WASHINGTON (AP) — New Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks was surprised it took so long to get the question. Almost 15 minutes into his introductory news conference he was asked, "Let's get this out of the way: Are you going to bring Kevin Durant here?"
Brooks was prepared. His preexisting relationship with Durant during their time with the Oklahoma City Thunder generated plenty of questions about the Washington-area native returning home as a free agent, but Brooks didn't take the bait.
"I'm excited about the team, guys," Brooks said with a smile. "We have a great group of guys. I understand the question. But I'm excited about the group of guys we have here. When this season ended, when I was looking around, I knew that this is the place I wanted to be."
Brooks and the Wizards can't make any promises about landing Durant, who will be one of the highest-profile free agents this offseason. But with oodles of salary-cap space and three-time All-Star John Wall already in place as enticing selling points, adding Brooks and his reputation as a popular coach doesn't hurt.
Owner Ted Leonsis said Brooks is "a players' coach in the new NBA." His hiring is another step in the Wizards' process.
"We've been planning over a five-year arc on building around young players and then having cap space so that we could add to the team," Leonsis said. "But they're free agents, and I underline free. Players can play wherever they want. They've earned that right. It's up to us, especially in ownership, to create an environment, to create a destination to have a situation where players want to come and play."
Brooks is a significant piece of the plan. He took the Thunder to the Finals in 2012 and put up a .620 winning percentage over seven seasons with Oklahoma City.
General manager Ernie Grunfeld singled out Brooks' ability to develop young players when explaining why the 50-year-old was Washington's top candidate. Beyond Wall and 22-year-old backcourt mate Bradley Beal, the Wizards have 20-year Kelly Oubre Jr. and 22-year-old Otto Porter they hope to develop.
But after missing the playoffs in the final season under Randy Wittman, the Wizards also need Brooks to win; Leonsis pegged making it back to the postseason as a necessary step in 2016-17. With or without Durant, getting there requires a mix of on- and off-court adjustments.
On the court, the Wizards want to be better defensively, and Brooks has already set his sights on getting their defensive shooting percentage "down to a respectable number" from .462 last season.
"I believe in two-way basketball teams," Brooks said. "It's going to take time and commitment. Scoring's fun, but it's hard to win night in and night out on a consistent level against competitive teams if you're just thinking about playing one end of the floor."
Off the court, it's up to Brooks to keep the Wizards together and on the same page. He isn't worried about the spats players had with each other or with Wittman late in the season. Brooks is focused on getting to know the players.
"When you have a competitive group, every day is not going to be pie in the sky," Brooks said. "You're going to have some heated discussions from me, from each other, but there has to be a level of respect and you can't cross that line and players will understand that because that's important."
It's especially important with Wall, the face of the franchise. Brooks was a point guard during his 10-year NBA career and expects to have a "connection" with Wall, who he believes can get better.
"He has another level — maybe two or three more levels," Brooks said. "We won't agree on everything, but John and the rest of the guys will understand one thing: that we will find the best way to move forward on all situations."