Scott Brooks is nearing the end of his lunch at Upper Crust in Oklahoma City on a recent January afternoon when a patron quickly drops something off on his table and walks away.
It’s a receipt for Brooks’ meal the patron covered with a note on the other side that reads, “Scott, thank you for being an inspiration to us Oklahomans.”
Seven years since arriving in Oklahoma City, the Thunder head coach is still in awe of the city’s gratitude toward him and the team. “It’s a special place to live,” he says. But he knows that feeling may be fleeting considering what his talented team is currently up against: out of the playoff race in the stacked Western Conference, a year removed from the conference finals and three from the Finals. There’s no coach facing more pressure in the West.
Last week, Brooks sat down with Bleacher Report in OKC for the first extended interview in his coaching career, saying, “I very rarely want attention on myself; the players deserve the credit.” He opened up on the team’s challenges and evolution, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s relationship, his coaching secrets and much more.
Bleacher Report: Regarding the season so far, Kevin told me after practice, “I’ve never been through anything like this before.” What’s it been like for you and the team?
Scott Brooks: This has definitely been a challenge. There were times where we had, like, seven guys and weren’t really practicing; we were just walking through things because we didn’t have the manpower or the energy to have a practice. That threw me in scramble mode, where we used more zone defense and were trying to figure out how we can win fourth-quarter games. We missed some shots at the end of games. I learned a lot about the team; they didn’t make excuses and we still were very competitive. I also learned about myself; it’s important to delegate and have everybody feel part of the process.
B/R: Players don’t question their relationship with you, which seems unique. Someone with the team told me you’re the “personal touch” the team has needed through the years, especially for Kevin and Russell. How do you keep the guys motivated?
SB: I tell the players all the time, “I don’t have the answers, you don’t have the answers, but let’s figure them out together.” A lot of times they have great suggestions, and sometimes they don’t, and you’ve got to let them know. I’ve always felt that the way you establish a relationship with your team is to always have a connection with the guys. I sometimes do free-throw competitions with them, but I’m still learning what really motivates the guys.
People always say, “Are you a players’ coach or not?” I say, “I’m a fair coach.” If you give great effort to the team, I will do everything in my power to make it work. Luckily for me, Kevin, Russell and our leaders are great examples for all of our players. So very rarely do I have to coach the effort and get on guys.
B/R: Film sessions must be great times to see leadership develop.
SB: I try to challenge guys all the time that way, especially the veterans. I’ll say, “Hey, Russell, what do you think about this right there? Is this guy in the right spot?” And he’ll say, “No.” And I’ll say, “Add to that. Tell him what he needs to do.” Our guys are pretty sharp that way, like Kevin, Russell or Perk [Kendrick Perkins]; they’ll say, “Come on, man, that’s your man, quit trying to look for an out” or something like that. Film sessions have been great with really developing our team.
I’ll also change player positions in practice so they can understand each other. I’ll run a skeleton offensive drill—no defense—where I’ll have, like, Perkins at point guard and Russell at the five running pick-and-rolls. Then I’ll stop and say, “Perk, you didn’t get into the ball; you didn’t force it over the screen and square him up. And Russell, you didn’t bump the screener; you didn’t come to the level of the screen and you didn’t wall off the point guard.” They’re like, “It’s not as easy as I thought.” So it helps them appreciate each other’s role.
B/R: You’ve pulled off the difficult task of getting two superstars to buy into your program for a long time. What’s been your formula?
SB: It has to be based off of effort and the dirty things. I always tell our guys, “The dirty job, garbage-pail mentality is not for Perk and Nick Collison; it’s for Kevin and Russell.” If they’re not defending and they’re not getting on the floor for loose balls and they’re not trying to win every free throw block out, and they’re not trying to win every jump ball, why is it important for the other guys to do it?
Trust me, it’s not easy, because it is a star-driven league and everybody loves points—players, writers. But with Russell and Kevin, they’re first and third in assists, and we always challenge them to give us more of that.
B/R: How alike and different are Kevin and Russell?
SB: They’re both so competitive. Russell shows his competitiveness in a physical presence way. He wants you to know that he’s coming at you and he doesn’t like you and he doesn’t care about what you think, where Kevin’s competitiveness comes from, “Watch me. I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do, but I’m going to be better than you.”
It’s really a unique combination and they do a great job of really complementing each other. Early on in their careers, and I still do it occasionally, I put them on different teams in practice to see who can rally their teammates to beat the other guy. And they get after it. It makes the scrimmages much more intense.
B/R: What catches your eye about Kevin and Russell’s training?
SB: Both of those guys work extremely hard; they don’t mess around. When we have an 11 o’clock practice, they’re on the court at 9, 10, getting their shots up for like 20 minutes with one of our coaches; Kevin with Adam Harrington, Russell with Robert Pack. Kevin loves to challenge himself, whether he wants to finish with the left-hand or right-hand hook, or the one-foot Dirk [Nowitzki] shot that he’s mastered.
