The first signs of hope were seen two months ago.
Something special was brewing with the Thunder's bench back then.
Tenacity, toughness, togetherness, the second string possessed it all.
A defensive identity was being built, on the backs of a motley crew that consisted of Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, DeAndre Liggins, Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet.
They did the dirty work. They didn't mind. They just got the job done.
And then Oklahoma City started overthinking. The Thunder inexplicably went away from what was working, sitting various pieces that comprised that effective combination and slowly suppressing the successes the second unit had enjoyed.
When the trade deadline arrived, the Thunder acquired Ronnie Brewer for peanuts. He appeared to be a perfect fit, a defensive-minded player with a pristine reputation who could step in and immediately help revive the second group's one-time tenacity.
Brewer hasn't played. Not much, that is, and the question many now want an answer to is why?
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, though, hasn't budged. Even as his second string continues to struggle with stopping opponents consistently — most notably the past two defeats, against San Antonio and Denver — Brooks has resisted inserting Brewer into the rotation.
“There's not a lot of minutes right now,” Brooks said. “But we're happy that we have him. It gives us an option if we need it. But right now he just has to stay ready.”
Obvious opportunities to unleash Brewer have passed the Thunder by. OKC has dodged a bullet at times but been bloodied at others.
Brewer did not play in a March 1 loss to Denver despite Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler coming off the bench to score a team-high 35 points. In that game, the Thunder's reserves were outscored 71-11. Brewer also was reduced to a bystander last Thursday, when he returned to New York for the first time since the trade and watched former teammate J.R. Smith erupt for a game-high 36 points off the bench. The Thunder won that contest by a point. And when San Antonio swingmen Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were pouring in a combined 45 points in the Spurs' 105-93 win on Monday, Brewer was nowhere to be found.
With only 18 games remaining — starting with Wednesday's against a Utah team that drafted Brewer and currently leads the league in scoring differential in bench points — it's only natural to wonder whether we'll see Brewer at all when it matters this season. If Brewer continues to ride the pine in the home stretch, it seems unlikely he'll be thrown into the playoff fire.
Or, for all we know, maybe Brewer's being held back as some sort of secret weapon.
For now, Brooks seems content with his current bench production, continuing to trust the unit through thick and thin. It might not be the best strategy, but there are reasons Brooks hasn't gone to Brewer. Here are the five most likely.
A numbers game: it's the only real reason Brooks gives when asked why Brewer is not playing. But it's coach speak at best. For a team that prides itself as a defensive-minded club, the Thunder is playing Derek Fisher and, at times, Hasheem Thabeet ahead of Brewer. Yes, adding Brewer technically would bump the rotation to an improbable and possibly impossible 11 players. But nothing is stopping Brooks from altering his rotation and staying at nine and sometimes 10.
Familiarity: Fisher played here last year. Brewer didn't. Maybe that holds weight with the Thunder. Maybe not. But it certainly is a luxury. Fisher has been able to step in and pick up where he left off. Brewer would have been thrown into the fire and been forced to learn on the fly.
Experience: Fisher has played in more playoff games than any active player in the NBA today. He's won five championships and has a knack for knocking down big shots in big moments. Brewer, while playoff tested, doesn't have a résumé that can compare to Fisher's. Even in a results business, it has to be hard for a coach to not feel more comfortable with the guy who owns five championship rings.
Other options: Brewer has been likened to a bulkier Sefolosha since arriving in last month's trade. From that standpoint, Brewer might be seen as nothing more than a clone. If so, the coaching staff could simply feel more comfortable with the incumbent, as well as players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to provide perimeter defense in select spots.
Perimeter shooting: Brewer is a career 25.9 percent 3-point shooter. Fisher is a career 37.3 percent 3-point shooter. So while Brewer might be a better defender than Fisher, if Brewer is considered a clone the Thunder might want another shooter on the court to space the floor.