Billy Donovan is out as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, though the split was not acrimonious. Donovan was not fired, but rather, his contract expired and the sides mutually agreed not to pursue an extension. Donovan accepted the Thunder job in 2015 in order to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Both are long gone, and the Thunder appear destined for a rebuild that Donovan is not interested in guiding.
After finishing third in Coach of the Year with a patchwork roster, Donovan would be perfectly justified in preferring the idea of keeping veterans like Chris Paul and making a real go of it in the Western Conference. Sam Presti’s long-term priorities are just as valid. He has a practically never-ending sea of young assets to work with following last offseason’s blockbuster trades, and if managed correctly, they could give him the championship Durant and Westbrook never could. This was a case of a team and a coach wanting different things.
The Thunder now need to find a coach whose interests better align with their own. That likely takes coaches with the leverage to seek out win-now jobs, like Tyronn Lue and Mike D’Antoni, off of the table. Oklahoma City is notoriously secretive. It’s entirely possible that we don’t know who it has considered until it makes a hire. But on paper, the following six candidates make the most sense for what the Thunder are probably looking for.
There might not be a candidate with deeper connections to Presti than Brett Brown. Not only are both Spurs alums, but they both landed in San Antonio after meeting R.C. Buford at a basketball camp. Brown’s first job title in San Antonio was director of player development, working with the very youngsters Presti helped draft as director of player personnel. The two spent six years together with in San Antonio.
Spurs ties run deep. Rob Hennigan, who has worked for both the Thunder and Spurs, hired Spurs assistant Jacque Vaughn as his head coach in 2012. Danny Ferry has hired two head coaches as a top executive, and both of them, Mike Brown and Mike Budenholzer, came from San Antonio. The list extends a good deal further, and Brown and Presti had quite a bit of overlap within that organization.
If Oklahoma City does plan to rebuild, that shouldn’t bother Brown. He’s already endured the most arduous rebuild in NBA history as steward of Sam Hinkie’s Process in Philadelphia. The mere presence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander suggests that this one won’t be nearly as long.
Concerns about Philadelphia’s playing style under Brown are valid. The 76ers didn’t shoot enough 3-pointers. They never ran pick-and-roll. But they also never had 3-point shooters or pick-and-roll-capable players. Brown was blamed for the failures of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and while it’s entirely possible that another coach cracks the Sixers puzzle, it’s just as likely that Brown was hamstrung by a weird and unique roster. His candidacy rests on his ability to convince the Thunder that the front office’s mistakes outweighed his own in Philadelphia. After the past few years, that’s not a particularly hard sell.
There’s a chicken-and-egg debate to be had with Oklahoma City’s playing style during the Donovan and Scott Brooks eras. Do the Thunder largely avoid 3-point shots because they have bad shooters? Or does Presti intentionally underinvest in shooting because he doesn’t want the Thunder to be a high-volume 3-point-shooting team?
If it’s the former, McMillan might not be the right candidate here. If the Thunder want to shoot 3s under their next coach, hiring the coach of the team that just took the fewest in the league doesn’t make much sense. But if Presti intentionally emphasizes defense and athleticism and plans to continue doing so? Then McMillan makes plenty of sense. His defense has finished sixth and third in the past two seasons, respectively, and that has come with perhaps his best defender, Victor Oladipo, largely absent due to injury. Players like T.J. Warren and Bojan Bogdanovic arrived in Indiana as turnstiles and eventually grew into decent defenders.
No coach holds his players to a higher defensive standard than McMillan. Pacerswho couldn’t defend didn’t play. Oklahoma City’s philosophy has been similar under Donovan. If this split was as amicable as reports suggest, the Thunder may not want to rock the boat. McMillan fits in that sense. He may drag the Thunder offense even further into the stone age, but the basic structure Donovan built would remain intact, right down to the dependence on late-game mid-range jumpers.
Atkinson is the “embrace change” candidate here. Like Brown, he is no stranger to rebuilds, having undergone a nasty one in Brooklyn only to be fired months before it was set to end in earnest. Where he differs from Donovan, and every other candidate on the board, is his offense. Brooklyn lived at the 3-point line under Atkinson. The Nets were always among the league leaders in passes. Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are the likely reasons why Donovan wasn’t, but it’s worth noting how isolation-heavy the Thunder have been in recent years. They were last in passes per game during the 2018-19 season.
