OKC
[Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

Who’s in line to take the reigns in OKC?

The news that the Oklahoma City Thunder and head coach Billy Donovan had mutually parted ways initially came as a surprise. Donovan had just led his team to within a James Harden defensive stop of the second round of the NBA playoffs.

On the surface, that’s not such an achievement. Still, this version of the Thunder was an unfancied group loaded with veteran retreads (admittedly, very talented retreads), youngsters not quite ready to take the spotlight and every draft pick from here to eternity.

After the initial shock of the news had worn off, the first thing I’d noticed was that this decision, unlike practically every other ‘mutual’ uncoupling of team and coach, was, in fact, completely reciprocal. It’s since come to light that the team wanted Donovan to return, but that he’d declined to extend his contract before the recommencement of NBA games at Disney World.

Donovan’s efforts with a patchwork roster earned him third place in this season’s Coach of the Year voting. Donovan has openly proclaimed to love coaching this group, so why leave? Well, the fact is that Donovan won’t be coaching this group next season, even if he were to stay in OKC. General Manager Sam Presti has flagged his intention to rebuild sooner rather than later, supplemented by the treasures secured for the services of Paul George and Russell Westbrook.

Donovan – who left his fiefdom in Gainesville – came to the NBA to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. This season he’s thoroughly enjoyed working with Chris Paul, but it appears he has no interest in taking on a long term rebuild in OKC.

Presti will look to trade Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Steven Adams, while Danilo Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent who would look good with any number of contenders. Will the team, go to the talented Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort? Understandably, Donovan wants no part of that sort of roster.

Given the long term project that is soon to be underway in OKC, who is the right person to replace Donovan? They’ll need someone prepared to work on their timeline, which likely excludes Mike D’Antoni and Ty Lue from consideration. Sam Presti is notoriously secretive, able to keep deals under wraps until they’ve happened. Here are a few candidates that – on paper, at least – make sense for Presti’s latest rebuild.

Kenny Atkinson

The former Brooklyn Nets coach has made his name as a master development coach. Atkinson is the man that took Spencer Dinwiddie from unheralded second-round pick to near All-Star; Joe Harris from the scrap heap to Kyle Korver 2.0; Caris LeVert from raw talent to potential stardom. The Thunder, with their swag full of picks, needs a coach that has shown he can mold a player, and Atkinson fits that bill.

He’s also an exciting coach stylistically. The Thunder have ranked near the bottom of the NBA in passes per game through Donovan’s tenure. Given his Florida teams were so unselfish – Joakim Noah and Al Horford both attribute much of their NBA playmaking abilities to Donovan’s teachings – it’s perhaps fair to attribute that lack of ball movement to his point guards, rather than the coach himself. No matter the root cause, the Thunder haven’t moved the ball and haven’t shot the three-ball with great regularity. Atkinson’s Nets teams are the polar opposite. Presti is a forward-thinking GM, so a modern coach like Atkinson could be very appealing.

However, the specter of Atkinson’s firing in Brooklyn hangs uncomfortably in the air. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to gain the trust of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Given Presti drafted Durant, he’ll know better than most the whims of the superstar forward, so perhaps that doesn’t affect Presti’s thinking.

Nate McMillan

At the other end of the scale is Nate McMillan. For sure, Mr. Sonic can build a reliable team, though his methodology is vastly different from Atkinson’s. McMillan was and remains a defensive coach, as he instills excellent fundamentals and defensive habits into his chargers. McMillan’s Thunder will be a competitive team.

But that might be a problem. McMillan is a floor raiser, not a ceiling raiser. Given Presti is looking to rebuild, he’ll want prime draft picks, and McMillan’s ability to get blood from stone could potentially move the Thunder to the wrong half of the lottery.

There is a logic to hiring McMillan, though. Presti has become known – perhaps mocked – for repeatedly drafting uber-athletic wings that cannot shoot a lick. Those sorts of players lend themselves to the defensive stopper role. A team full of switchable, athletic wings that can not/will not shoot from deep seems a dream scenario for McMillan’s stylings. If Presti wants to turn some of his underperforming previous picks into player, McMillan might be the man.