I’ve been around players where they try stuff in the game, and I think, I’ve never seen him work on that in practice. But everything Kevin and Russell have done in a game, I’ve seen them work on. Russell has really improved his layup game, finishing with his left and right, and his pull-up jumper has gotten better. You can’t stop it in transition; if he’s got his feet set and he’s balanced, that’s a 60 percent shot for him.
B/R: How often do you think about 2016 when Kevin will be a free agent?
SB: Never. That’s so many days away. I understand it, but it’s not something I’m even focused on. All coaches focus on day to day, and we worry about what we can do today and keep chopping away.
B/R: Some NBA scouts say you run a fairly simple offense featuring Kevin and Russell in three main pick-and-roll sets: Rub (top of the key), Angle (on the side) and Horns (two screeners at the elbows). How hard is it to find the offensive balance between your elite scoring duo and the rest of the team?
SB: There’s no question you can spin the numbers any way you want, but I look at the fact that we’ve won a lot of games and our offense has been in the top five the last few years. But I’ve challenged the guys: “Let’s change how we score,” because in 2011-12 we were 30th in assists and we’ve improved every year. Our goal this year was to get in the top 10; it hasn’t happened because it’s an asterisk season for us with injuries.
We’ve always wanted to be a high-scoring team, but implement more screening and passing. And Kevin and Russell stepped up. We like to call it more of an attack-spots-on-the-floor offense. Trust me, it drives me crazy when they do dribble too many times, and we’ve worked to correct that behavior. I’ve told them, “Think of better ways to score without using the dribble as much.” We’re not where we want to be, but we’ve definitely gotten better.
B/R: Do you have analytics for dribbling, and is there one metric you think is overrated?
SB: That’s where the eye test tells you, like, come on, pass the ball, but offensive numbers can help that, too. I’m getting more into analytics—I think it’s important—but the only thing I always question is the plus-minus. Some [writers] say, “Why did you play this guy? He was a minus-15.” I’m, like, “How did I know he was going to be a minus-15 until the game was over,” or, “It’s Kevin Durant and he had a bad game. What are you going to do, not play him?” I think [five-man] units are more important than one guy.
B/R: How do you think you’ve evolved as an X’s and O’s coach?
SB: I like looking at after-quarter, after-timeout and end-of-game plays, because every team will have a different wrinkle. I used to never look at that part of the play. To me, League Pass is the greatest thing. I have it on my iPhone and I DVR games. I watch [a game] and then make notes myself. If I want to get the clip [to show the team], I’ll put the quarter and the time, and I’ll have our video guys clip it. You’re always watching other teams and trying to pick up things.
B/R: Who are your coaching mentors, and what did you learn from each?
SB: A big one is Rudy Tomjanovich. His greatest strengths were his ability to empower and connect with everybody—even [Hakeem] Olajuwon, where I’m thinking to myself, How does he make him feel any better? This guy’s the world’s greatest center. He had the ability to get Olajuwon to run through a wall for him, and that always struck a chord with me, like, “Wow, this coach is special.” Twenty-one years later, our connection is still priceless.
Earlier in my career, my first professional coach, Bill Musselman, taught me a very important lesson: No excuses; you’ve got to overcome the problem you have and win this game. I made $6,200 that year in 1987 [laughs].
Now, I love when Jeff Van Gundy does our games. We spend about 10 minutes together during the broadcast meeting and we bust each other’s chops. But he was one of the best coaches that I’ve ever played for. He had us playing so hard every night and he maximized everybody’s ability; the same thing with Mike Fratello. And George Karl is one of the best basketball minds. He’ll definitely get back into coaching; he’s just waiting for the right moment.
B/R: Because the West is so tough this season, does seeding even matter?
SB: Ideally you’d like to have home court, but if you don’t, 1 through 8 is so good like last year. We had Memphis and we went to Game 7 and people were saying, “We had a bad series.” No. Memphis is good. They were unhealthy; look at what they’re doing now. I don’t mind being upfront and being the guy who’s criticized—I’ve been never afraid of failing—but I always laughed at all the reporting, like, “Oklahoma is struggling.” We weren’t struggling. Every game was an overtime game, and this team is still good.
B/R: While you guys are currently out of the playoff race, Kevin told me confidently, “I know that people are saying, ‘The West is too tough,’ but I don’t care. Our results are going to show.” What are your thoughts? Any pressure?
SB: I don’t think pressure is the right word, but definitely a sense of urgency. It’s going to be a challenge, but our guys have always stepped up for challenges, so I know this is an opportunity for them to do it again. The way we started, there could be a lot of satisfying moments at the end of the season because I know we had to overcome a lot, and we still do. There’s no question our goal is to win a championship. I know that we have the ability and we have the team to get there.
Bleacher Report:: OKC’s Scott Brooks Opens Up: Team Pressures, Coaching KD and Russ and More