OKLAHOMA CITY — With time marching on from the monumental Russell Westbrook trade, you would think Thunder news would be scarce this late in July.
Well friend, that’s where you’re wrong.
Yesterday we all awoke to news of new threads that your Thunder heroes — or what’s left of them — will be donning this season. A few hours later we all had to remind ourselves that it’s not that Dave Bliss.
Rather than saturate your media streams with multiple articles on every subject that can be milked from the vast wastes of late-July NBA news, here are multiple thoughts on the Thunder.
Reading Into the Assistant Coaching Hires
Oklahoma City announced the hiring of five new assistants yesterday. That’s quite a trove of assistants for one big addition to the coaching staff.
What could these hires mean?
Before you go full conspiracy-mode, please take some time to remember how many times you called for the jobs of Mark Bryant or Maurice Cheeks in the past five years. Assistant coaches rarely make the cut for topics on sports radio airwaves. The Thunder don’t even let us talk to them.
But the hiring of these new assistants does beg some questions. Especially with Billy Donovan going into the final year of his deal.
The Thunder essentially hired from within. Former Blue coach Mark Daigneault has been on the Thunder’s staff before in an interim role during 2016. Dave Bliss recently coached the Thunder’s Summer League team in Las Vegas and has also had stints as a development coach with OKC. David Akinyooye and Mike Wilks also have a history with the franchise in different capacities. Brian Keefe is now reuniting with OKC after a six year parting of ways.
With the organization going in a different direction than the one previously thought during June, it makes sense the Thunder sought after younger coaches with a history of development. OKC is going to have to rely on young players and current children-future young adults as they draft them.
But were these hires a product of Donovan and the front office’s wishes? Were the hires primarily that of Sam Presti — and if so, what does that mean for Donovan’s future? The thought of Donovan receiving a similar fate to that of P.J. Carlesimo has been tossed around by the fan base.
Billy Donovan — Player Development?
That brings me specifically to where Donovan fits in the new Thunder reality. Donovan has not been shy about playing young players. Whether his hand has been forced by player movement or injuries, Donovan has played Hamidou Diallo, Deonte Burton, Terrance Ferguson and Domantas Sabonis significant time over his years as a head coach.
The problem has been that Donovan has been reluctant to stay with these young players throughout an entire year. Rookies of all levels hit a wall at some point. When this has happened, Donovan has relied on veteran players who have been just as underwhelming when looking at the results.
OKC doesn’t have Russell Westbrook and Paul George anymore. There is less reason to go all-in for the present. Perhaps that is the reason that Donovan had such a short leash with young players in the past.
But if that is just a trait of his coaching, you can easily assume there may be some tension between coach and front office if Darius Bazley or Diallo are not playing significant minutes over veteran players who don’t fit the franchise’s timeline.
If Donovan is Let Go During the Year, Then Who?
This is tricky territory. We are guessing on top of another guess (Donovan being fired).
It should go without saying that Presti and the Thunder think the world of Donovan as a coach and as a player developer. There have been a multitude of reasons outside of Donovan’s control that have led to poor results.
Of course, he does hold some responsibility as well.
Perhaps Donovan makes sense coaching young players in theory and not practice. If that’s the case, Presti could pull the trigger earlier than expected.
If that happens, there are a few coaches on staff that make sense in the post-Donovan era in the short term at least.
Maurice Cheeks has had head coaching experience with Portland, Philadelphia and Detroit. If OKC simply needed a stop gap at the head coaching spot for one season, Cheeks could slide in. There is also the factor of the organization doing Cheeks a solid due to his reputation devolving into that of the “Westbrook Whisperer” over the years.
If OKC wanted to continue hiring from within, value player development and continue the franchise’s company line, Daigneault makes sense. The former Blue coach had great success in the G-League compiling a 143-107 record and four playoff runs. He will also be very familiar with many of the Thunder’s young players.
The Blue’s style of play has mirrored what Presti and Donovan have been preaching for years — ball movement, multiple versatile players on the floor at once, etc. — while the Thunder have been the Westbrook show for the last three years. Of course, it is one thing to coach young, impressionable players looking to make an NBA roster and coaching superstars.
Call me crazy, but the subtle change by putting “Thunder” on the blue jerseys makes a ton of difference. It took me a game or two during Summer League to get used to the switch but it really pops in a good way.
When the NBA switched over to Nike as the primary sponsor in the 2017-18 season, the Thunder were no longer required to wear their white jerseys at home. That season, OKC chose to wear their blue jerseys that said “Oklahoma City” during most of their nationally televised games. That was a decision by the front office to help Oklahoma City be front and center.
I interpreted this subtle change as a wish to return to the tradition of basketball teams wearing white at home while continuing that thought of having “Oklahoma City” on the jerseys. But we all know the reason is money.
The Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial jerseys are cool. The meaning and symbolism is very unique and personal.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12, in addition to weekly guest spots on “The Franchise Drive” on Tuesdays and “The Franchise Morning Show” on Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports