Russell Westbrook whips around a screen on the three-point line, drives into the perimeter and realizes he's screwed. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are waiting to ask, "Who would pass The Bloody Gate?" while Chris Paul is closing in. A pull-up jumper leaves Westbrook flanked, and driving means a siege on humanoids twice his size. The Thunder are down 25 points at home late in the third quarter of a game they will lose, while Westbrook goes the particle collider route. He ends up flat on his ass and splits the free throws -- SMH RUSS en précis.
Meanwhile, teflon don slash coach Scott Brooks spent much of a 122-105 home loss spamming that exact same play even as the Clippers built an insurmountable lead. The glasses must have an awful lot of people fooled.
Yes, a career .633 win percentage and three consecutive seasons of .700 ball don't beg to be argued against, but that fails to contextualize Brooks' uniquely blessed situation. In a league traditionally dominated by superstars, Brooks coming out the gate with a sophomore Kevin Durant is the prayer hands emoji writ large. That same year, the Thunder drafted Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, which was super not chill according to all opposing GMs. Before coaching a single game, Brooks already had what would become the nucleus of an elite team on talent alone. In the six years since, his defining contribution remains a simplistic offensive scheme that routinely makes his two best players look like Hero Ball junkies.
The SMH RUSS play that ended with him getting bodied wasn't so much an indictment of Westbrook as it was a predictable failure inherent to Brooks' system. When Westbrook rolled on the screen there was no secondary action to force attention away from him. A simple weakside cut to the basket would have disrupted the Clippers' interior defense, but the Thunder defaulted to seeming anticipation of Westbrook activating God Mode. Durant, now the reigning MVP, barely moved from his post behind the opposite three-point wing, which left him to fruitlessly call for an impossible pass as Westbrook dealt with an impossible situation. The two of them have been trading lead roles on this play for years now and it's a waste of talent even when it works.
The Memphis Grizzlies nearly blew the whole thing up by keeping an air-tight interior defense, siccing Tony Allen on Durant and forcing Westbrook into a reckoning with his id's impulses. Brooks' response was to wait out a hot streak from his two franchise players because that's always his response. It worked only because the Grizzlies can't keep up when two of the league's ten best players are hitting their shots. However, the Clippers' duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can keep up with anyone and the team is wisely adapting the defensive scheme that the Grizzlies damn near rode to an improbable upset. Looking ahead, odds are that the path to a ring goes through the Heat and the Spurs, perhaps the two most tactically sound teams in the league. Brooks will likely be content to play his own version of the odds.
What makes Brooks' comparative faults so frustrating is that he's got a team capable of rendering them irrelevant. If Westbrook and Durant put up four collectively dominant games in any series, that series ends in the Thunder's favor. Brooks' simplistic scheme leans on that advantage by giving Westbrook and Durant the freedom to create on the fly while Ibaka works his hyper-efficient cleanup game. At their best, they form a perfect dynamic that transcends the demands of team play. All too often, they are fighting against their own predictability as the rest of the team awkwardly manifests symptoms of paralysis. Watching any Thunder game is just a fresh chance to realize that Brooks' coaching philosophy is best summed up as "I have Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, come do something about it."
The record says Brooks is doing just fine and that's obviously true. He's due credit for managing the natural ego clash between Durant and Westbrook as well as guiding the team through Westbrook's mid-season injury absence. He's a solid coach -- a good coach, even -- but the Thunder are the only legitimate title contender whose coach is not among the very best. Those coaches see the weaknesses in Brooks' schemes far more readily than anyone else and have past templates to work with. They know what he's going to do on offense and they know it can be stopped with just a bit of luck.
That bit of luck may not come for any of them and no one would be surprised to see the Thunder win it all. However, any team with three stars who are somehow still improving will contend for the title year in and year out. The question remains if Brooks' coaching is good enough to justify his stewardship of this unprecedented collection of homegrown talent. Oklahoma City's past run of luck in the draft will be impossible to replicate and the franchise's small market status makes free agency a challenge. The next few years will be the best shot at a title this team may ever get. If the team comes up short this year, Brooks will be the only major component that could be deemed expendable. Either way, Brooks is making everything much harder than it needs to be.