operate. While this defense should be credited to Bob Kloppenburg as much as George Karl, and also relied heavily on the defense talents of Gary Payton, the fact is that it was one of the best of its era, and was very innovative.
This indicates that Karl is the sort of coach who can instill a great defense and is also very open to new ideas. After a couple of years of stodgy traditionalism from Brooks, Karl's willingness to embrace novelty on offense and defense could unlock even more of the potential of the versatile players on the Thunder roster like Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson and Perry Jones III.
The second option for a replacement head coach is Lionel Hollins. While he lacks the pedigree of George Karl, and is not coming off a coach of the year award, he has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the last few seasons. His Memphis Grizzlies team has been a top defensive unit for a long time, and he appears to be a good leader.
However, the reason why he would be a distant second to Karl as a replacement for Brooks is that he seems to be a very similar sort of coach. In Memphis he favoured a big man dominant lineup. While that has certainly been the right move on a Memphis roster blessed with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, it would not translate well to the Thunder.
Also, since he has never been an NBA head coach anywhere else, it is impossible to tell whether or not this is something integral to his style or just because that was the best way to use his roster. He is not an excellent play-caller, which is a big advantage that Karl has over Brooks (and Hollins).
Therefore, I would be wary of switching Brooks for Hollins, unlike if the Thunder were signing Karl.
Should the Thunder trade Scott Brooks?
However, another challenge is, of course, that Brooks signed a big four-year contract extension after winning the Western Conference in 2012. This means that there are still three years and $12 million left on his deal.
Given that the Thunder front office has been unwilling to amnesty Kendrick Perkins and his $20 million deal when he offers no real on-court value to the team, I doubt they would be willing to simply waive Brooks' deal and lose that $12 million.
Therefore, the only option would be to trade Brooks. Again, this late in the offseason, most teams would have already signed their coach for the next season, meaning that the Thunder would have no trade partners. However, once again, the perfect target for Brooks, the Philadelphia 76ers, have yet to sign a head coach.
The main reason why Brooks is such a perfect fit is his ability to nurture a young team. While Sam Presti has been given a lot of credit for drafting the the great players that have turned the Thunder into a dynasty, I believe that Brooks and his coaching staff have not been given enough credit for their ability to give confidence to young players, develop their skills and get them to sacrifice for the team.
They are a big reason why the Thunder have had such a good success rate drafting players, because Brooks has been able to mould raw talents like Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka into elite players. For a rebuilding franchise like the 76ers, Brooks is the best coach in the NBA to develop all the young talent they intend to add over the next few seasons, and for $4 million he is not a huge investment.
Meanwhile, the Thunder, who have already developed their roster, can move on from the perfect rebuilding coach to Karl, who would be a championship coach if it was not for the Michael Jordan Bulls dynasty.
A trade of Scott Brooks for some draft picks would be a rare "everyone is a winner" trade. The Thunder can sign a coach better suited to their current needs while avoiding paying two salaries and adding some extra draft picks (since players cannot be traded for coaches). Philadelphia would also get an ideal coach, as Brooks is proven to be a brilliant developer of talent and is in his element with a young team.
Also, the precedent for a coach trade has already been set this offseason, when the Clippers sent a late first-round pick to the Boston Celtics for Doc Rivers. Since Brooks is not at the same level as Rivers as a coach and has no championship hardware, and the 76ers will be less desperate than the Clippers were, they would probably only have to part with one or two second round picks to facilitate the trade.
In all, it seems like a win-win to me, and a move that could vault the Thunder into a championship parade sooner rather than later.