Around a hundred people crammed into Friday's press conference inside Chesapeake Energy Arena introducing Billy Donovan as the third head coach of the OKC Thunder.
The soon-to-be 50-year-old came off as advertised: bright, high-energy, low ego. It didn't take long to see that Donovan and Sam Presti see things from a similar perspective.
Attached is a brief one-on-one interview we were granted following the press conference. Looking back on almost eight years and multiple requests, this means that Donovan and former coach Scott Brooks have taken time to talk with us in this manner the exact same number of times.
I was asked on the Blitz to give a grade to the hire. My answer:
I agree with the preemptive move, the need for a new voice and a new message. I give the choice of messenger an A minus. The A+ hires were unrealistic: Coach K; Pop; Carlisle. I love the passion of Billy Donovan. There's not a hirable NBA head or assistant coach I'd prefer. I believe that he gives the franchise a very good chance of winning big over the long haul. But more importantly, I believe his character, sincerity and track record give him a great chance of accomplishing the number one goal: re-signing KD. That alone merits an A minus.
The NY Times is dubious about the hire and the timing. “This time, however, it seems this move came too late in the game. Durant's free agency looms, with both Westbrook and Ibaka set to be free agents in another year's time. So now is the time to hire Donovan, who, while a terrific collegiate coach, is understandably and undoubtedly going to need time to adjust to the NBA game?”
Great question, and I wouldn't have had a problem making a coaching change earlier. After Scott Brooks stubbornly stuck with Perk and thus wiped out any chance to defeat LeBron and the Heat for the championship, and seeing repeated late-game decisions that were clearly not up to the standards of a championship NBA head coach, I was okay with making a change a year or two earlier.
But I credit Sam Presti for stepping up now and making the bold move. And I've got to say that after learning more about Donovan and seeing his poise, message and manner in an extraordinary introductory press conference, the decision by Presti seems less and less bold by the minute. But winning a press conference is one thing. Winning a conference championship is another. And an NBA Championship, still another.
The Times points to the fact that even Brad Stevens made a significant jump from year one to year two in Boston. But I counter that there are at least three reasons Donovan should out-perform what the impressive college product did with the Celtics: KD, Russ and Serge.
And while we're on the subject of Big Blue's Big Three, I counter the argument some make that signing Durant now will be doubly difficult, and that if KD doesn't re-sign, neither will the other two. My argument is based on seeing a path where KD buys into what Donovan says and does, re-signs, and that signature setting the stage for the signatures of Russ and Serge.
Yes, hiring Donovan is a risk. But not hiring him would be a greater risk. It's not as big a risk as hoping Kevin Durant would love Scotty Brooks so much that he'd sign up for more-of-the-same for another three or four years.
The Blitz is asking “What are the biggest questions for Billy Donovan?”
My answer is that normally you'd expect style of play to be the biggest question to a college coach making the jump. But with a loaded roster, managing and winning over the two superstars is priority number one. So the biggest question has to be….
1. How to coach Westbrook?
Russ is a player and personality of extremes. Extremely gifted, extremely emotional.
Led league in technical fouls. Former teammate Kevin Martin told a coaching friend of mine that Russ is not easy to play with--says his mood too often sets the tone, including at practice.
Although Russ is often all smiles and good interviews for the ESPNs of the world, his disdain for us local yocals is undeniable. But to be fair, people who know him well, swear he's golden—a very good guy. Donovan excels with player relationships, and was candid Friday when I asked him about coaching the phenomenon known as Russell Westbrook. Donovan said, "One of the things I think with Russell that I would say would be to kind of help him as a point guard and put him in an environment where he can still be who he is. I think that's really, really important. But, also have an understanding of how he can also in a positive way affect a lot of other people around him."
2. Whom to hire as assistants?
It was disconcerting when Donovan purposely avoided the question whether he'd hire assistants with NBA experience. Look no further than Golden State. Steve Kerr has five rings, but had no head coaching experience. So he hired defensive ace Ron Adams and offensive wizard Alvin Gentry. Perfect storm. Duplicate that. Please.
3. Donovan says his Florida offensive system will work in the pros—move bodies, move the ball, make one extra pass. So, the tongue-in-cheek third question has to be ‘Coach, does one extra pass apply to KD if he's open?' No doubt Donovan will need and deliver more structure and creativity than Brooks. And appeasing the world's greatest scorer is important too. All I really care about right now is a signature in 14 months, baby!
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