Former Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld knew who he wanted to hire after dismissing Randy Wittman, so he didn’t even bother formally interviewing other available coaches.
Scott Brooks was the only candidate on Grunfeld’s list.
It’s been three years since Brooks inked a five-year, $35 million contract with the Wizards, becoming one of the highest paid head coaches in the NBA.
At the time, the Wizards thought Brooks could be the coach that moves the needle — the final piece that would take the core of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter to the Eastern Conference Finals, and possibly beyond.
Three years later, the Wizards’ success practically mirrors the success the team had under Wittman.
The Wizards have yet to win 50 games and haven’t sniffed the Eastern Conference Finals since the 70s. That didn’t change under Brooks — and the core that he was once excited to lead is no more, as Porter was traded to Chicago and Wall suffered multiple career-altering injuries, leaving his future with the team up in the air.
Besides the red-white-blue uniforms, the team coming into next season will look much different than the team Brooks expected to coach. The veterans are gone and the winning expectations are non-existent.
And the man that hired him — Grunfeld — is gone, too.
The Wizards have reshaped their front office structure, equipping the newly-formed Monumental Basketball with forward-thinking minds — voices that are fresh to the sport, and others who have been dissecting the game through a numbers point of view for years.
It remains to be seen how these significant front office changes will affect Brooks, who had considerable influence in the team’s roster decision-making.
Usually when a front office overhaul takes place, the coach is the first to go. Ownership generally allows the front office to hire its own coach — it’s a sort of packaged deal. The idea that “coaches are hired to be fired” exists because general managers usually don’t have a lifetime to build a winner.
In that respect, Brooks is in a unique situation.
Although Grunfeld — the person who decided Brooks was the man for the job — was fired, his second in command, Tommy Sheppard, remains in charge, atop the hierarchy of what Ted Leonsis has, again, dubbed “Monumental Basketball.”
As of this off-season, Sheppard has showed an unwavering commitment to Brooks as the team’s head coach. There’s been no evidence to show that Sheppard is preparing to outright fire Brooks just because he’s now the general manager.
But there have been some interesting hires that could make Brooks look less desirable, contract and money owed aside.
Washington hired Mike Longabardi — a former top assistant to the championship-winning Cleveland Cavaliers — to sit next to Brooks. Longabardi is known for his defensive schemes, having been a defensive coordinator under Doc Rivers with the Boston Celtics, who also won a championship with him on the bench.
The Wizards also hired analytics guru Dean Oliver and former Capital City Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian as Brooks’ newest assistants.
The revamped coaching staff continues to signal a change in Washington’s way of thinking. It stresses defense, analytics and youth — a push towards the future and away from the archaic, old-school approach the Wizards employed for almost two decades under Grunfeld.
The hires of Christian and Oliver, in particular, acknowledge that player development will take a long time, and the fresh roster is indicative of Brooks’ failure to grow a team that was considered among the most intriguing young teams in the league.
Now, Brooks will be evaluated differently than he expected coming to Washington. The wins and losses won’t matter as much — despite the years-worth of sample size showing that Brooks was incapable of taking the team to “the next level.”
Brooks will be tasked of developing a group of inexperienced players — the likes of Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., and Thomas Bryant — and his fate with the team could be determined based on their individual success more than the game results.
Once thought of as a player development coach, Brooks has a roster where much of it will be needed — and although he was hired for somewhat different reasons, he will now have to prove that he can, indeed, further the games of the aforementioned players, or else the critics that point to the talent Brooks once coached — the Kevin Durants, James Hardens and Russell Westbrooks of the world — might be proven right.
For Brooks — and 90 percent of the team’s roster — it’s going to be a “show me what you got” season. The team’s identity — the notion of a hard-working, energetic, youthful club — starts with Brooks. And if he can’t instill that immediately come October, Washington could look to its new hires and find that a fresh voice on the head coaching chair is also needed.