Safe coaching jobs don't exist in the NBA, where the demand for instant gratification promises turnover and leaves head honchos fighting for their jobs on a regular basis.
Gregg Popovich, three-time Coach of the Year and 18 seasons deep into his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs, is an exception. Scott Brooks is not. If anything, he's becoming the rule.
The Oklahoma City Thunder head coach has enjoyed six years of relatively unusual stability. But as the playoffs wear on, he's quickly being reminded of how fickle his profession still is.
Locked in a 2-2 second-round series tie with the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooks' Thunder are once again vulnerable. Their season is on the line, their ticket to the Western Conference Finals far from guaranteed.
Advancing past the Clippers remedies everything, even if only temporarily. Blowing this opportunity only accentuates Oklahoma City's flaws, one of which will be Brooks, who, right or not, could find himself moonlighting as a scapegoat the Thunder deem expendable.
For most, hindsight is 20/20.
For Brooks, it's hell.
Every decision he has made against the Clippers—and through Round 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies—has been dissected and anatomized like it would with any coach. But there has been a certain amount of post hoc bitterness that was, until recently, reserved for New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson.
Both Jackson and Woodson now find themselves unemployed. If public reaction to Oklahoma City's Game 4 collapse in Los Angeles is an accurate omen, Brooks won't be far behind.
The Thunder led by 22 points in the first quarter Sunday. They carried a 17-point edge into the second quarter. They coaxed Blake Griffin into late foul trouble. They held a 16-point lead with just minutes to play.
And they lost.
Although the Clippers' comeback was gradual and the product of rolling adjustments, the Thunder's collapse was abrupt. Every time the Clippers made a run, they had an answer. Then, when it mattered most, they didn't.
Darren Collison torched the Thunder defense for 12 points in the fourth quarter. Anything he wanted, he got. He wanted to attack the rim, to receive open, point-blank opportunities. So he got them.
Chris Paul entered angry Chris Paul mode, registering eight points and four assists in the quarter while playing phenomenal defense on Kevin Durant, who attempted just three shots in the final five minutes and one in the final two.
Griffin pitched in 10 points of his own, exploiting Oklahoma City at the rim, where he was often left unattended for reasons unknown.
Defensive struggles were compounded by uninspired offensive sets. The Thunder took forever to truly start possessions, the ball stopped moving and the onus to make something out of nothing was put on individuals rather than the entire team.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Most of what the Thunder labored through during the latter half of that fourth quarter was self-inflicted and, therefore, on the players. Durant was less than aggressive going up against Paul, a diminutive point guard he has a good 10-12 inches on. Instead of attacking, he was barely shooting, barely touching the ball.
When Durant looked to score on Paul, he often resorted to post-ups. Nothing wrong with that, really. Size differences have their advantages on the block.
Only Durant wasn't on the block. He was outside the paint, sometimes just inside the three-point line, posting up. What?
Russell Westbrook was similarly destructive. He attempted twice as many shots (10) as Durant, yet scored just as many points (10). Inside six minutes to play, he indulged his inner-most desires and freely chucked up a few mid-range jump shots.
On the possessions Durant was doubled—so, most of them—Westbrook wasn't coming to the ball. Neither was anyone else. They stood there watching, their spacing poor, like confused bystanders. It was ugly.
That's all on the players.
Incidentally, though, the players are under Brooks' control. They are his responsibility. Everything they do or don't do reflects on him. The poor spacing, lack of ball movement, trite offensive sets—everything.
Trailing by two points inside 28 seconds to play, the ball in Los Angeles' possession and no timeouts remaining, the Thunder elected not to foul. Brooks decided not to foul. The results were disastrous, as Fox Sports Southwest's Andrew Gilman explains:
All Los Angeles had to do was dribble, and it looked like Brooks and the Thunder players were content to let them do just that, but Griffin went to the basket and missed giving the Thunder the ball with 7 seconds left.
The mistake from Griffin doesn't make up for the mistake Brooks made first. Foul and you give your team a chance to not only win it in regulation with a pair of misses, but lengthen the game, at the very least.
Neither happened, and the result only magnifies the Thunder's inability to execute offensively in the fourth quarter as well shine a harsh light on its defensive indifference, too.
In the end, Westbrook missed a game-winning three and the Thunder's meltdown was complete. But it could have been worse.
The Thunder were gifted that attempt to tie or win the game. Griffin didn't have to shoot. The Clippers could have dribbled out the shot clock, given the Thunder possession with next to no time remaining and forced them to go the length of the court in just a couple seconds.
Late-game strategies measure the intuition and wherewithal of coaches. Brooks was not portrayed in a favorable light to end Game 4.
Why not foul?
Why not run different, more aggressive offensive plays?
Why not exert your authority over players and force them to adjust?
Instead of heading back to Oklahoma City up 3-1, the Thunder are left answering these questions, hoping a 2-2 series tie and yet another squandered opportunity doesn't culminate in season-ending disappointment.
