Thunder Basketball

Potential candidates for next Thunder coach

Potential candidates for next Thunder coach

OKLAHOMA CITY- Next season the Oklahoma City Thunder will debut just their fourth head coach in franchise history.

Tuesday evening Oklahoma City announced they would be “mutually parting ways” with coach of five years Billy Donovan. 

After Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo in 2008, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti will conduct just his second head coaching search in 12 years.

Though there is not a rich history of coaching searches to pick through, conclusions can be drawn from Presti’s first two coaching appointments. Using those qualities, we can attempt to project where Oklahoma City may look for their next coach to lead the franchise. 

The Profile

Both Brooks and Donovan shared one key similarity before getting the head coaching job: neither man had prior experience as a head coach in the NBA.

Brooks had been an assistant in the league for five seasons before being named the interim head coach after the removal of Carlesimo. After the young Thunder responded to his guidance, Presti removed the interim tag and officially handed the team over to Brooks.

Scott Brooks went 338-207 (62.0 percent) in his seven seasons as the head coach of the Thunder.

Donovan was not a NBA lifer when he got the call from Presti. After moving through the college ranks, Donovan had it made as a Florida Gator. Leading the program to a pair of national titles and putting a plethora of players into the NBA, Donovan was finally lured away from Gainesville (assuming we all forget about that business with the Orlando Magic).

Both men were seen as culture fits by Presti. They shared his vision for how to build a team and what it would take for the Thunder to ascend to the top of the NBA. 

Neither Brooks nor Donovan were particularly known for making waves in their career either. The show was never about them, always lurking behind the scenes to make the adjustments they felt Oklahoma City needed to win. 

With one man being promoted from within, and another plucked from the college ranks, it would be a minor upset for the Thunder to appoint a league journeyman as the next head coach. Whether they promote from within, we can expect a culture fit who has the skillset to develop young players and the patience to guide a team through a rebuild.

Win from within

Brian Keefe could be the leading candidate if an “Oklahoma City guy” is the option. 

Keefe returned to serve as an assistant for the franchise after stints on the bench for the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. 

One could see the former Spurs video coordinator tasked with guiding the Thunder through the first stages of their rebuild.

Mark Daigneault could be also promoted from this coaching staff to the head role. Daigneault worked under Donovan at Florida before rising through the ranks coaching with the Oklahoma City Blue. 

His G-League experience is a feather in the cap when looking for a developer of talent, but he may be overlooked due to his single year of experience as an assistant at the NBA level.

Mo Cheeks may also get a look, but it is unclear if Cheeks would want to oversee a rebuild at this stage in his career. Cheeks also has a prior history as a head coach, where he went 305-315 across three stints in Portland, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Raiding the Spurs

Momentum across the league continues to build for San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon. She has served on Gregg Popovich’s staff for six seasons and was placed at the head of the bench in 2018. 

Hammon would come with Popovich’s stamp of approval, an heir to a system known for player development. 

Reportedly the Indiana Pacers have shown interest already this offseason in Hammon to fill their coaching vacancy. 

Just waiting for their shot

Longtime Mike Budenholzer assistant Charles Lee should be taken under consideration. 

Lee has a unique background, playing professionally around the globe before returning stateside as an assistant. 

Though he is just 35, Lee has already spent six seasons under Budenholzer and could be seen as an option to connect with Oklahoma City’s young stars. 

The Thunder wouldn’t have to leave the division to add Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. 

Unseld Jr. has worked as an assistant in the NBA since 2005, and is given a lot of credit for schemes run by the Nuggets, who are still fighting the Los Angeles Clippers for a spot in the Western Conference Finals. 

Outside the box

Juwan Howard recently announced his intentions to stay as the head man for the Michigan Wolverines, but he could be worth a phone call by Presti.

Howard transitioned from NBA player to assistant with Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat, another organization respected for its culture and development. Though it is unlikely he’d leave his alma mater, Howard is seen as a coach who can develop young talent- exactly what the Thunder would be looking for. 

Kenny Atkinson doesn’t fit Presti’s coach profile, but he could be a great option for Oklahoma City. 

Installed in Brooklyn to oversee a rebuild with fewer assets than the Thunder’s current project, Atkinson helped turn the Nets into a playoff team. 

Though he’s 118-190 in his four seasons in Brooklyn, his Nets made the playoffs last season and were invited to the Bubble despite the Nets’ decision to fire him. 

The Oklahoma City Thunder are at a crossroads. 

With decisions to be made on Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams, the next couple of seasons will dictate the long term direction of the franchise. Presti has a large complement of options at his disposal, though there is no guarantee his number one option will want to take over a long term rebuild. 

Usually masterful at getting what he wants out of the other executives around the league, Presti will need to work his magic once again in attracting the next coach of the Thunder.


Thunder Basketball

Ryan Chapman covers Oklahoma Athletics and the Oklahoma City Thunder for 107.7 The Franchise since 2019. In December of 2020, Chapman was named the Deputy Editor of Sports Illustrated Sooners, and he also is a contributor for Sports Illustrated Thunder. Chapman has previously worked for OCCC's Student Newspaper, The Pioneer, where Chapman covered the Oklahoma City Energy, the Oklahoma City Dodgers, Oklahoma Athletics and the Oklahoma City Thunder. During his time with The Pioneer, Chapman served as the Sports Editor as well as the Editor-in-Chief.

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