Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks is not in an enviable position.
Win, and it's what he's supposed to do. Lose, and it's his fault. But regardless of what you may hear, Brooks is not a bad coach.
Is he worthy of criticism? Sure.
Is he flawed? Absolutely.
But is he a bottom-of-the-league leader who doesn't deserve an NBA coaching job? Far from it.
In reality, Brooks isn't close to the league's bottom-feeding coaches. But a statement like that instigates the question: can a team win an NBA championship with a coach who ranks somewhere near the middle of the pack? And if it can't, should he stick around with a championship-caliber roster?
There are positives on Brooks' side. He's a strong defensive mind who oversaw the Thunder as they posted the league's fifth-ranked defense this past season. He is a leader who seems to stand by his players regardless of public dissent (see: Russell Westbrook). He has seen talent progress under him—from guys like Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka to others like Stephen Adams and Reggie Jackson.
As general manager Sam Presti told reporters after the OKC's season came to a close, Brooks has the support of the Thunder organization (h/t CBC.ca). "Scotty, I think, did an excellent job," Presti said. "I understand, we all have a tendency to look at the last game and the last series. I respect it, that's part of sports. I can't do that."
But if Henry VIII were on Twitter, he'd fit right in as one of the many calling for Brooks' head. The Thunder's substitution rotations are weird, and their offense is monotonous. Because of that, Brooks' job may be on the line moving forward.
Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher tackled both sides of the Brooks debate on June 5, but noted that Brooks should return as Thunder coach for at least one more season:
The Thunder are not happy with the way it ended. They do believe that there's still a little too much stagnation when it comes to the offense.
However, the Thunder take their cue from the San Antonio Spurs, which is, we don't change just for change's sake. We empower our coach, and we allow him the time to get the job done.
The Thunder have always liked the Spurs' model. It may have been a few years back, but that's where Presti did his learning, when he started off as an intern in San Antonio and worked his way up the ranks.
It's not like this past season was a complete and utter failure. Oklahoma City earned the No. 2 seed in a strong-as-ever Western Conference and went as far as its record would imply it should: to the Western Conference Finals.
The Spurs mentality wouldn't say major changes need to come. For the Thunder, we could end up seeing some turnover with the role players this offseason. And because of that, it's possible that the team will have an improved roster next year—one that doesn't allow Brooks to make some of the mistakes he was criticized for so much this season.
What was the No. 1 problem the Brooks detractors complained about all season? That the Thunder veterans played too many minutes, regardless of on-court production. But we actually have reason to believe that won't be the case next year, or at least the philosophy will be toned down a tad.
Derek Fisher is off to New York as the team's new head coach, and he'll bring his 17.6 minutes per game with him. Adams averaged 22.2 minutes a night over the Thunder's final 14 playoff games, outplaying Kendrick Perkins over that stretch.
Another year will probably mean improvement for Adams, and he should find a way to force himself into the lineup a little more. Jeremy Lamb, meanwhile, will be a year closer to "veteranship." And that was the problem, right? Prioritizing the vets.
But what if those vets aren't there?
Fisher's already gone. Perkins could become trade bait, as his status converts from albatross deal to ever-desired expiring contract in 2014-15. Caron Butler's contract runs out on July 1, and though he could return on the cheap, OKC has a real chance to add some quality, younger talent with the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions.
So, what if a roster, which was flawed on the edges this past season, isn't quite as perforated next year? That mends some of the Brooks issues right there, doesn't it?
But not all of them.
There is still an offense that harbors plays with fewer options than Peter Griffin's wardrobe.
They may be quiet, but the Brooks defenders are out there. They're with you, Scotty. Those people are the ones who blame the roster more than the coach for the Thunder's troubles.
If you don't want Westbrook and Durant dribbling as much, then you're calling for someone else to have the ball more. Do you really want Thabo Sefolosha and Perkins even more involved in the offense??
That's the reality...or so they claim.
In actuality, less dribbling from Westbrook doesn't mean more for everyone else. It's not that certain individuals need to put the ball on the ground more; it's just that the execution has to be crisper.
There's a reason OKC scored 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions during the postseason: the offense was easy to figure out in a series setting.
When a pick-and-roll didn't work, the Thunder didn't have anywhere else to swing the rock, and guys like Sefolosha, Lamb, Jackson and Butler don't move all that much off the ball. Sefolosha and Butler, especially, are campers who set up tents in the corners.
For those two, specifically, that's fine. It helps space the floor—even if they're not making their shots—if only because the defense respects them as three-point threats. But the Thunder have to run plays with options to get them the ball.
For now, the OKC offense doesn't cut intuitively, and because of that more of its postseason plays ended in isolation than any other Western Conference team, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
The two teams who isolated least in the playoffs? The Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, who are widely credited with boasting two of the most (if not the single two most) fluid offenses in the NBA.
Playoff defenses learn their opponents' tendencies after a few games, and then they adapt. That's why running actual plays is so much more important come the tournament. And the Thunder have tried to do that, but they sort of give up, like on this failed pick-and-roll from Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals:
Here, Westbrook dribbles around a ball screen from Perkins, who isn't exactly the most effective roll man (personnel issues?), but when the Spurs cut off Westbrook's lane to the hoop, there's nowhere for him to go.
Jackson moves in the direction he often seems to on a Westbrook high pick-and-roll, slowly sliding up from the elbow to the top of the key, taking himself out of the play. Ibaka hangs in the corner, where's he's cut off, and Perkins lumbers unguarded but unable to affect the play.
So, what does Westbrook do? He dumps it off to Durant. And then KD does what Westbrook seems to get ripped for every waking second: He dribbles into Manu Ginobili and takes a contested shot.
If this were the Spurs, Durant would initiate the offense; he has the time. There are 11 seconds remaining on the shot clock when he first touches the ball, but like on so many other failed sets for the Thunder, there aren't any other options for him.
Look at the position the Thunder offense is in when KD first catches the rock:
If Perkins were to come over and set a ball screen for him, the Thunder could easily go into another pick-and-roll set with shooters ready to spot up or cut on the outside. Even if Durant likes the "mismatch" he gets with Manu Ginobili guarding him, pulling up with six seconds left on the clock isn't the best way to exploit that.
Instead, no one does anything, because the Thunder's understanding for how to play off the ball isn't consistent. It never has been, and we see sets like this over and over.
Again, this isn't all on Brooks. It's a personnel issue, as well.
Perkins isn't going to drag any defenders into the paint with him, especially when he doesn't move after setting his screens (though, of course, he doesn't need to be on the court at all). It's this chicken-or-egg question Oklahoma City has dealt with all year: Is the bigger problem the players themselves or is it the way those players are used?
Between the athletic star power and the slower-moving, older glue guys, the 2013-14 Thunder roster found itself with a stranger dichotomy than Ashton Kutcher and George Clooney in O Dude, Where Art Thou Car? But Presti can fix that next season.
If the play-calling continues to be an issue to such a degree that it costs Oklahoma City another chance at a championship, maybe we will see desperation set in as Durant enters his final season before free agency.
The "KD is leaving the Thunder!" buzz, valid or not, will surely begin if Durant enters 2015-16 without any bling, and if the organization believes it needs to scream to get him to stay, the loudest move it can make probably starts with changing the Thunder coaching staff.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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