When Tony Dungy took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, he inherited a team that went 7-9 under Sam Wyche in ’95, and hadn’t won half its games since 1981. Dungy’s Bucs would take an initial step back, winning only 6 games in his first season as a head coach. But then they’d rip off season win totals of 10, 8, 11, 10, and 9. Prior to Dungy’s arrival, the Bucs were the most pathetic franchise in the history of sports.
So, having made the Bucs consistently-competitive and sometimes-contending (the ’99 Bucs won the NFC Central and came very close to beating the eventual-champion Rams in the conference championship) how was Dungy rewarded? Of course, he was fired.
The firing proved to be a sound decision, when successor Jon Gruden immediately led Tampa to a Super Bowl victory. But the six years after that were hardly special. Three losing seasons, three winning seasons, and never so much as a sniff of the Super Bowl. Gruden was eventually fired too, as was his replacement, Raheem Morris. It seems that Tampa hasn’t been able to find consistent success after Dungy’s termination.
Upon leaving the Bucs, Dungy took over a Colts team that had star quarterback Payton Manning, but only won 6 games in 2001 under Jim Mora of “PLAYOFFS?!” Coors Light commercials fame. After taking the Colts job, Dungy enjoyed season win totals of 10, 12, 12, 14, 12, 13, 12. Without knowing or bothering to find out, I’d guess that’s the best seven-year stretch in NFL history. They lost some heartbreaking playoff games, but Dungy finally experienced Super Bowl glory in 2006. He retired in 2009. Without Tony Dungy, the team went 2-14 last year.
So, what does any of this have to do with Scotty Brooks? Well, maybe nothing. But I get the increasing sense that if the Thunder don’t win this year’s championship, Brooks will be canned. For whatever reason it seems that people view the Thunder as a great team in spite of its coach rather than because of its coach.
On his podcast with Joe House, Bill Simmons discussed many “Coach of the Year” candidates (for which he has a vote) and went out of his way to say this about Brooks:
“Scotty Brooks: not in the discussion [for Coach of the Year] for me. He has two guys that average a combined 57 points a game. (Eds Note: Durant and Westbrook actually average a combined 51.5 points per game.) I’m pretty sure anyone can go 46-18 with the team that he has.”
While nobody really considers Brooks a Coach of the Year candidate (his team is loaded with talent and has been too-healthy for his credentials to rival what others like Popovich and Thibodeau have done) for Simmons to go out of his way to make the point says something different. Something more. He and many others have been critical of Brooks usually in regards to the Thunder’s halfcourt offense which sometimes relies heavily on perimeter jumpers and Russell Westbrook isolation. While the Thunder are TERRIFYING in transition, they sometimes struggle in late-game, half-court sets.
Sebastian Pruiti (who writes for Simmons’ Grantland blog) wrote an extensive piece after the recent and infamous loss to the Lakers entitled, “What Oklahoma City is Doing Wrong.” While Pruiti pays Brooks a compliment in the piece (“Brooks has improved a tremendous amount over the course of the season”) and carves out separate blame for Brooks, Durant, Westbrook and “everyone” for the Thunder’s late-game woes, the piece inherently jabs at the head coach who is most directly responsible for schemes and play calling.
Simmons and Pruiti are hardly unique in ripping the Thunder’s execution and–either explicitly or implicitly–its head coach. If you follow enough NBA Twitter accounts, you know how commonplace it is for sarcastic quips to come a tweetin’ when the Thunder lose a close game.
Which brings me to my quandary: If Brooks isn’t a good coach, shouldn’t the team be struggling? Certainly it shouldn’t be improving under his watch, right?
Brooks took over the Thunder job in the middle of the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma, after P.J. Carlesimo had won a single game and lost 12. Under Brooks, they’d finish the year by winning 22 games and losing 47. Not good, but better than the dreadful start under Latrell Sprewell’s buddy. It was in Brooks’s first full season that the Thunder leaped forward, going 50-32 and making the playoffs. They drew a tough first-round matchup in the eventual champion Lakers, losing in six games. The following season (last year), the Thunder won 5 more games, now presenting as serious title contender. They advanced two rounds in the playoffs, falling again to the eventual champion; this time Dirk and the Mavs. This year, the Thunder has won 72 percent of its games; a 59-win pace, which reflects continued and marked improvement. We don’t know yet what they’ll do in the playoffs, but I think most would at least pick them as the favorite to win the West.
If they don’t reach the Finals, should Brooks be fired like Dungy was? Should a coach who presided over some of the most significant and steady improvement in recent NBA history get no credit for helping build the ship but only criticism when he doesn’t perfectly sail it? Is it Scott Brooks’s fault, or Kevin Durant’s fault, that the star scorer doesn’t have a meaningful post game (Charles Barkley’s main talking point when explaining why Carmelo Anthony–and not KD–is the best scorer in the world)? And speaking of Durant, he extended his contract for the long-term with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He likes it there. Oh, and so did Russell Westbrook. He likes it there too. Two of the best basketball players in the world are happy to play in Oklahoma instead of LA or New York. Their NBA selves have grown up under Scott Brooks. Is this significant?
I don’t know that Brooks will get canned if the Thunder disappoint next month, but it seems more probable each day. I also don’t know that he’s as responsible for their success under his watch as Dungy likely was in Tampa Bay. But if that’s how it plays out, there’s enough of a parallel that I felt it worth bringing up.