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.