With back-to-back losses, Scott Brooks is starting to hear it. Fans and media are grumbling about how he’s handled life without Russell Westbrook. The focus is on the Thunder’s offense sans Westbrook, and while defense has probably been a bigger problem, it’s obvious that the reliable fallback plan of just outscoring people isn’t there.
A lot of folks are looking for Kevin Durant to carry the team, but the Thunder’s defense isn’t good enough for him to. If you’re going to have a guy carry your team, you can’t let the other guy score 110 points. Because if you’re going to keep pace with that, you’ve got to have more than one guy carrying an offense.
So lately, there’s been some talk about the Thunder needing an offensive system. And here’s why I kind of disagree with that:
Scott Brooks has intentionally avoided putting the Thunder in one because he’s wisely decided that bottling Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant (and previously, James Harden) into a set offensive philosophy isn’t making the best use of their talent. And he’s completely right. What makes the Thunder’s offense special — and at times infuriating — is that the players have freedom to play.
Brooks has recognized the best qualities of Westbrook and Durant and has decided that in order to milk them of their talents as much as possible that they need offensive freedom. What you’re seeing in this series though is how not having a contingency plan for that is backfiring. You can’t really blame Brooks too much for it, because who really plans for their superstar point guard to go down. And if he does, system or not, you might be screwed anyway.
What’s been frustrating about Brooks though is that maybe his best quality as a coach is implicit trust in his players, and the stubbornness that comes with having to field that unyielding loyalty to them. If you’re going to trust your guys, you can’t waver and adjust. You’ve got to stick to your guns. The results have been hard to argue too much with. Taking a 23-win group of youngsters to an NBA power, a Finals appearance, a top seed, 60 wins, et cetera, et cetera.
But all of that happened without any true setback. The James Harden one sort of fit, but for the most part, the Thunder could just keep on keepin’ on with how they played. Westbrook and Durant assumed more of a responsibility, expanded their games to make up for the loss of Harden and the team grew and improved. That’s to Brooks’ credit. The natural progression of Durant and Westbrook as players is because Brooks has given them the necessary room to grow.
Again, though, that all makes glorious sense when your best players are playing. The Thunder have a style, an offensive function, and it works. Their system is no system at all. They have basic offensive sets they run, much like a high school or college team would. That might sound like an open invitation to rip Brooks, but again, how can you argue the results? The sets are designed to create options to score, to put Durant, Westbrook and sometimes Kevin Martin in a position to make an offensive decision or move. It’s kind of like a playground with just a couple swingsets and seesaws, but a group of imaginative kids. You give them the space to play, and let them take it from there.
The past two seasons the Thunder have featured a top two offense, and it improved from last season to this. Yeah, I suppose you could say, “But it could be better!” and yeah, it could. Brooks wouldn’t argue with you on that. They’re still working on it, still developing it, still growing it. Brooks has never been shy about admitting that they haven’t really focused on offense until roughly last season, instead centralizing on defensive principles. They mostly got by on just letting their awesome players be awesome.
So unlike a team like the Spurs, who have a very clear offensive system and structure, the Thunder fly a little more by the seat of their pants. The Spurs are built precisely to pick up the slack of a missing player. If a good one goes down, just put in a slightly less talented player in his place and hope he can carry out his basic offensive functions. The Thunder don’t do that. The Thunder are good because of their talent. And because that talent is unfettered. Again, it’s worked.
Now, all that said, here’s how Brooks is being exposed as a somewhat elementary coach that could be in over his head: The trust-your-talent model is great, but the plan has a kink now. Westbrook is gone and there has to be a new plan. The drawing board is wiped clean and now the team is looking to Brooks to install something new for them. A new course that can open the door for capable offense. It’s hard to implement something on the fly, which is possibly what Brooks is doing, and for anything to work, your players have to make their shots. That was a large part of the problem in Game 5. The Thunder didn’t make anything.
Brooks has answered almost every adjustment question with “we need to play better” and while that’s not untrue, it’s also a very simple-minded way to look at his team. Maybe behind closed doors he’s doing more and he just doesn’t want to reveal the plan publicly. But that’s part of Brooks’ problem. He either doesn’t communicate his intentions and knowledge well, or he just doesn’t know. And as a result, that places doubt that he can do it. Scott Brooks could be the sharpest basketball mind in the NBA, but we’d never know it.
If the Thunder blow this series to the Rockets, the blame will be placed squarely on Scott Brooks. Some of that is just because that’s the name of the game, fans and media gotta blame someone, so start with the coach. Will he get fired for it? I don’t think it would be fair at all because come on, he lost Russell Westbrook here. The Heat almost collapsed last postseason before Dwyane Wade was able to get healthy. Coaches win with their players. But people yell about things like adjustments and change often not even understanding what specifically they mean by it. They just want SOMETHING different. Something to make it seem like the coach is paying attention and, well, coaching.
That’s not Brooks’ style, and it never has been. He’s the captain of the Thunder ship, and his system is that he doesn’t really have one. He’s taking a stand on it here, and that philosophy is being put to the flames. Question is if the Thunder are going to sink or swim because of it.