- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2016

Just more than a week after firing Randy Wittman, the Washington Wizards have a new coach.

Washington agreed in principle to terms with former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks on a five-year, $35 million deal on Thursday, The Washington Times confirmed, making him the team’s fifth coach in the 13 years that Ernie Grunfeld has been general manager of the organization. Yahoo’s “The Vertical” was first to report the hire.

Brooks, 50, will join Washington after a year out of the NBA. He was fired by the Thunder following the 2014-15 season, when it finished 45-37 and out of the playoffs for the first time in his six full seasons as coach of the team. Kevin Durant played only 27 games that season because of numerous injuries.

After Wittman was fired, Grunfeld said there was no timetable to hire a new coach. He also said that prior NBA experience was not necessary, but the process was swift, suggesting Brooks to be the club’s focus since it decided to dismiss Wittman following a 41-41 season. And, Brooks was an assistant coach three different times before being named the coach of the Thunder — first on an interim basis for the 2009 season, then being put in charge without caveats the following offseason.

Brooks developed a reputation as a defense-first coach who could develop young players. Grunfeld said the team’s style of play going forward will be determined by the new coach. Wittman’s shift to a pace-and-space offensive approach last season led to slight increase in scoring last season, but a significant step back in defense and rebounding.

Brooks has a notable relationship with Durant, whom the Wizards have aligned almost every roster move of their last three seasons around. Durant will be a free agent on July 1 and Washington has the cap space to offer him a maximum contract.

It also now has a coach who was an assistant during Durant’s rookie season, then managed Durant for the next six seasons, going to the playoffs with him five times.

When Brooks was fired, Durant wrote a heartfelt message on his Instagram account.

“Today was tough for me. While I support our team’s decision 100 percent and look forward to the upcoming season and the future in OKC, Scotty was my coach and a friend for the past seven seasons. We accomplished a lot together, and those times will never be taken away from us. I grew as both a man and a ball player under his guidance and for that I will forever be grateful. I wish nothing but the best for him and his family who have also been such a big part of this city and organization. I know he will be very successful in wherever his next steps in life are.”

The Wizards hope Durant’s last line is prophetic. Grunfeld called the Wizards “playoff ready” after the season ended, making it clear he expects the next coach to bring them into the postseason during his first chance to do so.

While in Oklahoma City, Brooks ran one of the league’s best teams. In 2013 and 2014, the Thunder moved into the top five in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s ratings. In 2012 and 2013, it was ranked second in offensive efficiency. Even in a season that Durant missed 55 games and Russell Westbrook missed 15, Oklahoma City still won 45 games in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

Brooks‘ critics will look to the postseason. For three seasons, the Thunder moved on a path of clear ascension. Durant was just 21 when Oklahoma City first made the playoffs, losing in the first round. It advanced to the conference finals the following season and a 4-1 loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals was next, but the Thunder did not make it out of the Western Conference in the next three years with Brooks in charge. He was criticized for what was viewed as stagnant late-game offense during the playoffs.

He also handled a strange situation well. The Thunder relocated to Oklahoma City when he was still an assistant. After the team fired P.J. Carlesimo, it elevated Brooks to interim coach. Durant was in his second season. Westbrook was still harnessing his fury into more production. Serge Ibaka was a player few had heard of. Brooks was able to shepherd that trio forward into one of the best teams in the league, surviving the departure of James Harden along the way.

Brooks‘ coaching start was a humble one, much like the beginning of his professional playing career. After playing in the fledgling ABA and WBA, Brooks spent a decade in the NBA as a point guard. Grunfeld signed, then traded Brooks, when he was in charge of the New York Knicks. Brooks began coaching in the ABA with Los Angeles Stars before moving to the Southern California Surf, immediately after his playing career ended. He was an assistant for the Denver Nuggets from 2003 through 2006 and the Sacramento Kings in 2006-07 before joining the Thunder.

In Washington, he’ll oversee a roster constructed around point guard John Wall, restricted free agent shooting guard Bradley Beal and, if everything turns out to be ribbons and rainbows, Durant.

As it stands before free agency, Brooks has an apparent starting five on the roster, a second-year player and nothing else, though the Wizards have an expansive amount of salary cap space to fill out their roster. They’ll need it. Beal wants a maximum contract. Once he is signed, Washington will have just six players under contract for next season, leaving nine open spots.

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