The Oklahoma City Thunder would not be where it is today without the leadership of head coach Scott Brooks. When the Thunder was struggling mightily in its first season since moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle, general manager Sam Presti fired then-head coach PJ Carlesimo and promoted Brooks, an assistant coach at the time. Since that point, the Thunder has thrived, improving over the end of the 2008-2009 season, and improving both by record and advancement in the playoffs every year since.
There's no doubt a lot of the Thunder's success can be attributed to Brooks and his staff. After all, players only develop so much on their own. To take someone like Serge Ibaka, a raw, athletic talent, and turn him into a four-year, $48 million big man in the NBA is quite an impressive feat, one that requires a certain level of basketball smarts.
However, despite the astonishing level of success the Thunder has enjoyed the past few seasons, it's not unfair to ask whether or not Brooks is the one to lead the Thunder to the promised land of an NBA title.
As stated before, it's safe to assume the Thunder wouldn't be in the position they're in right now if not for Brooks, but some of the coaching decisions that have shown up over the past season and a half have allowed doubt to creep in.
This season, despite yet even more improvement over last season's NBA Finals team, the Thunder has shown a strange and concerning reliance on hero ball in crunch time. Unfortunately, the Thunder's issues in crunch time are not a problem unique to this season. They've been around for the past couple of years, although the play of James Harden late in games last season appeared to solve that problem.
This year, it's back and it's worse than ever. The main problem is that not only are there no late-game plays being run, there's nothing that would even remotely resemble a play. The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel broke down the fourth quarter of OKC's March 1 game against Denver and discovered in the last eight minutes of the game, the Thunder had 17 offensive possessions. In those 17 possessions, OKC passed the ball six times. For a team of some of the best basketball players on the planet, including the second-best, that's inexcusable. While it's the players that execute on the court, it's the coach who has to actually give them something to execute. That clearly hasn't happened.
Fortunately for the Thunder, its March 3 matchup against the Clippers saw a complete transformation in crunch-time play. If OKC would've completely collapsed and lost to the Clippers, things would be in a much worse place than they are now.
Either way, Brooks has never shown the ability to be a good X's and O's coach, and that isn't a good thing. The talent the Thunder possesses can only take OKC so far and when you're not definitively the best team in the league trying to defeat others who want to claim that title, you need a coach that can coach your talent past the other great teams rather than hope your talent wins out on its own.
The other troubling thing is Brooks' stubborn refusal to match up with opponents based on small or big lineups. The obvious example is the Miami Heat, but against Denver, Brooks refused to do it once again. With 9:56 left in the third quarter, Denver subbed in Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler, leaving Kosta Koufas as the only big man on the floor. Brooks stuck with his normal lineup and rotations and didn't end up with a small lineup that matched Denver's until there was 9:44 left in the game. By that point, the Thunder was down 11. However, right after that, OKC went on a 21-7 run to take a three-point lead with just under three minutes to play.
The fact is, Oklahoma City's bigs, while talented, are not good enough to make teams pay for running out a small lineup. The same night OKC was in Denver, Memphis was able to force LeBron James to guard Zach Randolph and the results for the Heat were not good. That's something Oklahoma City is unable to do, so when teams like Miami go with a small lineup, OKC has to match up. To this point, Brooks has refused to do that, and it's safe to say it has cost OKC some games.
Monday night against San Antonio, Brooks left four of his bench players in at the start of the fourth quarter with Ibaka and watched as the Spurs ended the third and began the fourth quarter on a 14-2 run that ballooned a six-point lead to an 18-point lead. While it's unclear what the motivation was behind the lineup, it was obviously not working against the Spurs. Brooks may have been taking a page out of Gregg Popovich's book and letting his bench players get experience, but it highlighted another issue Brooks seems to have with lineups.
Brooks sees a lineup have success and then seems to think it can work in any situation against any team. He doesn't fluctuate in his rotations or substitution patterns and sometimes, like last night, it blows up in his face.
This is not to say that Brooks no longer deserves to be head coach of the Thunder, nor does it mean he is incapable of handling the job. However, to say without a shadow of a doubt that Brooks is the best man for the job wouldn't be wise and against everything the Thunder stands for. It isn't wrong to ask what the Thunder would be like if Tom Thibadeau were head coach, or even Popovich.
Ultimately, Oklahoma City doesn't need to settle for good when it could have great. Whether or not that means Scott Brooks is the thing that needs to change remains to be seen, but to not ask the question? That's just foolishness.