Scott Brooks has a good thing going in Oklahoma City. In four years with the Thunder, Brooks has seen his winning percentage climb each year. His team went to the Finals last season and there are few who doubt their ability to get back this season.
And Brooks is well aware of why he is so successful. When you toss a trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden out there on a regular basis, it is hard NOT to be successful. And considering they, along with Serge Ibaka, have been playing a lot of basketball this summer, Brooks is going to do the smart thing and take it easy on them.
“The thing with our Olympians is they do not want me to take them out and take time off,” Brooks said. “They're young and they want to keep getting better, and they know they have to practice to get better.”
But it's Brooks' job to protect his young guys from themselves. Durant is 24, and Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka are 23. Each season the young guns brag about being able to play more and never wanting to sit.
Westbrook has never missed a game, and Durant led the league in minutes played last season. Both are badges of honor, but they're also additional reasons why the stars need rest.
This is where maturity needs to kick in on all sides of the equation.
Athletes everywhere have a very short term view of things. They rarely take a "how does this affect my entire career?" approach. And when they do, like Jeremy Lin when he stayed on the sidelines during a playoff game while publicly declaring he was "85 percent," they catch a bit of hell.
For Oklahoma City's young guns, there is a bigger goal than a "whip it out and see who's got the bigger minutes" competition. There is a matter of being healthy enough in June to make that leap from NBA Finals participant to NBA Champion. And while Durant, Westbrook, and most of that roster is young and strong, the punishment of a full NBA schedule following international competition which FOLLOWED a uniquely compressed season is a lot to bear for any joints. Whether they want to believe it or not, the damage of the day-to-day grind is being done. Their bodies need time to recover, even at their young age.
For Brooks, the maturity as a head coach will come when he takes a strong stand with his young thoroughbreds and sits them from time to time, even when they are begging for playing time. And it seems like that is the plan.
“You always want to give guys a fair chance to not only make the team but also earn the minutes,” Brooks said. “So I can see them sitting out a game.”
Brooks can learn from one of Oklahoma City's rivals, the San Antonio Spurs, who are the poster team for sacrificing regular season minutes for postseason success. And while the Spurs have faltered in recent postseasons, fatigue has not been the reason for any of it. And it is that kid-glove approach with his team that has allowed Gregg Popovich to extend the careers of key guys like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
And I can see fans starting to cringe, which brings us to the ethical debate about this. Fans pay full price for every ticket. They pay full price for every hot dog, beer, and pretzel. It does not matter if it is a December game against the Lakers, or March game against the Bobcats. So why should fans be robbed of a full-speed, full-strength Thunder team?
It is a valid point, if you look at it under a microscope. However, what is more important to fans? Getting a full dose of alley oops and Durant dagger jumpers for the one game you attend in March, or celebrating a championship with your neighbors in June?
I am not saying you cannot always have both. But sometimes you have to choose, even with the Thunder. They are not the Spurs, Lakers, or Celtics in terms of dependence on older guys, but they still have stars that need protecting. Brooks seems to have a good plan in place. The question is, will his stars follow it without issue, and if they do not, will Brooks stick to his plan?