There’s also a bang for your buck element to an Atkinson hire. Once they’ve cashed in their veterans, they’ll have a nearly limitless supply of draft capital. Who better to hand it to than the coach that turned journeyman Spencer Dinwiddie into a near-All-Star? If he could take Brooklyn to the playoffs with table scraps, imagine what he could accomplish with Oklahoma City’s war chest.
But something led to his firing in Brooklyn. It’s never been particularly clear what, though it’s safe to say that had Atkinson earned Kevin Durant’s blessing, he’d likely still be with the Nets. Presti is familiar with Durant’s whims. He’s the one who drafted him. He’ll have a better idea how legitimate any possible concerns Brooklyn’s superstar might have had really are.
Evaluating Cheeks’ brief stops as a head coach wouldn’t exactly be fair. He took over in Portland at the height of the Jail Blazers era and lost his job when his roster fell apart. He took over in Philadelphia only a year before the Allen Iverson trade, and got only 50 games with a Pistons team whose leading scorer was Josh Smith. That he finished nearly .500 across those three stops is an achievement in itself.
But coaches who don’t whiff championship contention across three stops tend not to get a fourth. Cheeks landed in Oklahoma City on Donovan’s staff in 2015 and has been with the Thunder ever seen. He hasn’t seriously contended for a head-coaching job since, but if any team could get to the bottom of his mysterious track record, it would be the Thunder. Their roster outlook is far more promising than those of his previous teams. For all we know, there’s been a coaching star sitting on their bench for five years, overlooked because of bad rosters early in his career.
But, for whatever this is worth, Cheeks’ longevity could work against him in a rebuilding situation. He is the only candidate on this list in his 60s. Gregg Popovich is the only current head coach in his 70s, and retirement rumors have followed him for years. How long does Cheeks plan to stay in the game, and would the Thunder accept a coach who might not want to stick around long enough to see this rebuild through? Only Presti can answer that, and for all we know, Cheeks will still be on an NBA bench a decade from now.
The only two first-timers on this list both, naturally, come from Oklahoma City, and for one shining moment last offseason, it appeared as if Hammon’s status as Popovich’s heir apparent was secure. Fellow Spurs assistants Ime Udoka (we’ll get to him!) and Ettore Messina (but not him) both left in the summer of 2019. With James Borrego in Charlotte and the rest of the Popovich tree entrenched elsewhere, Hammon appeared to have won the keys to his kingdom.
And then Tim Duncan surprisingly took an assistant role, and the succession plan was muddled again. Hammon has drawn rave reviews and has interviewed for multiple head-coaching jobs, but for the time being, Duncan appears to be the favorite for the San Antonio job. He took over after Popovich was ejected from a November game, and when Popovich missed games in March for personal reasons, Duncan was his handpicked replacement. That is not a responsibility given to most first-year assistants, but Duncan is, obviously, no ordinary first-time assistant. For obvious reasons, the franchise would love to see him succeed.
Where does that leave Hammon? That’s not clear. Her head-coaching future seems to be more a matter of “when” than “if,” but the obvious ascension into Popovich’s chair may no longer be available. Did Hammon cost herself clout within the organization? Or did the organization’s lifelong commitment to Duncan get in her way? Are we reading too much into a few relatively minor regular-season decisions? Probably. Hammon coached an Orlando scrimmage, and has thrived as a summer league head coach. Presti’s San Antonio connections will give him a clearer picture of that team’s future, and whether Hammon is the right choice for his own.
Udoka made the right strategic choice in leaving the declining Spurs for the more promising 76ers. Philadelphia’s season may not have gone as planned, but with Brown now out, Udoka has had a year-long head start over the field in convincing management that he is the right man for that job. The other coaches on this list will almost certainly be available to Oklahoma City, but there’s a reasonable chance that Udoka has locked up the 76ers job before he even speaks to the Thunder. Most coaches have to convince the Thunder to consider them. The Thunder might have to convince Udoka to choose them over the 76ers.
That’s a position befitting a coaching candidate of Udoka’s caliber. Like Hammon, his eventual promotion appears to be a certainty. He has a background in player development, is well liked among players and has experience with an extremely diverse group of players. How many coaches can say they’ve worked with both Embiid and Kawhi Leonard?
Udoka faces the uphill climb most assistants do. He is unproven, and his task is convincing Presti to hire him sight unseen. If any team is equipped to do so, it would be the Thunder. Their draft assets and young roster create significant runway. If they miss on this coaching hire, they are still young enough to course-correct a few years down the line. That could create a strong enough appetite for risk to give a first-timer like Udoka the chance he deserves.