Here we are: The Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was overlooked as simply good in a year that boasted two historically great teams, are one win away from being title favorites. They picked apart the 67-win Spurs in six games, and now hold a 3-1 lead over the 73-win Warriors.
The Thunder have been on the edge of greatness for what feels like an eternity, but for the last ten or so games have finally morphed into an unstoppable juggernaut. They are both ferocious and graceful, combining overwhelming size and athleticism with a level of grace and precision we typically associate with only the Warriors and Spurs. Kevin Durant and Westbrook have never looked better on the floor together. Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters are playing some of the best basketball of their lives, and even Andre Roberson, considered a weak link due to a questionable jump shot, has found a way to be productive in the flow of the Thunder's offense.
All of this naturally leads to the question: Where was this juggernaut team when Scott Brooks was the coach?
First, let's remember that Brooks' Thunder teams were really, really good. His worst full season with the team was the injury-riddled 2014-2015 season, where the Thunder won 45 games. That is more wins than the Wizards have managed in all but one season in my lifetime. Of course, the Thunder have had a lot more talent at their disposal than the Wizards in recent years, but that is just as true for Donovan's Thunder as it was for Brooks' Thunder.
And arguably, Donovan has a better team to coach than Brooks ever did. Yes, Brooks did get to coach the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio. And he took that trio to the conference finals, when they were 22-23 years old. Because we have grown so accustomed to the Thunder being a good team it's easy to forget just how incredible that accomplishment was. In each of the following seasons, the Thunder at least made it to the conference semifinals. In each of those series, they were missing one of their three best players.
Flip it around for a second: If Westbrook or Durant have a playoff-ending injury five minutes into Game 5, and the Warriors rattle off three straight wins, would it be fair to write off Donovan as being obviously no better than Brooks? It would not.
Durant and Westbrook are now 27 years old, and likely at or very near their peaks. Westbrook, in particular, has elevated his game beyond what many thought he was capable of. But he has been on a steady upward trajectory that started before Donovan took over, and there is no reason to think that Westbrook wouldn't have continued his improvement under Brooks. Ibaka is 26. Steven Adams is still just 22, and has improved with each year in the league.
Could Billy Donovan be a better coach than Scott Brooks? Absolutely, he could be. He has done a tremendous job guiding this team to the conference finals (and possibly far beyond that). Some of the adjustments he has made -- such as playing Roberson as more of a power forward on offense, with Ibaka out on the wing -- are the kinds of creative changes people thought Scott Brooks was unwilling to make. And maybe that is true. But was Ibaka ready to handle that role two, three, four years ago? In many ways it is an apples-to-oranges comparison. This version of the Thunder, with healthy, peak-ability stars and content role players, is one that Scott Brooks did not have an opportunity to coach through the playoffs.
It is possible that Donovan's Thunder, having now found their identity, will spend the next few years dominating the league. It is possible that Brooks' Wizards will never come anywhere near that success, and the lack of superstar talent will only amplify his flaws. But right now, we don't know anything more about Brooks than we did before the Western Conference Semifinals. We already know that Brooks has shown the ability to nurture young players, and that he can lead a talented team to consistent success. We know he has a reputation for being uncreative and rigid with his offense and rotations. We know his players like him and will play hard for him. None of that has changed over the past few weeks. The Thunder's playoff ascension may be a referendum on Donovan (one he's doing quite well in) but it is not a referendum on Brooks.