By Marc Stein
You hear so much about the futures of James Harden and Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City and the difficulties looming for the small-market Thunder to be able to afford keeping those two in the same core headlined by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Frequently forgotten, amid all the fretting, is the fact that the Thunder have to sort out their coaching situation before they even get to Harden or Ibaka or filling some of the other holes on the roster.
Scotty Brooks' contract as OKC coach ends when June ends. The widespread assumption persists that Brooks and the Thunder will hammer out a new deal now that they no longer have a deep playoff run to manage, but sources close to the process continue to caution that A) extension talks have been slow-moving for weeks now and B) concern is rising within the organization that the sides are not nearly as destined to reach an agreement as everyone else around the league presumes.
Sources told ESPN.com this week that the Thunder have offered Brooks an annual salary "north of $4 million." But those same sources maintain that the length of the deal is the primary holdup. Brooks is said to be seeking a guaranteed four-year deal; sources say OKC prefers a two- or three-year deal.
The strong belief in coaching circles nonetheless remains that Brooks and the Thunder will eventually find a middle ground. It's difficult for anyone on the outside to envision otherwise given how quickly they've moved into the NBA's elite under the 47-year-old and the strong bond Brooks -- for all the Erik Spoelstra-esque skepticism he hears as a young coach in charge of a legit title contender -- has forged with the key figures in the locker room.
Durant, for example, said earlier this month that he loves Brooks "like family." And while Kendrick Perkins caught a lot of flak for what sounded like a very public second-guessing of Brooks' lineups after Game 4, be advised that it was Perkins who spent much of one media session early in the Finals explaining in great detail how he'd "run through a wall" for Brooks and how the young Thunder and their young coach were "growing together."
The reality is that Brooks and his bosses, after months of talks, don't have a deal ... and time is running out. And sources say that the Thunder, just to be safe, have started brainstorming in-house about whom they plan to pursue should negotiations with Brooks collapse. Two names, according to sources, that have come up in those discussions: ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy and, yes, 11-ringed coaching free agent Phil Jackson.
You'd still be wise to expect an extension for Brooks in the near future.
It just makes too much sense after the Thunder mowed through the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs to get to the Finals, as well as knowing how much Thunder architect Sam Presti cares not only about continuity but also Brooks' understated manner.
Talk of a big-name replacement -- much like the recent whispers that Brooks himself might be moved to chase either the Orlando or Portland job if his talks with the Thunder continue to stall -- could just be the sort of talk designed to impact negotiations
That said ...
It wasn't that long ago that OKC opened the Finals as the favorite to win Title No. 1 in the Durant-Westbrook Era and make Brooks' talks an undeniable formality. As we learned throughout the 2012 playoffs, especially in the later stages, things change fast in this league.