Thunder take giant leap toward future

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Sam Presti boarded a plane headed for Los Angeles on Wednesday morning to tell his friend Scott Brooks he no longer had a job.

Brooks, the head coach who had overseen the Oklahoma City Thunder's rise from a 3-29 start in their inaugural season to a perennial Western Conference powerhouse, expected the job he did this past season under difficult circumstances was enough to earn him another year, the last on the contract extension he signed in 2012.

But Presti had already made up his mind: The Thunder needed a change.

"Change in organizations are necessary at times," Presti said Wednesday. "As much as continuity is required for lasting success, change and transition are the engine for progress and evolution. And so we're embracing that change and looking toward the next stage of our development of our organization in Oklahoma City."

Brooks had a good seven-year run with the Thunder. In 2008, he inherited a team from P.J. Carlesimo that was 1-13 in its first season in Oklahoma City. Brooks was essential in establishing a strong team identity and locker-room culture. He took a developing team to 50 wins in his first full season as head coach, which started a run of five consecutive playoff appearances, three Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals.

Though Presti said his dismissal didn't have anything to do with Brooks' failures, there were good reasons for those, too. After trading James Harden, the Thunder fielded their best team, a 60-win juggernaut that was No. 1 in the West and finished with a near-historic margin of victory. But Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in the second game of the playoffs and the season was derailed. In the following year's West finals, Serge Ibaka was forced to sit the opening two games with a calf injury, and returned to play at something like 50 percent for the final four.

"As much as continuity is required for lasting success, change and transition are the engine for progress and evolution. And so we're embracing that change and looking toward the next stage of our development of our organization in Oklahoma City." Sam Presti

This season, Durant missed 55 games, Ibaka missed 18 and Westbrook missed 15. The Thunder still won 45 games and were only eliminated on the final day of the season because of a tiebreaker.

"I'm not sure that anybody could've done a better job than what Scott was able to do and what the team was able to do given the circumstances we encountered," Presti said.

So why did Presti get on that plane to fire him then?

The official explanation from the Thunder is this is an "opportunity" to "transition" to a new phase, to build on a strong foundation built by Brooks. Presti was careful not to list any of Brooks' limitations or any specifics for the change. This is said to be about the future, not the past.

Which is a complicated way of saying the obvious: They're thinking about Kevin Durant's free agency in the summer of 2016.

While neither Durant nor any other player on the roster directly consulted Presti about the decision to move on from Brooks, a clear message was sent to them: The Thunder aren't willing to settle for the sake of continuity. There was a fear of stagnation if they kept Brooks, and with next season being their most important ever, that was too heavy a risk to bear.

Kicking the can down the road and sticking with the status quo isn't going to be what ultimately convinces Durant to stay with the Thunder. Being proactive, not reactive, is. Presti showed that mentality this season, dealing two first-round picks in two separate deals to overhaul the roster's depth while also breaking into the luxury tax. The expectation is they will re-sign Enes Kanter this offseason, only deepening their financial commitment.

The roster's construction is only part of it, though, and there was a growing sentiment the team was beginning to plateau under Brooks' direction. Brooks was extremely well-liked in the locker room, but his voice wasn't carrying the same weight as it once did. Player accountability had become an issue, according to sources, with his message resonating less than before.

Durant and Westbrook were always loyal to Brooks publicly, but as Durant posted on Instagram on Wednesday, he supports the decision to move on.

"It's hard for [Brooks] to impose his will on those guys because they would give up on him," one source close to the situation said. "So he had to let them do whatever."

That was often illustrated in the Thunder's lack of offensive ingenuity, which dissolved into predictable isolations for Durant or discombobulated, desperation heaves for Westbrook. When healthy, the Thunder ranked in the top five in offense and defense, but the feeling was they were still only scratching the surface.

The Thunder attempted to install a more dynamic offensive system last summer, but that process was largely derailed in training camp when Durant broke his foot. The team simplified things once again to get by, which it did, winning those 45 games on the back of sheer competitive will, mostly led by Westbrook.

But that's the crux of the case against Brooks. The Thunder shouldn't have to be conventional to play hard. He's the perfect coach for underdogs, but they've outgrown that role. What the Thunder are crying out for is more intricate innovation to make better use of the ridiculous talent they have -- while they have it.

“Listen, we understand there will be an incredible amount of attention paid to next season," Presti said. "There will be a lot of different distractions, and that will be our job to try and manage. Not to eliminate, but try to manage so that we can play our best basketball. I think at times, the risk is not in moving forward, but I think the risk can be in being fearful of moving forward. If you identify somebody you feel like can help the organization that is a good fit here, I believe that’s kind of part of the job."

The next Thunder coach has a heavy burden to carry. It's the biggest, most important season in franchise history, and he has to build off what Brooks established while also unlocking new potential. It's a significant wager, and one that hinges on zeroing in on the right candidate. One you can be sure Presti already had in mind before he boarded that plane to L.A.