Becky Hammon

The long time San Antonio Spurs assistant has drawn rave reviews for her work with the Spurs Summer League teams, as well as with the big squad as one of Gregg Popovich’s most trusted lieutenants. With much of the Spurs coaching tree spreading its wings elsewhere in the league, it seemed that Hammon was the heir apparent to Popovich. However, the unexpected arrival of Tim Duncan to the Spurs bench appears to have muddied the waters for Hammon. As such, she may look to move out on her own sooner rather than later.

Hammon’s destiny as the NBA’s first female coach is undoubtedly a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if.’ Hammon has interviewed for head coaching positions and reportedly impressed. Presti is known as a left-field thinker and, given his deep ties in San Antonio, would surely be able to gain in-depth intel on Hammon, should he so desire.

David Fizdale

A few years ago, Fizdale appeared to have the coaching world at his feet. The long time Miami assistant was heavily endorsed by no lesser advocates than Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade. He had his Memphis teams beginning to crawl out of their stone-age offensive sets slowly, and his ways with the media were refreshing.

How quickly things can change.

A falling out with Marc Gasol cost Fizdale the Grizzlies job. He ultimately landed in New York, where coaching careers go to die, finishing 17-65 in his only complete season before becoming the fall guy for an inept front office early in his second year.

As a coach, Fiz is forward-thinking and an excellent communicator known for being able to connect with younger players. For a team with a slew of youngsters set to come through the door over the next few seasons, this could be the perfect setting for Fizdale’s skillset.

Ime Udoka

Alongside Hammon, Udoka is the other potential contender with no NBA head coaching experience. Udoka is one of the slew of Coach Pop assistants to leave the Spurs nest in recent years, joining another former Spurs assistant in Brett Brown (more on him shortly) in Philadelphia. With Brown on the outer, Udoka may – or at least should – be in the running for the Sixers job. That may prove a hurdle for Sam Presti: would you rather coach Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, or Gilgeous-Alexander and precious little else?

Let’s presume that Udoka doesn’t get a look in with the 76ers. He’s a well-credentialed and very highly regarded assistant with a rare background as a player. He’s experienced the G-League, played in Europe, and made a belated run at an NBA career in Portland and San Antonio. There is not a situation that Udoka hasn’t seen in NBA circles, despite his relative inexperience.

The case for Udoka is similar to that of Hammon. Both have strong Spurs ties as players and coaches, so Presti should be able to gain a more in-depth insight into them through his relationship with that franchise. They’re both unproven, of course, but given the expected age profile of the Thunder over the next few years, Presti can afford to swing for the fences on an untried coach, knowing that if they don’t turn out, he can pivot while his roster is still developing.

Brett Brown

Now we’re talking! Brown is another with strong Spurs ties. Brown and Presti worked together closely in San Antonio: Presti as the Director of Player Personnel and Brown as the Director of Player Development. Their shared experience of working with youngsters should give both men an insight into how their working relationship might look in Oklahoma City.

Brown was the man on the sideline through the depths of The Process, so he shouldn’t be scared of a rebuilding situation. He’s seen the fruit that this type of project can bear. Brown is known to be a fantastic locker room leader with the rare ability to reach youngsters.

There are legitimate concerns about Philadelphia’s playing style over the past few seasons: they didn’t shoot enough three’s; they never ran the pick and roll, while repeatedly failed to exploit favorable match-ups. Likely, a large part of Brown’s candidacy for the Thunder role hinges on convincing Presti that he was able to do the best he could with a mismatched and poorly constructed roster. Given the upheaval in the Philly front office through Brown’s tenure, that shouldn’t’ be incredibly difficult to argue. It’s also worth remembering that in the darkest days of The Process, Brown had his teams running and jacking it from deep – it’s only as the team matured that he moved away from that style.

A thought to finish: If Brown is the right person to helm a rebuild in OKC, who would be the right person to replace him in Philadelphia. Given the high expectations around the team, it would need to be a coach with a winning pedigree, able to get the most out of multi-talented big men without a lot of shooting to rely on. A coach that commands respect and is innovative enough to create ‘out of the box’ lineups. Sounds awfully like Billy Donovan.

Coach swap, anyone?

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