OKLAHOMA CITY — Scott Brooks always believed he would be back as the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, even as his previous contract was surprisingly allowed to expire following the NBA Finals.
There were rumors that he would be replaced by 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy — which general manager Sam Presti discarded as “rubbish” — but Brooks remained confident.
“I knew it would work out,” Brooks said Tuesday at a news conference to formally announce the deal he signed a day earlier. “This is where I wanted to be. This is the best situation for me. I couldn’t ask for a better place to coach, to live, and I’m excited about the opportunity ahead of me.”
Brooks reportedly now has a four-year deal worth more than $4 million annually, but the team isn’t releasing the terms.
Brooks has built the Thunder into a championship contender since taking over around Thanksgiving 2008. The team had won just one of its first 13 games after relocating from Seattle to Oklahoma City. It went 23-59 that season, but improved enough to make the playoffs the next season, then the Western Conference finals the next season and then the NBA Finals this past season.
“Sam and I met before the season and he said, ‘NBA Finals or adios,’ so he put a lot of pressure on me,” Brooks said in jest.
Presti said he values Brooks’ experience in being with the franchise during the tough times. Brooks was an assistant during a rocky final season in Seattle, and made the transition to head coach during a dreadful 3-29 start to the 2008-09 season.
Since taking over, he has insisted that his players work hard through success and failure, and he has used his experience as an 11-year NBA veteran to guide his youthful roster.
“I believe in players. I believe that you have to figure out ways to get them better and you have to look at their weaknesses and address their weaknesses but you don’t focus on all of their weaknesses. You improve those areas but then you bring it all together,” Brooks said. “I’ve always felt the best coaches that I’ve had are the ones that empowered me to think that I was a little bit better than I was. I’ve always felt that if you’re able to do that, the players are going to give you more than they think they can give you.”
After the Thunder largely wiped the slate clean following the franchise’s relocation, Brooks’ impact has been even more pronounced.
“I think his contributions are enormous. We wouldn’t be in this situation, where we feel really good about our future, without him,” Presti said. “He’s got a great understanding of the organization and a big part of that is because he’s helped construct it.”
Still, it was startling for the same general manager who was waiting on Kevin Durant’s doorstep for the moment he was allowed to offer him a maximum contract extension — even with a year left on his rookie deal — to allow his head coach to briefly become a free agent.
“It would have probably gotten done earlier if we didn’t make the playoffs or went (out in) the first round,” Brooks said, “but it was a good problem to have.”
By the time Oklahoma City’s season was over, there were only eight days left to negotiate a new contract.
“When the season ended, we could really put all of our attention on it. I feel like we got it done fairly expeditiously but … sometimes these things take time,” Presti said. “There’s a lot more conversation that has to happen in order to make it come to fruition.”
Now that Brooks is locked up, Presti can turn his attention to the roster. Veterans Derek Fisher, Nazr Mohammed and Royal Ivey are all unrestricted free agents while Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka and backup point guard Eric Maynor are all eligible for contract extensions.
“We’ve got a lot of things obviously on our plate,” Presti said. “Scott and I have had some really good discussions about just the team and the things that are really important to us going forward roster-wise and organizationally. … We obviously are going to start having conversations with James and Serge and efforts to try to figure their situations out.
“The NBA offseason is definitely a marathon and not a sprint.”