The Portland Trail Blazers’ two most senior coaching additions have elicited polarizing opinions from fans. We’ve litigated Chauncey Billups’ inexperience and that 1997 incident, but what to make of Scott Brooks?
On paper, Brooks has every possible credential needed to be a lead assistant, as he was a head coach for 12 of the past 13 years, first with the Oklahoma City Thunder and then the Washington Wizards. Eight of those years featured playoff runs, including one Finals appearance, two Conference Finals berths, two Conference Semifinals and three first-round exits.
If we’re getting the red marker out, we can confidently tick a few categories: (1) managing MVP-level egos, (2) playoff success, and (3) more than a decade leading NBA teams. But how good a coach is he and how will he help transition Billups into the top job?
Prior to coaching, the journeyman point guard was part of the Houston Rockets’ 1994 championship squad while also spending time with the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers between 1988 and 1998.
Following stints as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings and Seattle SuperSonics/Thunder, Brooks got his shot at the big chair 13 games into the 2008-09 season after PJ Carlesimo was shown the door. That season, Brooks led Oklahoma City to a 23-59 record and 13th in the West with a second-year Kevin Durant and a rookie Russell Westbrook. With James Harden added the following season, the Thunder might have been destined for greatness.
He guided this mouth-wateringly talented trio over the next three seasons, culminating in a disappointing 4-1 loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals. Harden was subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets before the start of the 2012-13 season, Brooks was sacked three years later, and Durant left in free agency the following year.
Maybe that talent-filled team was too young to knock off the Heat — maybe they would have eventually won it all if Harden had been paid and retained. But what if another coach with playoff experience and more savvy had been coaching that loaded 2011-12 team? Do the Thunder get to hold up the Larry O’Brien Trophy, perhaps multiple times? We’ll never know.
Brooks has spent the past five years in Washington, in which Bradley Beal made All-Star teams three times with John Wall nominated for two. He was also re-united with Westbrook in DC this past season. Yes, the rosters have been flawed, but he’s still had star-level talent, despite Wall’s extended injury spells.
In order to illuminate Brooks’ coaching efficacy in Portland we might need to look to his Washington tenure with teams that didn’t include three MVP-calibre players making him look good.
In Washington, Brooks finished with a 183-207 record (almost 47 percent) with the last three seasons resulting in losing records. His best season was his first (2016-17) taking a Wall-Beal-led team to a Game Seven Conference Semifinals thriller against the Boston Celtics.
However, since then, the Wizards’ style has been eerily similar to recent Blazers teams. Defense hasn’t seemed to be a priority with the 2018-19 incarnation of the Wizards finishing third last in defense and the 2019-20 team dead last.
That 2018-19 team wasn’t filled with defensive sieves either. Bradley Beal played all 82 games, Tomas Satoransky played 80, Thomas Bryant played 72 and Tory Brown Jr. played 52. In 2019-20 Beal played 57 of 72 games, Brown Jr. played 69, Isaac Bonga played 66 — all average enough defenders and surely able to avoid a league-worse defense. Offense has been less of an issue with the Wizards finishing seventh, 14th, 14th, 15th and 17th under Brooks’ tutelage.
In his telling post-season press conference, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey preached the new regime would focus on defense under an experienced coach.
“We want to improve on the defensive end of the floor, strong leadership qualities, someone that’s going to hold players accountable on both ends of the floor.
Hopefully somebody with coaching experience who has hit certain benchmarks.”
Clearly, Billups doesn’t meet the second criteria and Brooks doesn’t meet the first criteria. Oh boy. But Brooks may not be solely responsible for defensive schemes under Billups, especially with defensive guru Roy Rogers recruited from the Los Angeles Clippers to help plug holes on that end of the floor.
Ultimately, Brooks will be brought in to help Billups run the day-to-day and provide an experienced voice and safety net when things aren’t going as planned. He’s also a name that Damian Lillard knows has had experience working with the Durants, Westbrooks, Hardens, Beals and Walls of this world. Westbrook himself called for Brooks to be retained at the end of Washington’s disappointing season.
Surely with all the backlash Lillard has experienced during the hiring of Billups, Brooks might be the steady and respected voice needed. But we don’t know anything about their relationship, if there is one.
Yes, there were alternatives. Blazers championship point guard Lionel Hollins, Philadelphia 76ers assistant Dave Joerger and recently-named Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson might have all been better options. Hollins oversaw the grit and grind Memphis Grizzlies era, guiding disciplined teams to playoff success, including a Conference Finals berth in 2013.
Joerger took over from Hollins in Memphis to continue that era, including the first round demolition of Portland in 2015, ending the Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge era. Atkinson nurtured a young Brooklyn Nets team to the point where stars like Durant and Kyrie Irving were lured to Barclays Center.
Of course, there was Vinny Del Negro mentioned in that Shams Charania tweet but let’s just leave that one alone.
Sources: Candidates for lead assistant role for Portland Trail Blazers and new head coach Chauncey Billups: Former Bulls/Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, ex-Wizards/Thunder coach Scott Brooks and Lakers assistant Lionel Hollins.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 8, 2021
Yes, there were better options at lead assistant out there and yes, Brooks comes to Portland with his flaws.
In no way would I want him as head coach but he has the experience to give Billups the safety net he needs as the training wheels start to come off. Rarely is the word “meh” used to describe a basketball hire, but I’d rather “meh” than “oh no.”
Let’s hope Brooks can take the lessons learned throughout his extensive coaching career to give Billups the best chance he needs to succeed.