Deciding whether a team has an "identity" calls to mind the classic U.S. Supreme Court definition of pornography: it's hard to define exactly, but you know it when you see it -- and in the case of NBA teams, you definitely know when you don't.
It's hard to even say whether you can craft an identity top-down -- by plucking the right free agents and college kids -- or if a team must happen upon one organically through some semi-random process of self-discovery. The Wizards of 2015-16 tried to manufacture an identity on short notice while saving cash for a plastic surgery job in July. They haphazardly crafted a pace-and-space team while winky-wink flirting with Thunder forward Kevin Durant, and after six injury-riddled months of aimless flailing on the court, they may end up with neither.
On Friday, Washington banked the next phase of its development on a coach seeking his own identity, even after guiding Oklahoma City within three games of a title way ahead of schedule. Ask the Wizards what they see in former Thunder coach Scott Brooks, and you'll hear the usual: He's a wonderful man, players will go to war for him, and he'll coach up the young guys -- just as he did with the once-youthful Thunder. He's a warm, encouraging spirit, and that matters over the slog of 82 games. For better or worse, it will create a different vibe than recently departed Randy Wittman's sometimes ornery perfectionism.
"The biggest thing for me is the relationships," Brooks told me on a podcast in March. "I know I got that right." His former players agree.
His connection to Durant is a nice coincidence that may also mean nothing. If Durant had made it plain he wanted to play for Brooks, current Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan would still be at Florida.
All the Durant buzz now says he wants no part of going home, but be careful what you believe. Most of that chatter comes from people three, four and five steps removed from Durant's tight-lipped inner circle at Roc Nation -- gossipy types who dial up the NBA's telephone game. The Lakers are in it, then out of it, then in it again -- and don't forget about the Warriors! I will say this: The Spurs buzz is ascendant in a way that is eerily similar to what happened last January at the D-League Showcase, when a half-dozen unconnected team executives warned me over the span of a few days that LaMarcus Aldridge would bolt from Portland for San Antonio. Who knows. At the very least, the Wizards will get a chance to make their pitch.
They're also paying Brooks $35 million whether Durant comes or not. Washington needs Brooks to figure out what this team should really look like around point guard John Wall, a legit NBA superstar, and Brooks needs a second chance to establish what exactly he stands for as a coach. Being nice and working hard does not constitute an identity.
Brooks is now somewhere around the league's second- or third-highest paid coach who doesn't double as his team's front-office hammer. That seems remarkable, given how much criticism Brooks absorbed over the years in Oklahoma City.
But his hiring is a reflection of the league's current financial environment, and perhaps a rational one. Revenue is up, and players get only about half of it -- down from their 57 percent share under the old collective bargaining deal. A rich, new TV deal is about to flood the league. Teams have extra cash to spend on areas uncapped by salary restraints: front-office executives, biometric technology and coaches. The smart teams will spend in smart ways. Coaching agents are also pushing the idea that their clients need to earn more to mark their authority as salaries for even middling players rise into the stratosphere.
Is Brooks worth it without Durant? He became a bit of a punching bag for refusing to downsize against the small-ball Heat in the 2012 Finals, relying on creaky veterans like Derek Fisher over bouncier dudes, and overseeing a stagnant offense that leaned upon one-on-one talent as a crutch. Flash forward to 2016, and the Thunder are barely playing Durant at power forward; giving precious minutes to Nick Collison and Randy Foye while Cameron Payne languishes; and toggling between a few predictable, slow-motion sets amid uneven crunch-time play. They're also winning a ton. Nothing has really changed.
When the Thunder isolate Durant on the block, teams tilt their defense toward him, just like they always have -- placing extra defenders in his lap and betting he won't pass to an open player. Durant usually shoots, and because he is Kevin freaking Durant, that is generally fine.
The closest open guy is often big man Serge Ibaka, perched near the top of the arc, and perhaps Durant would trust the pass more if Ibaka had evolved better as playmaker. Ibaka hurt the Mavericks with little floaters on the pick-and-roll in Game 4, but close out on him 25 feet from the rim, and it's unclear if he can really do anything with the ball. The plateau Ibaka hit under Brooks has extended under Donovan.
Passes like this laser from the fourth quarter of Oklahoma City's violent Game 4 win -- evidenced of how damned good a distributor Durant can be -- are exceptions.
Point guard Russell Westbrook improved as a passer every season under Brooks, and he has continued that trajectory under Donovan. He also suffers from bouts of tunnel vision and awful shot selection late in close games -- just as he did when Brooks was coach.
Maybe it was the players after all, then - and not Brooks? But Brooks molded those players from age 20 on. The persistence of their so-so habits could exonerate Brooks, or implicate him. In the wake of his firing last season, there were debates about whether Brooks was hard enough on Durant and Westbrook when they were younger. He insists he was.
"You have to have those tough conversations," Brooks told me, "but if you don't have relationships with the players, they aren't gonna listen."
