Are we looking at the end of the Westbrook/Durant era in Oklahoma City? The new head coach will give us a view into that equation (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Oklahoma City Thunder have grown a lot over the last seven years. From a team that seven years ago was struggling to make the playoffs to a team that has made the conference Finals a couple times and made the NBA Finals once, the expectations have rose with each passing year. Scott Brooks has been at the helm for all seven of those years and has seen this team grow and mature. But over the years and with the expectations rising, there has been some disappointment. The expectation heading into this season was the Thunder would get a favorable seed and make a run deep into the playoffs. But it wasn’t the Spurs, Clippers and Golden State Warriors that posed the biggest roadblock. Injuries to Durant and Westbrook derailed their run. Their dynamic duo missing games caused the rhythm of the team to be off the entire year. And even though Westbrook had a ton of heroic games, they were not enough to take this team to the playoffs. After the regular season ended, the Thunder decided they wanted to reevaluate the coaching of Brooks over the years. And as a result, the Thunder relieved Brooks of his coaching duties. The firing of Brooks came as a surprise to some, but others looked at is as long overdue. From the questioning of his play-calling (or lack thereof at times) to the curiosity of his rotations, many felt that he was not the guy to get the Thunder where they wanted to go. And finally, the Thunder agreed to that thought by letting him go. The good thing about Brooks is he is not a terrible coach and will get another opportunity. The bad thing for him is that he will more than likely not have the same talents as Durant and Westbrook where he may be headed.
Now that the shock has worm off from Brook’s firing, the Thunder have to move on. Even though it may have been a move that many did not like, it was one that management had to make. He had taken him as far as he could and there was no more he could do for that team. Essentially they were not going to win a title with him at the helm. So the question now is who replaces him? At this point, there have been two names that have been mentioned regularly since news broke that Brooks would be fired. One name is a shocker for some and the other is one that some could have pinpointed. Current University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan has been mentioned as a potential candidate to replace him. The mention of his name has completely shocked people, but he has went this route before in his career. He actually got the job with the Orlando Magic in 2007 only to have a change of heart and go back to Florida. So this foray into the NBA is nothing new for Donovan at all, but it is surprising nonetheless to hear he is interested again. The other name that has been mentioned is University of Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie. And although he recently said that he was not interested in the position, we all know that many a coach has said that before and still bolted for a new position. The name of Donovan is perplexing to understand. It’s fine that he wants to take a chance and go to the professional ranks, but is he really the guy that can make things happen there? One thing that college coaches struggle with when they go to the professional ranks to coach is control. In college, more coaches have control over any and all things and their players. And as a result, they are the ultimate control freaks in regards to what happens with their team at what times. In the NBA, that is one hard thing to do because players are grown men and not growing young men and the team has more control over things than the coach could ever imagine happen. Donovan may be up for a challenge, but the challenge of coaching Durant, Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder is one that he should pass on. It essentially would be something that may go over his head. So, along with Ollie, there is another candidate that has not been mentioned at all and should be mentioned right now. His name: Mark Jackson.
Mark Jackson was handed the keys to the Warriors when they were a bad organization back in 2011. The Warriors were a laughing stock at that time and no one really thought they would ever be back. But Jackson took that team and made them better each and every year he was there. The team was never known to be a defensive one and he actually got them to dig in at that end of the court. It was incredible watching their rise with the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, making big shots while the team enjoyed their resurgence. But unfortunately, the resurgence under Jackson ended when Jackson and management could not get along anymore and he was fired to make way for Steve Kerr to be the next coach. Kerr may be very successful and has led the Warriors to new heights, but the foundation of that team was set by Jackson and he is to thank the most for them being relevant once again. Jackson is the type of coach that would command respect from Westbrook and Durant if he were to come there. The best thing for him in this situation is he has a team that is defensively sound already. The presence of big men Stephen Adams and shot-blocking extraordinaire Serge Ibaka would make things easy for Jackson to transition into coaching them. But where Jackson could make his biggest impact could be in being a leader for this team. In Brooks, many questioned whether he could make it happen when the chips were really on the table. He made it happen a few times for that team, but with the talent that they had, he fell short a lot of times as well. With Jackson, the Thunder would have a better leader of men on their sideline getting them going. The Thunder need a coach that can push them to be better than what they currently are because that will not be good enough in the West. Jackson is the perfect fit to be that guy because he is a motivator at his best. But along with the good things that Jackson could do, there is one thing that could bother some Thunder fans in regards to Jackson. There was often some criticism of Jackson in regards to how his teams did in crunch time execution. To be honest, Jackson may not be any better than Brooks in that area and that is something that motivational speeches cannot cure. If he is to take over the Thunder, he will have to improve that part of his coaching moving forward. If he does not, then there is the possibility that he could help usher in a new era in Oklahoma City that does not have Durant in a Thunder uniform. And that is something that Oklahoma City and its fans fear happening. Jackson is a good choice and the best thing that he has going for him over Ollie is he has previous head coaching experience at the NBA level.
Jackson may have the experience in the NBA being a head coach, but Ollie has something that Jackson does not have: a past relationship with Westbrook and Durant. For those that are not familiar, Kevin Ollie was a journeyman backup point guard during his entire career in the NBA. He played for at least a dozen NBA teams over his career and is well-respected at the professional level. But there is one stop that he made a big impact on and could make an impact again as a coach. Ollie was in Oklahoma City as a backup point guard for the 2009-2010 season. He may not have played a lot on that team, but his impact was immeasurable on one of the Thunder’s key players, Kevin Durant. The elder of the Thunder stars, Durant was asked by Grantland about Ollie at one point in the past in regards to his impact on him and this is what he had to say: “I think he changed the whole culture here in Oklahoma City. Just the mindset, professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that and we all wanted to be like that.” This past comments about Ollie show that he earned the respect of the guys that he played with and that they hold him in high regard. These statements suggest that they would fall in line if he were named the coach of that team. Add to it that he knows the NBA game because he played it so long and you could be looking at a guy that could slide in seamlessly as the head coach there. But along with that, there is the matter of him saying that he is only interested in the University of Connecticut at this time. Honestly, it was believed that he would say that and many coaches have said what he said before. But even with that statement, it is not guaranteed that he will stay. At this point in his coaching career, it is not if he leaves UConn, but when he leaves UConn. The clock is ticking on him and he would be naïve to say that he would stay there and turn down the chance to go back to a place where he fought so hard to be successful.
Donovan and Ollie may be the main names featured in this one, but Jackson is also a name that needs to be mentioned more for this job. All three may love to coach the Thunder, but there is only two names that make sense: Ollie and Jackson. Donovan may want a challenge, but can he really be the one to take them to a new level of success after Scott Brooks? The feeling is that he would be in over his head coaching two NBA superstars and trying to exceed the expectations that Brooks had. Jackson and Ollie, on the other hand, would fit well with the team and could help them take it to the next level potentially. But all in all, the team has to think long and hard about who the next head coach is because that decision could change the team for the better or for the worse. Durant and Westbrook are the key pieces as to this working and they have to be on the same page with the hire as well. If they are not, the Thunder risk one or both leaving the team when their contracts are up. And that would be a situation that they would love to avoid if possible. It should be interesting to see how this all plays out. But needless to say, this decision on a new head coach is a big one for Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder management.