OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Back when the Thunder were 3-29 last season, the notion of the playoffs coming to Oklahoma City any time soon was unimaginable.
But it was that same miserable stretch that made general manager Sam Presti confident that coach Scott Brooks, was the right man to lead his team into the future.
While Oklahoma City struggled to the worst start in the NBA, Presti was impressed by the way Brooks stayed the course and never tried to force immediate changes in hopes of making the Thunder better. He has now taken the youngest roster in the league and turned the team into a 50-game winner and a playoff team just one season after the horrendous start.
For that best-in-the NBA turnaround, Brooks, a Lathrop native and 1983 East Union High graduate, was recognized Wednesday as the NBA’s coach of the year. He received 71 of 123 first-place votes and 480 points to finish ahead of Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles (26 first-place votes, 313 points) and Portland’s Nate McMillan (9, 107).
“He’s someone that I think is incredibly consistent as a person. He is unaffected through adversities and also through successes, and I think that’s an important quality we want to have as we move forward,” Presti said.
Even as he was receiving a statue of Red Auerbach, Brooks faced another daunting turnaround: an 0-2 deficit in the Thunder’s best-of-seven series against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson.
Game 3 is Thursday night in Oklahoma City.
“This is the first-time playoff experience for a lot of us, including myself, and you’re playing against one of the best coaches of all sports, one of the best players ever and a team that has 1,000 (games of) playoff experience to ours,” Brooks said. “But you learn from playing against the best players and the best teams, and we’re going to keep fighting and figuring out ways to beat them.”
While the Thunder didn’t immediately start winning after Brooks took over for the fired P.J. Carlesimo, there were signs of progress. His decision to move Kevin Durant from shooting guard to small forward increased his production, and the addition of Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic plus defensive-minded assistant Ron Adams started to pay dividends, too.
“We were improved once he took over as the coach. We still lost some games that were tough but we were learning and we were getting better each day in practice,” said Durant, who developed into the NBA’s youngest scoring champion this season.
“I knew if we continued to do that and not come in and just say, ‘Our season’s done. Ain’t no need to practice. Ain’t no need to work hard.’ We still came in and worked every day, and he made sure he brought it every day as a coach.”
Brooks can sound like a broken record at times, harping on Oklahoma City’s need to constantly improve every day, but it’s exactly the tune that Presti wants to hear. It’s why he gave Brooks a multi-year contract at the end of last season even though the Thunder had only gone 22-47 under his leadership.
Of the eight NBA interim coaches with losing records over the past three seasons, only Brooks and Toronto’s Jay Triano got a chance to come back for another try. That patience paid off with a 27-win turnaround that brought the franchise its first playoff appearance since 2004-05 in Seattle.
Making the improvement even more unbelievable is that it came without a significant free agent signing. Instead, it’s primarily the same group of players as last season plus rookies James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor.
“They’re coachable. I’ve been around young, talented, non-coachable players. I’ve been around veteran, talented, non-coachable players,” Brooks said. “No matter what you do, sooner or later — even if a coach comes in that’s able to connect with them —” if that’s who they are, they’re going to go back to it.”
Forward Nick Collison, who has been with the franchise longer than any current player, said Brooks’ strength is that he’s “not a guy that likes to just hear himself speak.”
“The thing that sticks out with me is he’s got a really good pulse what’s going on with the team,” Collison said. “He can sense when we’re slipping a little bit and kind of light a fire under us or get on us. Or he can sense when maybe we need a little confidence and not push so hard and try to pick us up a little bit.”
Brooks played 11 seasons in the NBA and was a reserve on Houston’s 1994 NBA championship team. He got his coaching start in the ABA before George Karl hired him as an NBA assistant in 2003. Presti gave him an interview for the SuperSonics’ head coaching position in 2007 and then asked Carlesimo to bring him in as an assistant.
“I think the things that shaped him into the type of player he was in the NBA are similar to the type of things that made him a successful coach, and that is consistency, passion for the game and an appreciation for hard work and humility,” Presti said. “Those are the kind of attributes that we want to continue to try to bring into our organization.”