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The Head Coach candidates: who should the Thunder select to lead the franchise forward?

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Oklahoma City have a big decision to make

Oklahoma City Thunder v Houston Rockets - Game Seven Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In early September, Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City agreed to mutually part ways. Donovan did not want to coach through rebuild and preferred other job opportunities which would allow him to coach a contender.

It was an amicable separation for Coach Donovan and the Thunder. Billy leaves Oklahoma City with a lot of goodwill and I am sure that the love is reciprocated. Billy genuinely seemed to love his time in Oklahoma City.

Donovan’s legacy in Oklahoma City is mixed. He did not win a championship when he had Durant and Westbrook at his disposal. Billy also failed to hold Russell Westbrook accountable during the three years when Westbrook was the team’s front man.

However, Billy has been instrumental in planting the seeds of the Thunder’s future. He played the young guys a lot of minutes last year and worked diligently on growing their game. I do not believe that Darius Bazley or Luguentz Dort would have grown so quickly without Donovan’s trust.

Oklahoma City stand at an important juncture in the franchise’s future. The next coach who leads the Thunder will be in charge of shaping a young, talented group of players into being an experienced, competent playoff team.

There have been a few candidates floated around since the news about Donovan’s departure first started making rounds on Twitter. Becky Hammon, Kenny Atkinson and even Antonio Daniels are all candidates who are currently being debated across social media.

There has been a long list of names bandied around by Thunder fans. I have been able to whittle this list down to six candidates who would make a lot of sense as the Thunder’s head coach.

All of the candidates are development-oriented coaches; they all have previous success when it comes to improving players. Sam Presti has previously spoken about moral integrity being a core value of the Thunder. Presti is a strong believer in good culture and would not appoint a coach who could compromise the team’s organisational values.

The last point of the criteria relates to diversity. Over the last twelve years, Oklahoma City have been committed to building an environment that is inclusive of minorities. This approach is reflected in the Thunder’s basketball operations over this time period.

Rich Cho, Scott Perry and Troy Weaver are all basketball executives from minority backgrounds who went on to hold GM positions with other franchises. The current Thunder coaching staff also reflects Presti’s approach to diversity.

Vin Bhavnani, an American of Indian descent, and Mo Cheeks both hold high-ranking roles within the Thunder’s coaching set up. Presti will not appoint a head coach based on gender, race or religion but this will likely be a factor that Sam considers in his search.

Adrian Griffin:

Oklahoma City Thunder v Indiana Pacers Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Adrian Griffin is probably the hottest name on the coaching market right now. Griffin commands respect for his playing career and for his work as a development coach. Griffin has earned rave reviews for this aspect of his coaching wherever he has travelled in the league.

Moreover, Griffin has also displayed tactical versatility and a willingness to innovate during his time in Toronto. Griffin coached a game in the regular season and was not afraid to test different concepts. He switched seamlessly from man to man coverages to junk defenses whenever Toronto needed a change in pace.

Griffin’s versatility is a positive for Oklahoma City if Presti is looking to appoint a coach for the next five or six years. At some point down the line, the Thunder will be back in the playoffs. It would make sense to have a Head Coach who is comfortable making timely adjustments in a postseason setting.

Griffin has a wide range of experiences from his varied coaching career. Adrian Griffin has worked with Tom Thibodeau, Billy Donovan and Nick Nurse during his career so far. That is a wide pool of coaching ideas for Griffin to tap into when he needs to.

Adrian Griffin is one of the best coaching candidate on the market. He is winner who is highly competent as a coach. However, his popularity will mean it will be difficult for the Thunder to get Griffin to sign on the dotted line. There are other jobs on the market which may be more attractive to Griffin.

Kenny Atkinson

Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Kenny Atkinson is the only coach on this list who has coached an NBA team for an extended period of time. Atkinson led the Brooklyn Nets during one of the most barren periods in franchise history. The infamous Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett meant that Brooklyn had very few assets in the cupboard.

First round picks were in short supply in Brooklyn and it was up to Atkinson to develop rough gems into legitimate NBA players. Atkinson was very good at developing players and produced a miracle last season by coaching the Nets into the playoffs.

Chris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell both benefitted hugely from Atkinson’s style of coaching. Russell was able to rehabilitate his reputation in Brooklyn after a difficult time with the Lakers. He developed into being a lethal creator out of the pick and roll with the Nets.

Kenny is somewhat limited when it comes to tactics. The Nets were sloppy with the ball and struggled to close out games when Atkinson was in charge. This is something that Presti has to consider if he is looking at appointing a Head Coach for the long-term.

I would take Atkinson as a short-term solution. He would be a strong choice if the Thunder were only thinking about the next three years. However, Sam has previously shown that he thinks on a longer time scale. The Thunder ideally want to appoint a coach who is good at Xs and Os.

Becky Hammon:

Utah Jazz v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Becky Hammon is another name who has been hugely popular over the last few years. Hammon has garnered a lot of respect for her intelligence when it comes to the game of basketball. This respect is not lip service paid by other coaches; Hammon is a trusted member of Coach Pop’s staff.

Over the last twenty years, the Spurs have been renowned for player development. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are two of the biggest success stories that have come out of San Antonio however this culture is applied to every member of the roster.

