The Oklahoma City Thunder parted ways with coach Scott Brooks on Wednesday just days after the conclusion of a 45–37 season that ended short of the playoffs—their first non-playoff season since 2009, which was Brooks’s first season on the bench.
In between, Brooks’s Thunder made plenty of noise (pun not intended) in making the playoffs five straight years, yet were unable to bring home the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy as NBA champions. Of course, in four of those five seasons Oklahoma City bowed out to the eventual champs, with the lone exception being 2013, when the Grizzlies downed the Thunder in five.
Overall, the 49-year-old won an impressive 62 percent of his games over a seven-year period, though this year’s team fell short of expectations because of numerous injuries to star players, beginning with reigning MVP Kevin Durant.
The four-time scoring champ Durant missed 55 of a possible 82 games due to a myriad of foot problems, and his absence was certainly noticeable. The Thunder went 18–9 with him, and just 27–28 without him.
Meanwhile his All-Star running mate Russell Westbrook, who had a remarkable year as the focal point of the offense averaging career-highs in points (28.1), rebounds (7.3), and assists (8.6), missed 15 games himself with hand and face injuries—the second straight season he’s missed a good chunk of time.
Finally, power forward Serge Ibaka, second in the league in blocked shots at 2.4 per game, missed the final 18 games with a knee injury.
Yet, despite their three best players missing 86 games in total, the Thunder weren’t eliminated from the playoffs until the final day of the regular season.
So, in a job with high demands, Brooks is now canned.
Was it just because they missed the playoffs in 2015? Since Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti hasn’t commented on the reasons for letting Brooks go, we’ll have to speculate.
The consensus among most NBA experts is that Presti is trying to pull out all the stops to keep Kevin Durant in town. The 26-year-old Durant, generally considered second only to LeBron James among the best current players in the game, is scheduled to become a free agent in 2016 (Westbrook will be the following summer) and every team will be lining up to sign him.
Although there’s been no reported rift between the star player and his longtime coach (in fact, all reports have characterized it as a good relationship), they haven’t captured that elusive title together either.
In fact this year, as the injuries mounted, Presti pulled the trigger on deals for center Enes Kanter (from Utah) and guard Dion Waiters (from Cleveland) while giving up first-round picks for both of them—something he’s rarely done during his time with the Thunder—in an effort to save the season.
Remember, Presti is the one who originally built the team by selecting stars Durant, Westbrook, and then James Harden in consecutive drafts, with his coveted first-round picks, that put the Thunder on the map, following their move from Seattle. Despite the deals this season, though, Oklahoma City was unable to climb into the postseason.
The move to part ways with Brooks, while surprising, is surely a lesson learned from the LeBron James situation of five years ago. James, like Durant at the time, had only made the Finals once before hitting free agency and was playing on a small-market team—although it was his own hometown team—that didn’t have a glorious past.
The Cavs tried to constantly surround him with more talent but never made the big move—changing coaches—in an effort to hold onto him.
Ultimately, they lost him to the Heat for nothing and paid the price with four straight losing seasons afterward. (Of course, James came back home four years later, in a surprising twist.)
Now, Presti will try to avoid that fate by finding an upgrade over Brooks—the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2010. Presti’s problem, though, is that there’s no Phil Jackson out there to replace Brooks, who is thought of highly around the league. Any new hire will likely be an unknown quantity, at least in NBA circles.
That’s quite a gamble to please Durant. But he has to hit a home run with the new hire if he wants Durant back. After all, Oklahoma City isn’t Durant’s hometown.