Billy Donovan leaving as head coach of the Thunder signals a significant change coming to Oklahoma City. Donovan was the man plucked from a successful Florida program to coach Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, and he did his job well (the Thunder didn’t win a playoff series after Durant left, but that’s about talent, not coaching). Donovan helped lift this season’s Chris Paul led squad to unexpected heights and earned Coach of the Year votes along the way.
Donovan walking out the door sends a strong signal the Thunder rebuild is about to enter a new phase.
So who takes over to develop young talent around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Who will be the next Oklahoma City coach? Not a lot of names buzzing around the league yet, because of the suddenness of the move, but here are five to watch.
1) Maurice Cheeks
If GM Sam Presti wants to keep the culture that has been built under Donovan in OKC, then choosing his lead assistant is the move. The Hall of Fame player has been Donovan’s right-hand man for five seasons, and before that was a head coach in Portland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. At the very least, expect Cheeks to get an interview and a chance at the big chair.
2) Kenny Atkinson
The biggest name player development coach available, he helped turn Brooklyn from a lost franchise to one that made the playoffs the past two years, building the kind of culture and roster that drew Durant. He helped find and develop players such as Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. With the Thunder moving into a player development phase the next couple of years, Atkinson has to get consideration.
3) Brett Brown
Another proven player development coach now on the market. Brown was the guy Sam Hinkie brought to Philadelphia to be “The Process” coach and he helped develop guys like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid into All-Stars (Brown’s struggles were trying to turn the team into a true contender). Both Presti and Brown come out of the Spurs system, so there should be an alignment of style and concepts.
4) Nate McMillan
The recently released Pacers coach made guys better — Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis — and his teams always played hard, smart, and defended well. He’s a veteran coach who can build a foundation for the Thunder as they bring in new talent and change the roster over.
5) Darvin Ham
The lead assistant under Mike Budenholzer deserves a chance in the big chair somewhere, and Oklahoma City could be a great fit. On this list, Ham represents a lot of top assistants (Adrian Griffin, Ime Udoka, David Vanterpool, Nate Tibbets, Becky Hammon, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg) who deserve consideration and a chance. It would be about fit, but these first-timers also will come cheaper than coaches with experience and options, and for small market OKC that may matter.