Friday, I wrote extensively about coaching trees, so in the wake of the NBA's first head-coaching change of the 2008-09 campaign, it seems only appropriate to delve into the background of the Oklahoma City Thunder's new interim head coach, Scott Brooks. Brooks replaces P.J. Carlesimo, who was fired 95 games into his tenure at the helm of the SuperSonics/Thunder after last night's 25-point home loss to the New Orleans Hornets dropped Oklahoma City to 1-12.
During his ten-year playing career, Brooks was a backup point guard for six different NBA teams, playing an extended stint under Rudy Tomjanovich. Once he began his coaching career, Brooks found his way to Denver, where he worked under Jeff Bzdelik and George Karl and even had a chance to serve as acting head coach for a couple of games at the start of the 2005-06 season when Karl was suspended by the league.
The following year, Brooks joined Eric Musselman--whose father Bill coached him in Minnesota--in Sacramento, again getting a chance to run the team when Musselman was suspended following a DUI arrest. Eventually, his relationship with Musselman dissolved and Brooks was a candidate to replace him as head coach before the job ultimately went to Reggie Theus. Brooks then moved on to Seattle as part of Carlesimo's first coaching staff.
Out of that lineage, the experience under Karl might be most important as Brooks takes over the Thunder. You see, Karl stepped into a situation in midseason, in Denver in 2004-05, replacing Michael Cooper, who had previously replaced Bzdelik on an interim basis. While that coaching change is remembered for the way the Nuggets took off under Karl, going 32-8 after posting a 17-25 record under Bzdelik and Cooper, the more relevant bit of history might be how Carmelo Anthony responded to the move.
Midway through his second NBA season, Anthony was struggling to score efficiently in the NBA and meet the expectations generated by his phenomenal talent and his single year as a collegian. Sound familiar? That scenario could also generally describe Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant, so frequently compared to Anthony when he came into the league as the second overall pick in 2007.
While Carlesimo was fired as the Thunder sank deeper and deeper into the NBA's cellar (the Washington Wizards may also have only a single win, but the Thunder's -12.3 point differential is far and away the worst in the league), this team wasn't built to win or even compete now. If those were the expectations, Carlesimo was set up for failure, with a team whose three leading scorers are all in their first or second seasons.
I don't think that is how Carlesimo was judged, a position informed by having worked for and covered the then-Sonics last season in Seattle prior to the team's move. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I was friendly but not especially close with Carlesimo; I'm not sure I ever spoke to Brooks, as assistants were largely off-limits to the media.) Instead, what general manager Sam Presti was looking for was two things: playing hard, especially at the defensive end, and improvement amongst the team's young talent.
On the first count, Carlesimo's tenure can actually be regarded as something of a success. For all its woes, the Thunder is 14th in the NBA in Defensive Rating so far this season, a dramatic improvement from anything the franchise saw prior to Carlesimo's arrival. The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry suggests in his reaction article that the effort of the Oklahoma City players was in question, but that does not match what I saw from them, especially last night. This team is simply that far behind its opponents.
Where the Thunder has struggled--epically--is at the offensive end. The team's 93.4 Offensive Rating is last in the league by a mile. In fact, it's 12.1 percent worse than league average, which would be the worst relative to average in modern NBA history were it to continue. The only team since the merger to even be 10 percent worse than average was the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets.
Oklahoma City's offensive power outage has been a team-wide thing, with veterans like Earl Watson, Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison starting slowly. In part, in reflects a lack of creativity in Carlesimo's offense, which has never been successful at the NBA level. Last year, veterans criticized Carlesimo for the team being too predictable offensively. However, the biggest issue has been the uneven play of youngsters Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's three double-figure scorers. All three have been highly inefficient this season.
Durant is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Oklahoma City's rebuilding project, and it was his lack of development that ultimately doomed Carlesimo. It quickly became evident during Durant's rookie season that he would not take the NBA by storm and dominate instantly as he had at Texas. By year's end, he had shown progress, improving his efficiency over the last two months of the season while carrying a bigger load following the departure of Wally Szczerbiak and Wilcox's absence due to injury.
This year, however, Durant seems to have given back some of that improvement. His field-goal percentage has improved to 44.6 percent from 43.0 percent because he's taken the three-pointer out of his repertoire. Durant is getting to the free-throw line less frequently, so his True Shooting Percentage is slightly down. Meanwhile, Durant's assist rate is down and his turnover rate up.
Brooks' challenge is to change those trends. As mentioned previously, he's seen it before with Anthony. Let's compare the two players' scoring performance their first two seasons, splitting Anthony's sophomore campaign before and after Karl took over as Denver's head coach.
ROOKIES P40 FG% TS% FTA/FGA
Anthony 23.0 .426 .509 .358
Durant 23.5 .430 .519 .328
SOPHS P40 FG% TS% FTA/FGA
Anthony1 22.2 .390 .483 .392
Durant 24.0 .446 .513 .261
Anthony2 25.5 .473 .567 .542
1 - under Bzdelik/Cooper
2 - under Karl
Durant's numbers should be slightly tempered by the fact that offense is up in the NBA in the last five years. Still, his rookie season looks highly similar to Anthony's, and in fact he's probably ahead of where Anthony was midway through his second season. Under Karl, Anthony totally remade his game, dramatically improving both his shooting percentage and his ability to get to the free-throw line.
The recipe for Durant doesn't figure to be exactly the same. Longer and much lighter than Anthony, Durant will probably never spend so much time at the charity stripe and isn't built for that kind of pounding. There are other ways Brooks can help his star player, starting with constantly harping on shot selection, Durant's biggest nemesis. I'd like to see Durant spend some time in the post each game, where eventually he figures to be a threat as he adds strength. The Thunder could also try to get Durant inside the arc coming off of screens and have him look to penetrate from there instead of isolating Durant on the perimeter, where he's likely to pull up and shoot off the dribble.
Brooks is likely to slow the tempo, in keeping with the philosophy Presti learned in San Antonio. While Carlesimo's style is largely similar to Gregg Popovich's, having worked as an assistant with the Spurs for five seasons, he favors a faster pace, influenced in part by long-time assistant Paul Westhead. Westhead was fired along with Carlesimo, seemingly a sign that the fast break will be de-emphasized. In general, I prefer a faster pace. In this specific case, it might have helped give Durant and his teammates license to launch quick shots instead of running the offense, so a more deliberate attack makes some sense.
Don't expect Brooks to make a big difference in the Thunder's record, though it was sure to improve at some point even without a change. There's simply not enough talent, or more accurately, experienced talent, for Oklahoma City to win more than about 25 games. Wins and losses won't determine whether Brooks' success or failure as an interim head coach. Instead, look to see how Durant responds and whether he can carry the Thunder back to respectability on offense.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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