When second-year guard Reggie Jackson unexpectedly popped up from the Thunder's bench Wednesday night and pumped life into his listless teammates, igniting a furious rally in the final 14 minutes that overpowered New Orleans, his performance served as validation to Oklahoma City's coaching staff.
To coach Scott Brooks and his assistants, Jackson's 10 minutes, 58 seconds of inspired ball demonstrated once again how much development is taking place within the organization, particularly with the Thunder's youngest players.
“We work with them every day,” Brooks told The Oklahoman on Thursday. “The hardest thing is for players — and I was that player myself — to stay mentally ready to do it every day when you don't get playing time rewards.”
The Thunder has had only minimal minutes to offer first- and second-year players since becoming a league heavyweight. But Brooks' reluctance to award even those minutes to his younger players through the years, dating to D.J. White four seasons ago, continues to raise two popular questions: what does the Thunder have buried on its bench and why exactly aren't those players playing outside of garbage time?
To many, they have become a perplexing pair of questions for a fan base that's been bombarded with analysts annually acclaiming the team's young bloods.
For the first time since taking over as head coach, Brooks on Thursday spoke candidly about his philosophy regarding his rotations, providing details and insight into the decisions he's made since 2008.
“I don't believe you play young players just to play them,” Brooks told The Oklahoman. “I believe you play players that earn minutes.
“If you build a team where you just get minutes, it demoralizes the rest of the guys. But I never had to worry about that because our youngest players were the best players. But I don't have a problem playing young guys.”
Brooks has an undeniable track record of success. He has compiled a 192-129 record, journeyed to the Western Conference Finals in 2011 and the NBA Finals last season. Along the way, his coaching has helped develop two All-Star players in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, a Sixth Man of the Year winner in James Harden and the reigning runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year in Serge Ibaka.
It was Brooks who inserted Westbrook as a rookie into the starting lineup five games after taking over coaching duties from P.J. Carlesimo, who had entrusted the team to Earl Watson.
Since then, though, Brooks has been slow to implement change, especially when it entails giving young players a chance.
He played Jeff Green 37 minutes a night, mostly out of position. It wasn't particularly effective, namely on defense and with rebounding, and it cut into playing time for both Harden and Ibaka.
“At that time, Jeff was better than Serge,” Brooks says. “You can argue the point now. But at that time, you couldn't even have the conversation let alone during the game or in the middle of a game.”
Brooks also kept Harden in a sixth man role despite obvious signs he was a star in the making. The decision left Harden averaging less than 32 minutes in all three of his seasons with the Thunder. OKC never had less than a .610 winning percentage while Harden was a sub, but the rigid rotation often didn't do the Thunder's offense any favors at the start of the first and third periods.
Brooks then played a mediocre Nazr Mohammed 18 minutes a night at backup center, ahead of both Byron Mullens and Cole Aldrich. It's debatable whether Mullens or Aldrich at the time were ready for prime playing time, but Mullens has since become a serviceable player for Charlotte, although a perimeter-oriented big man.
Last year, Brooks trusted veteran guard Derek Fisher to come in midway through the season and immediately steal minutes from Daequan Cook, even at Cook's natural position of shooting guard.
This season, Brooks has maintained the status quo with Eric Maynor as the primary backup point guard over Jackson despite Maynor showing significant rust following last season's knee injury. Other promising young players like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, DeAndre Liggins and Daniel Orton are currently stuck at the bench or sent to Tulsa to play minor league minutes.
“I like consistency,” Brooks explained. “I liked it as a player and I like it as a coach. I want to know exactly what I'm getting from the players. That effort has to be consistent. We can't worry about our effort fluctuating from game to game. And so the consistency on that has always been a trademark with our organization. You're going to always see good effort.
“I think it's valuable for the players to know what they're getting every day; what they're getting from me, what they're getting from their coaches, what they're getting from their teammates. That consistency creates good habits. And it's always something to fall back on. When you're going through a rough patch, you always know that you can fall back on your consistent good habits.”
Brooks has been as flexible as ever this season. He tried Lamb in the first half at Detroit. He's altered Durant's substitution pattern to have him anchor the second string at the start of each second quarter. And he showed his growing trust in Jackson on Wednesday.
“Until your name is called, you can't do nothing about it other than be ready,” Brooks said. “And then when you're name is called you're going to have the success you deserve.”
Brooks refuses to admit he's taken a more flexible approach. He fears it will take the focus away from the players, who Brooks says always deserve the credit.
“I look at it as our team developing together as a group and we can do more things as a team,” Brooks said. “It's easy to look at a basketball team and say ‘Why don't you do this, why don't you do that, why don't you do that?' Well if they can't get to level two, how can you put them through it? They have to be ready to finish level one.”
Jackson's unlikely performance proved proper development is indeed taking place — even if ample playing time rarely has been abundant.
“When you have 14 guys, you can't play 14 guys in an NBA game. It's hard to play nine guys substantial minutes,” Brooks said. “So you have to develop them every day. You have to have a game plan from the start of their day to the end of the day. And you have to be consistent with it.
“That's one of the things our staff does is they're consistent with the guys. They never change. They never change from day-to-day. They never change based on how we're playing, whether we're playing well or not playing well. It's very consistent strategically.”
Brooks then summed up his philosophy much more succinctly.
“Players earn minutes,” he said, “not age.”