Everywhere he turned this week at Pelican Hill Golf Club, Oklahoma City Thunder Coach Scott Brooks couldn't escape the subject that's left every Lakers fan giddy this off-season.
As Brooks played host to his annual tournament benefiting his alma mater, UC Irvine, he was asked again and again what he thought of the purple and gold acquiring Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. It came with the implication those additions would be enough to unseat Brooks' Thunder team. After all, his squad had eliminated the Lakers last season in five games in the Western Conference semifinals, before the Miami Heat beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals.
Brooks didn't go through his litany of responses through the estimated 144 Laker fans he met through 36 holes. But in an hour-long interview with a handful of media members afterwards at a Pelican Hill restaurant, the following answer on whether the Thunder is the team to beat in the Western Conference marked the most pointed in an otherwise diplomatic affair.
"Trying to get some controversy here? We're going to beat the Lakers," Brooks said jokingly. "We're one of the teams, there's no question. But every team has to have good fortune of health. If we have some tough injuries, we're not going to make excuses. But it's hard to win in this league if you're not healthy. Your best players have to stay healthy."
For his part, Brooks expects Thunder center Kendrick Perkins will report to training camp 100% after needing surgery on a groin and left ankle injury. Celtics fans still think his absence from Boston's lineup in most of Game 6 and all of Game 7 in the 2010 NBA Finals was the reason why the Lakers won the championship. The Lakers' frontline in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol conceded Perkins' constant fronting in last season's playoffs routinely hurt the inside presence.
Perkins averages just 5.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, but Brooks sees value in his setting of screens, ruffling interior players and raising the team's toughness.
"He gives us an edge," Brooks said. "He hates his opponent. He's not happy unless he's unhappy. His teammates love him. He's always in a bad mood. I love guys who go out on the court and compete. He's not shaking hands and trying to be buddy buddy. He respects them, but he's going to try to beat them and then move on."
At the London Olympics, Thunder forward Kevin Durant and guard James Harden told reporters, including The Times' Mike Bresnahan, they still considered their team the favorite in the Western Conference. Perkins said the same thing recently to the Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry.
Brooks didn't echo the contention from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban that this year's Lakers may fall flat, just as they did when the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to complement Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. In fact, Brooks continuously praised the purple and gold. He called Nash "one of the all-time great point guards." He touted Howard as "not only one of the best bigs, he's one of the best players in the game." Brooks recalled coaching Bryant in the 2010 NBA All-Star game and marveled at how he played through a broken nose and subsequent concussion. Brooks complimented Mike Brown's defensive schemes.
Still, Brooks said his focus lies elsewhere.
"We never worry about other teams," Brooks said. "We focus on what we do. We still know we have to get better. Our goal, like every other team, is to win an NBA championship. We know it's going to be tough. We know you can't skip steps. Last year we got pretty close. Unfortunately we didn't close the deal and Miami is really good. I thought they deserved it. They outplayed us."
Brooks wouldn't say whether Miami is the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but it's clear he thinks it is. Brooks labeled LeBron James "the best player we'll ever see." He gushed about the Heat adding reserve sharpshooters Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Brooks admitted he has repeatedly watched tapes this off-season of the Thunder's NBA Finals loss to Miami.
But Brooks has plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.
He believes Durant will continue to perfect his game as he remains a prolific scorer, rebounder and defender. Brooks predicted Russell Westbrook will soon find the right balance between shooting and scoring. He expressed optimism the Thunder will re-sign Harden instead of letting him become a restricted free agent next off-season. Brooks, who signed a four-year extension worth about $18 million, praised Oklahoma City for re-signing Serge Ibaka to a four-year, $48-million extension despite looming luxury taxes coming next season. He only expressed uncertainty when talking about who would play behind Perkins, which could include Cole Aldrich, Hasheem Thabeet or Daniel Orton.
"The league will have its work cut out [playing the Lakers], but you have to play the game," Brooks said. "Nobody in this league will give anybody a game. They will have to fight for every game. Hopefully we end up on top. It's not going to be easy."
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