We have finally come to the end of the previews. Today we have two highly successful regular season coaches. Two coaches panned for their seemingly less than sub-stellar performance in the playoffs. Two coaches that know each other fairly well (as Karl coached Brooks in Denver back in 2003-06). In 1996 George Karl led the Sonics to the best record in the Western Conference. The same was almost done by Scott Brooks with the Thunder in 2012; they were the second seed.
As similar as they are, one of these coaches has, quite frankly, proven himself to be head and shoulders above the other.
Karl was a wide-open offensive coach who preyed on weaker teams with his defense pressures. He turned Gary Payton into the defensive monster that he was and the Sonics thrived off of Payton's brashness and energy out on the court. He was an extension of Karl. Yes, they butted heads often, but it was because both men were extremely competitive and wanted to win more than anything. He even utilized "Big Smooth" Sam Perkins in the "stretch forward" role that decades later would transform the NBA.
Karl thrived in adjusting his schemes to fit the personnel. This '96 team was no different. Uptempo with some freelancing, the Sonics were third in pace that year. He pushed the Sonics to be the second-best offensive team in the league in '96 (8th most efficient) at 104.5 points a game, and the defense was heavenly, rated second in the league, giving up only 96.7 points a game.
Brooks tends to run a similar paced (93.0 to 93.8) offense that is based off transition by forcing turnovers from steals or blocks. The difference between Brooks and Karl on the offensive side is Karl liked a lot of ball movement and penetration to set up shots in his offense. Get the ball in low to Kemp, let him work on the block, kick it back out for a shot or Payton to penetrate for a layup or an open three from Hawkins or Det.
In OKC, Brooks did not have this option. He did not have the post presence Karl did. All outside shots were based upon Russell Westbrook or James Harden driving and kicking to Kevin Durant, or just simply having Durant create his own shot. Brooks was a bit of a novice when it came to play calling and adjustments on the offensive side of the ball.
Under Brooks the Thunder did achieve the third-best offense in the league at 103.1 points a night, second-most efficient in the league. They gave up 96.9 points a night, good for 17th.
This is something that both coaches are extremely guilty of and it is in the same department. I'm not sure if it is from stubbornness or not having the acumen to make the correct adjustments to win.
Sonics vs Thunder
Sonics vs Thunder
Karl's mercurial lineup changes haunt him throughout his coaching career, but it reared itself mightily during that Finals appearance. It may have been his calf injury, but Payton should have guarded Jordan the entire series against the Bulls. Karl didn't make the move until Game Four of the series, a game the Sonics won handily. Karl continued that play for the next two games and they won Game Five before finally bowing out to the greatest team of all time in the sixth game of the Finals.
While his team was well organized in using their length and athleticism on defense, Brooks has also been known to fail to make proper or timely adjustments. Yes, youth had a part in the Thunder's 2012 Finals loss, a good amount of blame falls to the feet of the coach.
Brooks made the mistake of allow the Heat to dictate his adjustments, including some puzzling lineup changes in Game 4, when the Thunder had a 17-point lead. Brooks's faults are only compounded by his lack of offensive aptitude. He's been long criticized for his Westbrook-and-Durant (mainly in that order) one-on-one show.
On their way to the Finals Brooks had a bit of an easier path. He only had to defeat one surefire Hall of Famer in Gregg Popovich, one probable Hall of Famer in Rick Carlisle, one two-time championship-winning coach in Erik Spoelstra, and a coach who destroyed the first few years of LeBron James' prime and the last of Kobe Bryant's in Mike Brown.
Karl, however, had to beat beat three Hall of Famers that season to win a championship. Just to make it to the Finals, the Sonics had to get through Rudy Tomjanovich and two back-to-back defending champion Houston Rockets; Jerry Sloan and the Utah Jazz (who would win the west the following two seasons); then waiting in the Finals was Phil Jackson, the coach who would go on to win more titles than any other coach in history.
Even though Karl and Brooks have their well-versed faults and "unique" strategies, Karl definitely gets the nod here. George Karl was and is a far better offensive coach than Brooks. His Sonics team was varied in it's attack, while the Thunder were about a 2.5-man show (Did you see Harden in those Finals against a similar blitzing defense?).
Though Brooks may have the better defensive team statistically, the Thunder's one-on-one, turnover-heavy show (ranked 30th that season) would have fueled Karl's attacking style defense (ranked 1st in steals that season).
in 1996, Karl swept the two-time defending champs, beat the rival Jazz and took the greatest coach ever, with the greatest player ever leading the greatest team ever with Gary Payton hurt and Nate McMillan barely functioning to six games.
Yes, Brooks did out coach another Hall of Fame-level coach in Gregg Popovich in those 2012 Western Conference Finals, but I don't think there is any chance he could out coach George Karl enough to put the '12 Thunder over the '96 Sonics.