Jonathan Simmons, Aron Baynes and DeWayne Dedmon were all rotation players for San Antonio who have all earned solid NBA careers due to their time with Coach Pop. The focus on development is also extended to staff members.

Mike Budenholzer and Brett Brown are two former Spurs’ assistants who found jobs in the league. Both coaches have carried forward the core Spursian’ principle; development. In Bud’s first job in Atlanta, he elevated Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap into being All-Star level players.

Brett Brown was able to achieve the same sort of success with the Sixers. TJ McConnell and Robert Covington are two of Brown’s success stories. Both went undrafted before finding a foothold with the ‘Process’ Sixers. Covington and McConnell both grew hugely as players under Coach Brown.

There is a past precedent to suggest that Hammon will be able to achieve the same sort of results with the Thunder.

There have been a few questions attached to the idea of a female Head Coach in the NBA. A lot of people seemed to believe that a coach like Hammon would not be able to command respect from her players. I personally believe that this idea is bullshit.

At a simple level, game recognises game. NBA players have huge respect for their WNBA counterparts. Becky Hammon was one of the best women’s basketball players to ever play the game. She will be respected, I have no doubt about that.

My only concern would be Hammon’s long-term commitment to the Thunder. It is increasingly likely that Gregg Popovich walks away from the sport in the next few years. Coach Popovich has won everything in the game and has presided over a dynasty in Texas. He is a legend in the vein of Bill Belichick and Sir Alex Ferguson.

When the Spurs’ position opens, Hammon will be a leading candidate. Becky is from the Spurs’ family and has been a key lieutenant of Coach Pop for years. I think it will be difficult for Hammon to turn down such a brilliant, prestigious role.

David Vanterpool:

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

David Vanterpool has long been regarded as a head coach in waiting. Vanterpool’s strong reputation comes from his work on the development side of the sport. Vanterpool’s focus has always been turning fringe rotation players into solid NBA professionals.

Vanterpool is another name on this list who has passed through Oklahoma City during his coaching career. Vanterpool worked for the Thunder at the start of the decade as the director of player personnel.

David Vanterpool spent two years in Oklahoma City before leaving to join Terry Stotts’ staff in Portland. Those two years in Oklahoma City were the start of his coaching journey in the United States.

Vanterpool’s experiences in Europe, China and the United States means he is a unique candidate in this group. Vanterpool is highly adaptable as a coach and is adept at building strong relationships quickly.

I like Vanterpool a lot as a coach. He brings a lot to the table as a development-oriented coach but also as a relationship builder. It is hugely important to have connections throughout the league; these bonds can be important in swaying a player to join a particular team.

In 2017, Gordon Hayward hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. He was courted by the Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics. All three teams promised success and a strong organisational culture. Hayward opted to join the Boston Celtics.

It was an interesting decision at the time as the Celtics was arguably the least desirable option out of the three teams interested. Utah boasted a strong emotional connection for Gordon. Miami had Pat Riley, no income tax and warm weather.

In the end, Gordon Hayward chose to join the Celtics due to Brad Stevens. Stevens is a basketball savant who coached Hayward at Butler. He enjoys a close relationship with Gordon that stems back to his formative years as a player.

I am not saying that David Vanterpool is Brad Stevens; that would be a ridiculous statement to make. I am saying that Vanterpool clearly has good relationships with players and his connections might make Oklahoma City a more desirable destination.

Jerry Stackhouse:

Vanderbilt v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Jerry Stackhouse currently coaches Vanderbilt in the college ranks but I would argue that he is the best candidate on this list due to his prior experiences. Stackhouse was an All-Star with the Pistons in 2001. He is respected for his achievements as a player and as a veteran in this league.

Stackhouse also has a wide range of coaching experience. He worked on the Raptors’ staff with Nick Nurse and Dwane Casey in the 2015-16 season as an assistant. Stackhouse then coached the Raptors 905 to a G-League title. In April of last year, Stackhouse took on the responsibility of coaching Vanderbilt.

He is the only coach on this list who currently serves in a head coach role. It is not his work with Vanderbilt which makes him the ideal Thunder candidate; it is Stackhouse’s time with the Raptors 905 which stands out to me.

The G-League is a difficult league to win for a coach. A team’s roster changes hugely throughout the season depending on the needs of the senior team. It can be hard to win games when a coach does not have a settled roster at his disposal.

Stackhouse was unfazed by the challenges and went about winning a championship in his first season as a head coach. The development of players during his time in Mississauga was also hugely impressive.

That particular iteration of the 905 produced six players who have gone on to careers in the NBA. One of those six, Pascal Siakam, has developed into an All-Star. In my opinion, the success that Stackhouse had in Canada is measured by the number of players who made the leap.

The core mantra of the 905’s organisation was development. Every single player received the same opportunities to improve their game and grow as players. A player like Fred VanVleet does not make the league without a coach like Stackhouse taking an interest in his development. Stackhouse earned the same sort of plaudits in Memphis; he is credited with Jackson Jr’s rapid rise as an NBA player.

Stackhouse is the full package. He was a vet in the NBA for over fifteen years. He has experience as a head coach in two separate roles. He has a distinct tactical style that fits the Thunder’s need for a modern offense.