When the Oklahoma City Thunder chose him, he was barely a blip on anyone's radar.
The best thing on his resume was backup point guard duty, but yet this is the guy management had entrusted with the keys to the franchise. Other teams passed on his services, not sure if he had what it took to lead. And when the Thunder pulled the trigger, fans doubted the decisions, certain a sexier candidate could have been had. The shaky start to his career — characterized by maddening decisions and mounting defeats — didn't do anything to calm concerns.
Few figured he'd have a chance of ending up here.
Yes, Scott Brooks has beaten the odds.
The evolution of the third-year Thunder coach, who originally took the job in 2008 toting an interim tag, is now on full display. Quietly, Brooks is coming of age in these playoffs.
While the sports world runs roughshod over Russell Westbrook, and Brooks' decision to sit the Thunder's similarly critiqued starting point guard for the entire fourth quarter in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, it's missing the larger story line.
Brooks is becoming one fine basketball coach.
The magnified matter of Westbrook's “benching” against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday marked the latest and greatest sign that Brooks is blossoming before our eyes. In the biggest game in the Thunder's brief history, Brooks showed he's unafraid to be bold and bail on the status quo.
“He's grown a lot,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant. “He's learning along the way with us.”
After taking one on the chin in his first postseason chess match against Phil Jackson last season, Brooks has bounced back better in 2011. He got the best of former boss George Karl in the opening round and, after a few early lumps, eventually found a way to outfox Memphis' Lionel Hollins in the semifinals. Now, Brooks is standing toe-to-toe with Mavs coach and former roommate Rick Carlisle, considered by many to be the best coach remaining in this postseason.
“I think he's getting more confident in what he's doing,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison.
In less than three full seasons, Brooks has become a Coach of the Year winner while guiding his team to back-to-back 50-win seasons. There is an unmistakable parallel between Brooks' rapid climb and that of his team of still 20-somethings. It's a paring that makes the Thunder's “Rise Together” slogan all the more apt.
Brooks had only served as an assistant in Denver and Sacramento before joining the Thunder's franchise as an assistant coach under P.J. Carlesimo, the man he eventually replaced. Sacramento passed on Brooks for its head coaching job in favor of Reggie Theus, who lasted just one season after a 38-44 year.
With the Thunder, though, Brooks has grown from the ground up much like his players. But even as he sits three wins shy of a trip to the NBA Finals, he seems too locked in to appreciate his success. And he certainly isn't about to bask in it.
“I got a great opportunity to coach a good group of men,” said Brooks, a 10-year NBA journeyman.
“The playoffs, I don't look at it any different. I look at it as we still have to get better. I still have to get better. I hope I'm better than I was last year, and I hope I'm better next year.”
Brooks stepped into the job with a sound plan for player development. Thus far, it's been his best quality. While pushing his players to get the most out of their talents, Brooks has helped Durant evolve into a two-time scoring champ, two-time All-Star and First-Team All-NBA selection. His work with Westbrook, meanwhile, has lifted the third-year point guard to All-Star status and a spot on the All-NBA Second-Team.
“Scott has shown that he is a person with great drive to improve and grow,” said Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who promoted Brooks in November 2008. “There is no question that this quality has positively impacted our team. He is someone you can count on. He punches the clock every day and that means a lot within our organization.”
In these playoffs, though, we've seen Brooks stick with his principles even when times got tough, and it would have been easy to try another way. But he's also shown more of a willingness to try a different way. He's put more trust in his bench, enlarging his rotation to 10 players, while slicing into starting shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha's minutes to create more playing time for James Harden.
Nothing illustrated Brook's growth, however, quite like opting for reserve guard Eric Maynor over Westbrook on Thursday, a timely and needed call that analysts are trying to turn into a negative.
The last time Brooks pulled a move so bold was when he sat Durant for all but three minutes of the fourth quarter in a December game at Chicago.
Asked if he remembers the result, Brooks said. “Yeah.”
It backfired. The Bulls won by nine.
But in his back pocket, Brooks knew he had that card in Game 2. This time, it was a winner.
“He's always had a really good pulse of the team and a feel for what's really happening with guys and our level of play,” said Collison. “But I think it's just that much stronger now.”