If you had doubts about the 2016-17 Wizards once they flumped out to a 2-8 start back in November, you weren't the only one. Head coach Scott Brooks will even admit, that as confident as he and his team remained during that early season tumble, it wasn't easy.
"The thing that I look back at, is that the start was tough. Let's face it," he said. "We were 2-8 and I didn't really know what I was getting into."
What happened after those 10 games might be Brooks' greatest achievement in his first year in charge of the Wizards. Washington went 14-8 to get back to .500 and then never really looked back. From January 6 until the All-Star break, the Wizards won 18 of 21 games and firmly established themselves as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Brooks recalls those trying times with an appreciation for how his team responded. John Wall was coming off two knee surgeries and limited by a minutes restriction. The Wizards had turned over most of their 15-man roster. And Brooks was installing a new system with the help of a new coaching and training staff.
Yet, they ultimately righted the ship and put in the best season for the Wizards/Bullets franchise since 1978-79.
"The thing that I really appreciated is that our guys really stuck together, kept believing in one another and kept believing in our system and wanted to keep working for each other," Brooks said. "And our fans stayed with us. That's not always easy to do, either."
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A lot can be leanred through difficult times and Wizards players didn't need long to find out what Brooks was about. Through that dreadful start, he remained steady and never panicked. That resolve did not go unnoticed.
"Just to never quit. Even when we were going through tough times, all of us - the coaching staff, video staff and players - we all came together," Wall said. "We all came in and kept working. Never point the finger at anybody. He always gave us courage and told us that we can compete through anything, through adversity.
The adversity didn't end once they recovered from the 2-8 start. There were other times where Brooks had to bring out what Bradley Beal once described as his "dark side." Often, it would come out at halftime and almost always because of his team's defensive effort.
Brooks is gracious and affable to the media and fans, and is easily to get along with for players as well. But he can set players straight when he needs to with intensity and a fire to win.
"He made us a better defensive team when we showed it and when we didn't, he let us know," Wall said.
The best coaches can find a balance between those sides, to have players generally like them but also dread making them angry. Beal summed up Brooks' approach well.
"I think as a team we respect him," Beal explained. "On the outside of coaching, he's a really down-to-earth guy. He has a relationship with everyone on the team. I think everybody loves that. He holds everybody accountable. Me, I loved him. He granted everybody confidence and freedom on both ends of the floor, especially offense. At the same time, he knows when to have fun and when to be serious... I think we did a good job responding to him whenever he got on us about things."
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Brooks, 51, signed a five-year contract worth $35 million to coach the Wizards last April. He replaced Randy Wittman, a coach who had led the Wizards twice to the second round of the playoffs, but missed the postseason entirely in his last year before getting fired. Brooks got the Wizards back to the second round, and by losing in Game 7, took them one game further than they had been in decades.
Over and over during his first season, Brooks was effusive in praising his players and the bright future ahead of them. He loves the opportunity to coach young and improving players like Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and others.
He says working with the players is part of what he missed most in his one year off after the Oklahoma City Thunder fired him following the 2014-15 season.
"I love this game. I missed everything. When you sit out, you enjoy having time spent with your family and you get to do things that you don't normally get to do during an NBA season. I appreciated that year off and I appreciate being with them, but I missed the competition. I missed being around the players. The players, when you have a good group of guys, you love to come to work. You come to work excited and you have enthusiasm for the day. That's one thing that I missed. When you're not on the bus going to a game, that's not a good feeling. It's great when you have a group of guys that are committed to winning every game. That's fun and something that I don't want to be without," he said.
Brooks is back where he belongs coaching an NBA team. And through one year, so far so good.
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