Let’s hark back to a time when we were all young. Let’s examine our lives from 18-24 years of age. You have high school graduation, then either college or work (or both, or neither). You have significant others, one night stands, friends with benefits, friend zones, etc. It’s a time of exploration; a time to make mistakes. You only hope is that the mistakes made during this time period don’t affect you for the rest of your life. Usually, it’s good to have someone that is older and much wiser around you to support you during these times. Not necessarily someone that tells you that you are doing it wrong, but someone that allows you to figure it out on your own, while also giving their own nuggets of advice along the way.
Eventually, though, we all reach that fork in the road of life. Take one path, and you’ll eventually become the old guy that never fully matured and always harks back to his younger years (hello, ‘peaked in high school’ Rob Lowe). Take the other path, and you become the mature adult that you were destined to be. Along the way, the benefactor that helped you in your younger years, may not necessarily be the same person that helps you in your maturing years. Usually, the new benefactor is a more professional role model; someone that you try to emulate as you mature. This new benefactor is usually not as coddling as the old one, and almost always demands that results be brought to the table in order to keep the relationship going.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder fired Scott Brooks, they didn’t just get rid of their coach for the past 7 seasons. They got rid of their coddling, doting benefactor. Don’t get me wrong, though. Scott Brooks did many great things in his time in Oklahoma City. His style of coaching was necessary for a team that was just coming into its own. His ability to develop and culture young talent was/is tantamount to the success of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Take the ‘players coach’ persona away from the Thunder and replace it with a hardened disciplinarian, and you may have had a scenario where the players got tired of the demanding coach and either wanted out or loathed the thought of coming to practice everyday. It’s basically the reason Brooks replaced PJ Carlesimo as head coach seven seasons ago in the first place.
In the last two seasons we’ve seen the complete maturation of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both these players have gone from great players to bonafide MVP candidates (or winner as in the case of Durant). Durant has gone from just a great scorer to a great all-around player, while Westbrook has gone from questionable point guard to something entirely different that has never been seen from the floor general position. While these two players will continue to add facets to their games as they mature, they’ve essentially reached their point of maturation.
While many will look at the last two injury plagued seasons as cursed, it has in fact been a great learning tool for both Durant and Westbrook. Their dependency on each other was shucked out the window in the last two years. In its stead, both players were forced to figure things out on their own. Durant went from all-world scorer to all-world all-around player after Westbrook sat out much of the 2013-14 season with various knee ailments. Durant’s scoring and rebounding numbers remained consistent, but his assist numbers went up to 5.5 per game. Based on these numbers and the fact that the Thunder remained atop the Western Conference (2nd, behind the San Antonio Spurs), Durant went on to win the MVP award last season.
Fast forward to this season, when the onus of carrying the Thunder fell on Westbrook as Durant recovered from a broken foot most of the season. Always vilified as being a shoot-first point guard, Westbrook was finally able to balance both scoring and assisting to finish with one of the greatest statistical seasons on record. His numbers in February and March have become things of legend. The media finally began to accept Westbrook for what he was: something they had never seen before. Westbrook’s season will likely not end an MVP award, as the Thunder failed to make the playoffs, but the full maturation of Westbrook has been a beautiful thing to watch. His ability to run the Thunder offense and pick and choose where to go has been tantamount to his success this season. The chemistry Westbrook developed with Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter in such a short period of time probably shows the full maturity of his game more than anything else.
It’s in this maturity that Thunder GM Sam Presti felt it was finally time to cut the umbilical cord to the doting, coddling coach. Too many times the Thunder hid from the fact that Brooks, while great as a communicator, lacked as an X’s and O’s coach. While the team was successful, it was in those critical in-game moments late in the playoffs where Brooks’ warts showed the most. Will new head coach Billy Donovan be able to overcome those deficiencies to take this team to the next level? That remains to be seen. But the players he will be inheriting in Durant, Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka, will be finished products that will be ready to win. The worst thing that could have happened to Brooks was the complete maturation of Durant and Westbrook without the finality of a championship. Regardless of whether injuries were involved or not, this was a move Presti had to make to get this team to the next level.