In 2011, the Butler Bulldogs defeated Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators to reach the Final Four.
That evening in New Orleans, the winning coach said that Donovan outcoached him. Brad Stevens enjoyed a victory celebration with his Butler players, but he said that he didn’t get the better of Donovan in that day’s coaching clash.
A few years later, when the Boston Celtics wanted to build from scratch, they called not Donovan, but Stevens, to be their man. A young coach with glowing credentials, Stevens was a leader who could grow in accordance with a team over time. He had a few years in which to learn on the job while the Celtics slowly and steadily retooled their roster. Stevens was able to settle into his position while general manager Danny Ainge refrained from making foolish short-term acquisitions at the expense of his long-term plan. Stevens truly was the right hire for the Celtics once they determined that they wanted to blow up their aging core and start over.
The Oklahoma Thunder, entering this 2015-2016 NBA season, were definitely not the Boston Celtics Brad Stevens inherited. Situated at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Thunder inhabited (and still do) a win-now mode, intent on maximizing the talents of two of the 10 best players in the world, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. One gifted college coach – Stevens – was the right fit for a rebuilding effort in Boston. Was the man who outcoached Stevens five years ago in New Orleans a good choice for Oklahoma City?
It’s hard to think so in the present moment, after the Thunder’s agonizing loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.
That surrender of a 22-point third-quarter lead is hard to accept for many reasons, the chief one being that the event does not exist in isolation. The foremost source of OKC’s discomfort at the moment is that stomach-punch setbacks are emerging left and right.
Indiana, Cleveland, the Warriors, New Orleans, the Clippers – Oklahoma City is losing games in all sorts of ways, which is bad enough in its own right. Yet, what cuts more deeply than anything else is that the issue Donovan was brought in to solve – OKC’s often balky endgame offense – is a tire fire. Rather than putting the fire out, Donovan is adding to the flames.
Mind you, Donovan might get this thing fixed in a second season. After his maiden voyage on an NBA bench, Billy D might be able to make all the necessary course corrections the job requires. Oklahoma City could iron out its problems and be on its way. No one will be in a position to complain in 2017 if 2016 becomes a helpful learning experience.
There’s only one problem with all of that: What if that second season doesn’t become the corrective journey the Thunder hope it will be?
This was always the issue with the Thunder’s replacement for Scott Brooks, regardless of the man Sam Presti ultimately chose: The new coach in Oklahoma City needed to be ready to win right away. The organization could not – and cannot – afford to take a few years to see if its current coach is right. The Thunder have to pounce on this window with such luminous talents in their stable. This mindset is exactly what led to the proper and logical firing of Brooks, a decent coach and yet a man who had his chances with prime NBA thoroughbreds. It was time to hand the baton to someone else, but that someone needed to be able to win from day one.
It seems reasonably uncontroversial to say that among all possible replacements for Brooks, Donovan was not the best choice if “day-one readiness” was the foremost point of need for OKC.
What’s being emphasized here is not necessarily that Donovan was a bad choice. College coaches can work out, as Stevens is showing in Boston. Yet, Stevens was hired with the explicit awareness that he’d have time to grow on – and into – his job. The same did not – and does not – exist for Donovan with the Thunder.
Tom Thibodeau was available if the Thunder wanted him. Mike D’Antoni was also available. Coaches accustomed to the rhythms and workings of the NBA could have been selected to lead K.D. and Russ and Serge Ibaka in the chase for a championship. Donovan might not have been a bad choice, but he certainly wasn’t the best.
The Thunder, safe to say, needed nothing less than the best at this moment in NBA history. They didn’t get it, and they’re now in a very precarious spot.