Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Scott Brooks Should Go

By Ross Lancaster

In recent years, there's been a very questionable trend take hold in NBA front offices, where coaches get fired even after guiding their teams to excellent, 50-win-plus seasons.

Last year, three 50-win coaches (George Karl, Lionel Hollins and Vinny Del Negro) were either fired or not asked to return to their respective teams, with another interim coach not retained after being on a 50-win pace (P.J. Carlesimo). And just a week ago, despite taking the franchise to heights not seen in two decades, Mark Jackson was fired as the Warriors' head coach.

With just about everyone, be it players, media or front offices themselves in agreement that team culture and continuity are of great importance to professional sports, how is it that teams are so willing to get rid of coaches, even after good or stellar seasons?

All that having been said, to me, there's still a potential firing for this season that would make the utmost sense. Scott Brooks should no longer coach Oklahoma City if the Thunder fail to win the NBA title.

By any statistical measure, Brooks is a highly successful NBA coach. The Thunder have won 50 games in each full season Brooks has coached, and nearly won 50 in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season in which the Thunder went to the Finals. His .633 winning percentage ranks 11th all-time among coaches to coach 200 or more regular season NBA games.

However, at some point, with two of the league's best 10 players in their primes, plus a borderline all-star playing at a high level, the goal has to be title or bust. That time should be now.

And to be clear, Oklahoma City still does have a decent shot at winning the title. As of press time, OKC is tied at two games a piece in the Western Conference Semifinals with two home games left in the series, if needed. In that series, the Clippers have been largely unable to defend Oklahoma City for long stretches of play. It's almost as if the Clippers' macro-level strategy is to try to score 115 points every game, and then hope the Thunder have a bad shooting quarter or two.

In the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs would almost certainly be waiting. The Thunder beat the Spurs in all four meetings this season, winning by an average of more than nine points per game. Then, in a potential Finals matchup, OKC would obviously be favored against anyone but Miami. A second Thunder/Heat Finals in three years would likely be judged a toss-up.

But before Oklahoma City can even consider winning six or 10 more games, there are big questions that need to be answered about the team's ability to close out playoff games.

In case you'd forgotten, Game 4's collapse against the Clips from 22 points up early and up 16 in the fourth quarter wasn't exactly the Thunder's first crushing playoff loss from a position of strength during a contending playoff run.

In Game 4 of the 2011 West Finals, with a chance to even the series at 2-2, Oklahoma City was up 15 points with 5 minutes to go, only to lose by seven in overtime against Dallas. In the next game of that series, the Thunder led nearly the entire final quarter before losing in the final minute to get eliminated. In the 2012 Finals, Oklahoma City had plenty of opportunities in Games 3 and 4 to make that Finals a much different animal.

One of the Thunder's main issues seems to be that Brooks' teams don't have enough of an identity when closing out games. Will Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook take the biggest shots? How can they involve Serge Ibaka's stellar mid-range game in the offense if the defense focuses on the two stars? Also, the offense seems to become completely stagnant, unoriginal and void of much off-ball movement in those situations.

In Sunday's game, the key adjustment that turned the game was that Doc Rivers switched Chris Paul on to Kevin Durant in the fourth quarter. But instead of getting Durant to attack Paul, or finding ways to draw a help defender and kick to an open man, Brooks was fine with Durant setting up at or near the elbow, 15 to 20 feet from the basket. While this strategy worked with Paul on Durant in a late possession in Game 3 Friday night, a now-experienced Brooks can't rely on the league's best point guard to guard Durant the same way two days later.

Then there's the issue of late-game clock management for the Thunder. In Game 5 against the Grizzlies in the first round, Brooks indefensibly elected to play defense down one possession and with no timeouts in the final seconds, only to have his poor decision-making bailed out by a Westbrook steal and dunk. The Thunder later lost in overtime. Then, on Sunday, in the same exact circumstance, Brooks elected to play out the possession again, instead of giving his team a better chance to win by lengthening the game.

It is true that Durant and Westbrook are each only 25, and should theoretically each have many more years to play alongside each other. But each can become a free agent after the 2015-16 season. If Scott Brooks is still the coach then and the Thunder are still suffering from the same ailments, late-game struggles and haven't won a title, each player should test the market.

Despite the questionable way the franchise relocated from Seattle, the NBA has its trademark small-market success story for the 21st century. In order for that team to achieve its title-winning potential, it probably needs to find a new coach.

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