Now that the Golden State Warriors have defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third time in a month, it’s time to take a look at where these teams are headed, and how those destinations could be altered by the free agency of one Kevin Durant.
First, that steam engine you just heard blow by is the Warriors, on their way to 73 wins, home-court advantage through the playoffs, a tough 6-or-7 game series win over the San Antonio Spurs, and a sweep in the NBA Finals over Cleveland.
Okay, that was easy. What’s next?
Oklahoma City is a much tougher call. Just 2-6 since the All-Star break, it’s easy to give up on this team, but there’s a factor in its recent struggles that has gone almost completely under-reported.
The Thunder are down two assistant coaches.
Sexy? No, I’ll grant you that, but assistant coaches in the NBA are really important, and that goes double when the head coach is an NBA rookie — not like Steve Kerr last year, when he had played 100 years in the league and worked as a general manager for a while, then broadcast for TNT. Billy Donovan had spent the last 19 years at the University of Florida.
Because his resume lacked the letters “N-B-A,” the Thunder helped him by hiring Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks as assistants. Williams was fired after last season as the coach in New Orleans, and the team has regressed this season, which may or may not be related to his exit. Cheeks played 15 years as a point guard in the league, was a head coach for seven years, and spent three seasons as an assistant in Oklahoma City from 2010 to 2013.
You probably heard that Monty Williams’ wife Ingrid was killed in a “wrong place at the wrong time” car accident a few weeks ago. Williams has not been with the team since, because he and Ingrid were raising five children when their mother suddenly vanished from their lives. Let me just say one thing about that, although I say it with some trepidation because it could be perceived as going out of my lane.
Moms are important. All moms are important. I would argue, however, that when dads spend 8 months of the year being either on the road or at the home arena, the mom role takes on added significance. For these kids’ entire lives, Ingrid Williams was mom AND dad for about three-quarters of the year. I don’t say that to diminish Monty’s role, because everyone says what a great man he is, and we all got a glimpse of that with the eulogy at his wife’s funeral.
However, a big part of parenting is being present, and because of his work responsibilities, Ingrid was the one who was present 100 percent of the time. Now he’s trying to fill that void as best he can, and God help him.
Blowing fourth-quarter leads suddenly doesn’t seem like such a big deal, does it?
Cheeks had hip surgery eight days after the accident that killed Ingrid Williams. Hip surgery, you say? Hmm — can’t you gut it out and put that off until after the season? Well, not when your hip is “collapsed.” That’s the word Donovan used with the media in Oakland this week. Cheeks is expected to be back around the team when it gets back from this road trip, but there’s no way of knowing when he will be able to resume full duties and travel.
With Williams and Cheeks on the bench, the Thunder are 39-14. Without them, they’re 3-6, including a maddening run of blown fourth-quarter leads. How important is it to have veteran assistants when a close game is coming down to the end? Timeouts are only so long — the head coach can’t talk to everyone and tell them everything, even if he saw everything on the court, which he can’t.
The irony is that Kerr, despite being an NBA lifer himself, still surrounded himself with gray-haired assistants last season. He was also very liberal when it came to passing around credit for the ideas and strategies that fueled the Warriors’ 16-game improvement and NBA championship.
So take it easy on the Thunder, people. They’re going through enough pain right now.
To ratchet the stakes up even higher, this is the last year of Kevin Durant’s contract. This is the season Thunder fans hoped would cement his desire to stay with the team — it’s unimaginable for them to lose him. Instead, Durant has to question what the future will look like for this team should he stay. The Warriors and Spurs are separating themselves from the Thunder instead of coming closer.
The Warriors are mentioned prominently in the speculation regarding Durant, which has their own fan base in a frothy mess. Last year, when the idea surfaced that Durant may be ready to leave OKC when his contract was up, Warrior fans were at the front of the line waving their arms and screaming, “Pick us, Pick us!”
Now, after an NBA championship and a ridiculous encore in progress, “Warrior Fan” is not so sure. The Warriors’ secret sauce is chemistry, and the idea of messing with that is very scary, even to add a talent like Durant. Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are mentioned as possible cap-clearing casualties, and Warrior Fan is pretty fond of those guys.
I have a little advice for Warrior Fan. It’s medicine I, as a Warrior fan (small f) myself had to take. After a couple of weeks of allowing myself to be worried about the Durant situation, I suddenly remembered something. Bob Myers, Steve Kerr and that Jerry West guy are pretty damn smart. Everything they’ve done since bringing Kerr aboard has worked out. If they think they need Durant, I’m okay with it.
I’m sure they feel better now, and I hope all the Warrior and Thunder fans who took the time to read this do too.
What truly matters in the big picture, especially for the Thunder: Say a heartfelt prayer for those Williams kids. And their dad.