Is Head Coach Scott Brooks OKC Thunder's Secret Weapon?

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Is Head Coach Scott Brooks OKC Thunder's Secret Weapon?
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder would probably be surprised to find that a Facebook page titled “Fire Scott Brooks” actually exists.

Until, that is, they see when the page was created: 2011, back when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of OKC’s young guns—led by the perpetually embattled Brooks—were still trying to find their way.

Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame was cast at Brooks himself, whom many saw as lacking the kind of creativity necessary to take his talented charges to the next level.

The criticism was so far-reaching that even LeBron James felt it necessary to toss in his two cents via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald:

As early as last July, Bleacher Report’s very own Ben Lorimer went so far as to suggest that the Thunder should look into trading Brooks and replacing him with George Karl.

Fast-forward to today and the narrative has shifted almost completely, with Brooks now largely seen as having earned the trust and respect not only of management and the greater Thunder community, but the players as well.

Jeff Caplan of NBA.com did a splendid job of unpacking Brooks’ impressive about-face, using the Thunder’s own superstar—and LeBron James' rival—as exhibit A for why his coach is there to stay:

An elementary tactician. Unimaginative in clutch-time huddles. Dependent on the athleticism of his stars. Too stubborn to stray from his rotation. These are the repeated gripes.

“I wonder who’s saying that?” Durant said sternly to NBA.com. “How can you knock a guy who I think should be coach of the year this year with us losing Russ for so long and us staying on top of the best conference in the league, winning games against big teams on the road and he’s putting us in position every single game to be successful; who’s won 50 games, 55 games, 60 games, 47 games in the lockout [season], and we’re on pace for 60 now? I mean, what can you say?”

Of course, having the second-best basketball player on the planet—and another top-10 talent poised to return in Westbrook—certainly doesn’t hurt.

Still, Brooks’ growth as a basketball strategist cannot be discounted. Once a skipper stubborn in his substitutions, he has suddenly emerged a paragon of positional and rotational flexibility.

The Oklahoman’s Darnell Mayberry dug a little deeper into OKC’s ever-evolving lineup configurations:

Ten players currently are averaging at least 14 minutes for the Thunder, and Brooks has even used second-year forward Perry Jones III as a sporadic 11th man, playing him 10.4 minutes per game.

Brooks' efforts to both modify his minute distribution and unveil more unconventional units has illustrated his newfound trust in his young players, while also demonstrating that Brooks has embraced the idea that there's more than one way to win ballgames.

NBA.com’s stats page bears out Mayberry’s findings. At the same time last year, Brooks had utilized 16 different five-man units for at least 25 minutes per game. This season? Brooks has used 21 different lineups for 25-plus minutes.

What’s more, the minutes distribution hasn’t been nearly as top-heavy. Last season, the unit of Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had logged a whopping 838 minutes by February 14.

Compare that to this year, where the most utilized unit—Reggie Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins—has logged only 508 minutes.

Don Ryan/Associated Press
To free Durant, Brooks had to give him more responsibility.

Over a year after the controversial James Harden trade, Brooks has pressed players like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones into surprisingly serviceable roles as secondary and tertiary scoring options.

That, coupled with Durant and Serge Ibaka each making their own statistical mini-leaps, has allowed the Thunder to weather the loss of Westbrook in a way few other franchises could.

Come to think of it, it’s hard to call what Durant is doing mini-anything.

Speaking with Caplan, Brooks revealed that he was able to convince his star that, to truly take his game to the next level, Durant would have to stop worrying so much about scoring and focus instead on the other end of the floor.

Now this year going into it, I put more emphasis on Kevin: You have to impact it more defensively, and he has with Russell and without Russell. Kevin, you have to impact the game more with your playmaking, with Russell or without Russell, and he has. In this incredible run that he’s been on, his assist level has gone up and his defense has maintained at a high level, and last year I thought I focused on him trying to score too many points in the playoffs without Russell.

To say the strategy has worked would be an understatement. Durant has become the clear-cut favorite to take home the season’s MVP award heading into the All-Star break.

Oh, by the way, Brooks will be manning the Western Conference's bench during the All-Star Game.

True to their reputation as miners of diamonds in the rough, the Thunder may have seen all this coming before everyone else. Following the Thunder’s heartbreaking six-game series loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals, management awarded Brooks with a fresh, four-year contract extension.

Trust: It’s at the center of Caplan’s story, a must for any would-be champions and—if the growth of Scott Brooks is any bellwether—what the Thunder will use to show the rest of the league that they intend to become exactly that.

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