What Scott Brooks needs to show if Wizards bring him back

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What Brooks needs to show if Wizards bring him back originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

With the end of the Washington Wizards’ season on Wednesday, following their Game 5 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, so too comes the end of head coach Scott Brooks' contract. Now, Wizards management has a decision to make on whether or not to bring back the coach who has led the team for the past five seasons.

Brooks has expressed his desire to return to Washington and received repeated ringing endorsements from his star point guard, Russell Westbrook, who he also coached in Oklahoma City for several years. It's apparent that players like Brooks and he handles the people part of the job well.

“He kept us together, he kept us encouraged, he kept us fighting,” Westbrook said on Wednesday. “He don’t get a lot of credit for it, but he deserves a lot of credit for putting us in position to be successful."

As for the basketball, Brooks has a 183-207 record (.469 winning percentage) in Washington with three playoff appearances, only reaching the second round that first season. His playoff record is 10-14 (.417 winning percentage). He won a respectable 49 games his first season with Washington in 2016-17, but that total became less each of the next three years. The Wizards bottomed out at 25 wins in 2020 before bouncing back with 34 this season and their first playoff appearance since 2017-18.

It's fair to wonder how much better those numbers would be if John Wall didn't miss so much time or if the team was able retain past picks and draft better or make better trades, but leaving Brooks without some responsibility would be giving him a benefit of the doubt that most coaches around the NBA don’t get. Things like injuries are usually considered excuses in a results-driven business, excuses that aren’t afforded to many.

The Wizards front office has the unenviable task of trying to compartmentalize those type of issues, be it injuries, roster construction and just plain bad luck over the last few seasons, to determine how much the collective results over that time, positive or negative, can be attributed to the coach. But those aforementioned factors are what complicates the decision of whether to re-sign Brooks, because relative to expectations, his teams usually finished where they probably should have, even if rarely exceeding that spot. 

After adopting a ready-to-compete team that Randy Wittman took to the conference semifinals twice in four years, Brooks guided the Wizards to their winningest season since the 1970s in his first year. Those 49-win Wizards pushed the top-seeded Celtics to seven games in a conference semis appearance. Washington entered the following year riding high on that near-conference finals berth but their star leader, John Wall, began to break down physically. He missed a large chunk of the second half of 2017-18 and the team limped into the playoffs before being bounced in six games by the Raptors. Wall would only play another 32 games for Washington, in 2018-19, and missed the entire 2019-20 season. His absence those two years left Bradley Beal as Brooks’ lone reliable option until the team flipped Wall for Westbrook.

The addition of Westbrook saw the Wizards get back into the playoffs this year, and though the postseason berth came with a sub-.500 record and eighth place finish, it's fair to say injuries and a coronavirus outbreak played a factor. And with plenty of holes still remaining on the roster, there’s no shame in a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the conference’s top-seeded team.

What the Wizards front office has to determine now is whether Brooks is the right man to lead this team once those holes are plugged, if he can maximize whatever talent the team does have and maybe even exceed outside expectations. In order to do that, Brooks will need to show more offensive ingenuity, necessary to integrate and utilize new and existing pieces, and perhaps more flexibility with his rotations. The Wizards also eventually need to shore up a defense that hasn’t finished higher than 15th in defensive rating during his five-year tenure, twice finishing as a bottom three team, including a league-worst finish in 2019-20.

General manager Tommy Sheppard credited Brooks for doing a "heck of a job given the circumstances," but said there will be an evaluation process to determine the coach's status. "Now the question is, do we have enough talent here, do we have enough strength in the coaching staff to move forward?” But the questions shouldn't end there. 

Brooks' resume includes an impressive run with the Thunder, including an NBA Finals berth with Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden in 2012. Is he a creative enough coach to bring a team without a third superstar competing against a newly competitive Eastern Conference to the same success? Can he improve the team’s defense? And can he do it quickly enough to not waste the window of the superstar who endorsed him?