The Thunder defended their tails off under Brooks, finishing ninth, fourth and fifth, respectively, in points allowed per possession, from 2011-12 through 2013-14. The coach derided as stubborn made adjustments, too, especially on that end. Trailing a Spurs team riding a 20-game win streak 2-0 in the 2012 conference finals, Brooks had the the Thunder amp up the pressure: take a step into the paint, clog driving lanes, force the Spurs to pass the ball around the court and bank on our collective athleticism to run them off the 3-point arc.
He also recalled a film session on an off day after Game 2 in which he froze clips to show players -- especially his stars -- all the open men they weren't passing to. The Thunder passed more starting in Game 3, and James Harden, dealt away after that season, swung the series with his combination of scoring and playmaking.
"James Harden was the factor," Brooks said.
By the 2014 playoffs, Brooks had a quicker hook on his shaky-shooting starting lineups.
But ask yourself: What was Oklahoma City's core identity on defense? What did it look like? It was manic, almost wild, in a way that leveraged the Thunder's insane athleticism and length. They ran around a lot. Big men ventured way out to pressure the pick-and-roll, rangy wings sprinted at unnerved shooters, like-sized dudes switched, and Westbrook zig-zagged like an insane person in search of game-breaking plays.
If that's an identity, you could argue it's one created as much by the front office -- and the players they drafted -- as by Brooks. The two sides even went back and forth a bit more than usual on the identity of Brooks' assistant coaching staffs over the years, per sources familiar with the matter, though Brooks ultimately got to hire who he wanted. The team's defense slipped once Ron Adams and Brian Keefe left. Executives around the league are curious to see who Brooks taps as his defensive coordinator this time around.
So much of coaching is contextual. Those Thunder teams were so unusual -- so successful so early, led by players who rightfully considered themselves superstars before they could legally drink. I can't wait to see what Brooks does with a less-talented team -- one perhaps in need of more top-down molding.
Success at the highest level isn't evitable, even for rising teams with young stud back-courts, and winning at any level can feel fragile. Brooks and the Wizards will face a bunch of choices over the next two years that will determine how far they get in the Wall-Beal era. They out-bruised the Tom Thibodeau Bulls in 2014 with a mammoth front line, a defense-first approach, and a hail of low-risk, medium-reward mid-range jumpers.
They played the same way for much of last season before flipping the Paul Pierce card in the postseason -- PLAYOFF WITTMAN, BABY! -- and joining the pace-and-space revolution. They doubled down on that style this season with a roster beyond Wall that was plainly unready to play it. They couldn't spend much without compromising their Durant cap space, but they spent a lot of what they had on aging players coming off injuries.
Their projections for Martell Webster and Alan Anderson turned out to be, um, optimistic. They are still trying to figure out what is going on with Beal's leg, and how to snap the pattern of constant stress-related injuries.
Some of this is bad luck; the Wizards have a well-respected training staff, and they've been quietly ahead of the curve in some areas of analytics and biometrics. But they tried to force-feed an identity, and in doing so compromised much of what they had done well before. Washington slipped from fifth to 14th in points allowed per possession, and its effort waned. Wall, a terror who made my All-Defense team last season, exhaled on that end this season.
The Wizards feel a little unformed -- again -- as they head into free agency with just six players (including Beal, a restricted free agent) set for next season and (likely) no draft pick. Some of the answers beyond Wall and Beal are already in-house; Beal is still just 22, and a lot of the Wizards backslide came down to not having him for enough games.
Otto Porter plateaued, but he's going to be a good multipositional wing for a long time. MMarkieff Morris played with more verve after the Wiz outbid the tepid market for him, and might still unlock the best version of himself.
But if he doesn't, he's just another power forward -- and probably a below-average starter at a loaded position. Marcin Gortat is 32. Beal will get his max deal once the Wizards are done spending, but given his injury history, you can't just pen in a typical max-contract career arc.
Remember: This is the team that went all-in on Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison by dealing the No. 5 pick in the Stephen Curry draft for Randy Foye and Mike Miller; had its owner proclaim Wall, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche as the franchise's big three; and made semi-panicky, "Holy crap, we have to make the playoffs!" deals for Gortat and Morris. Hell, even nabbing Wall required a semi-miraculous jump from the No. 5 slot in the lottery.
The Gortat move turned out fine, and the Wizards have done a lot of other nice things: snagging Jared Dudley and Paul Pierce on the cheap, turning JaVale McGee's unmet potential into Nene's actual talent and drafting Beal. Even dumping the Rashard Lewis mega-deal for Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor, pilloried at the time as a forfeiture of cap space, turned into a big positive.
But it has been hard to discern a larger governing pattern beyond chasing short-terms wins with moves that don't move the needle enough. It's time for this still-promising franchise to zoom out and decide what it wants to be. It's time for all of us to learn more about Brooks and what sort of identity he wants to build as a coach.
The two parties need each other. And if they succeed, we'll know it when we see it.