Blowing 20-plus point leads isn't common for Oklahoma City, but that doesn't mean Game 4 was an isolated incident.
Not enough adjustments have been made by the Thunder throughout the playoffs. Their offense is a revolving mix of Durant and Westbrook doing it all. They've relinquished big leads.
Clutch coaching has been nonexistent.
The Thunder found themselves in a similar situation against the Grizzlies. Down by two late in Game 5 with only seconds remaining, Brooks again decided not to foul. He and the Thunder were bailed out by Westbrook, who picked Mike Conley's pocket and was awarded with an easy, game-tying layup.
Mistakes happen, but they are magnified in the playoffs. One miscue can cost a team the game. It can cost them a series.
Truthfully, the Thunder are lucky to still be alive. Playing into the second round almost wasn't an option. Not the way they're executing when the game is on the line.
According to NBA.com, the Thunder's postseason offensive rating during clutch situations—defined as the final five minutes of games in which no team is ahead or behind by more than five points—stands at 113.3. Their defensive rating is 122.4, giving them a minus-9.1 overall.
When the game is on the line, the Thunder are being outscored by 9.1 points per 100 possessions. They're shooting 25 percent from deep. Opponents are hitting 48.7 percent of their shots. That can't happen.
These avoidable, end-of-game gaffes cannot happen. They shouldn't happen. Not this frequently. Not this time of year.
Blame It On Brooks?
Blame must be handed out to everyone.
Short of suiting up and playing alongside Durant and Westbrook, Brooks cannot hold players' hands. He cannot put a leash on Westbrook. He cannot inject Kobe Bryant-esque killer instinct in Durant.
But he can be better. He should be better.
Games and series are never lost because of one man, but Brooks has continuously shown his late-game chops aren't good enough. If the Thunder fall to the Clippers, there's no guarantee he returns next season.
With Durant desperate to win a title and two years away from free agency, the Thunder cannot afford to wait around. Plus, what's the alternative? Consistently blame two of the most talented basketball players on Earth?
Writing for Grantland, Jared Dubin explained how Brooks might have taken the Thunder as far as he can:
But it’s become increasingly clear — while watching the Thunder in their series against the Memphis Grizzlies, while watching play after play break down because of a borderline criminal lack of secondary action, while watching Durant and Westbrook play “your turn, my turn” with the offense for minutes at a time, while watching the same late-game sets they’ve been running for years and that everyone and their mother knows are coming — that Brooks has taken this team as far as he can, that this is the end of the line, and that it’s time to move on. In short, Brooks is Oklahoma City’s Doug Collins, and general manager Sam Presti needs to set about finding Durant his Phil Jackson.
To be sure, Brooks' dismissal falls well short of certain. Even if the Thunder lose to Los Angeles, he has a number of things working in his favor.
Brooks has two years left on his current contract that will pay him $4 million annually. According to the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence, that should be enough to prevent the cash-conscious Sam Presti from making any brash decisions this summer.
Replacing Brooks won't be easy either. Oklahoma City isn't a market that attracts big names. The opportunity to coach Westbrook and Durant should be enough, but what if it isn't?
It's all fine and good to envision Durant partnering with a sideline-meandering sage who can coach him to his first career championship, until you realize that all-knowing virtuoso may not be out there.
Is it Lionel Hollins? Stan Van Gundy? Jackson (Mark, not Phil)? Are the Thunder at the point where change for the sake of change would be welcome, where any successor would be an upgrade?
Never underestimate the power players have either. Brooks has the respect of his stars. When Westbrook's brother took Brooks to task on Twitter, the point man had none of it.
“I took care of that, man," Westbrook said, via The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater. "We don’t conduct business like that."
Read between the lines, and you'll notice he didn't exactly voice his undying support of Brooks. But if there was ever a player more likely to slip up publicly and express displeasure with Brooks, it would be the volatile Westbrook. Yet there's been nothing.
If there was, well, Westbrook's opinion would be trounced by Durant's. You can bet on that. The league MVP adores Brooks. It was him who helped expedite the negotiation process between Oklahoma City and Brooks last summer, per The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. It was him who credited Brooks during his MVP speech.
It is him who could keep Brooks in Oklahoma City no matter what.
All of this becomes moot if the Thunder beat the Clippers. Firing a coach who reached the Western Conference Finals—no matter how he got there—is difficult. In the Thunder's case, it may be impossible.
But if they lose to the Clippers, if they suffer yet another early postseason exit, it will be put on Brooks, who is both coaching for his job and protected by the bond he shares with his players.
"I'm glad he's back," Durant said in March, via Mayberry. "I'm glad he's with us.”
How much longer he remains with them is partially predicated on Oklahoma City's second-round triumph or failure. Mostly, it's on how much longer Durant, Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder see the imperfect Brooks as being good enough.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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