Moore: With Billy Donovan Gone, the Rebuild Finally Begins In Oklahoma City

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Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan during the NBA playoffs.

Billy Donovan is gone from the Oklahoma City Thunder bench, after a remarkable era that will largely go under the radar. The head coach and team parted ways on Tuesday following the conclusion of the Thunder’s season in a Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets last week.

On the surface, this seems controversial and even a bit shocking. Donovan made the playoffs in every season since joining the team in 2015-16. That season, his Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals before losing the series. That loss ultimately detonated the franchise and aided in Kevin Durant’s departure two months later.

The Thunder never escaped the first round afterward under Donovan, mostly because of either roster deficiencies or injury luck (like Paul George in 2019). Donovan didn’t win the coaching matchups in any of those series, but you never pointed to him as the weak link.

So why didn’t the Thunder keep him? Or more accurately, why did the Thunder decide to walk away?

The official story from the Thunder was surprisingly transparent:

“We had planned to sit down at the end of the season and discuss the best way to move forward for both of us. After those discussions, it became apparent that we couldn’t provide him the information on the future direction of the team over the next several seasons to give him the level of clarity that he understandably desires at this stage of his career. Therefore, we close this chapter and reflect fondly on all that he has given to the team, organization, and community. Billy will always have a place in the Thunder family.”

Donovan said similarly positive things.

“I will always hold this organization in the highest regard and wish the Thunder and their fans the success they deserve,” Donovan said in a statement.

There has been no indication that there was tension under the surface. This decision only seems surprising if you don’t understand the Thunder organization.

Since they traded George and Russell Westbrook last summer, there’s been a pretty firm timeline on the team’s intentions. They knew they would be competitive this season with Chris Paul and a veteran roster.

However, they didn’t pick up all those picks from the Los Angels Clippers and Rockets to try and win now. They didn’t trade Paul this season because the team was good and there was no urgency. They’re not accelerating the rebuild, nor are they slowing it down.

Danilo Gallinari comes off the books this summer, as does Andre Roberson who finally made it back on the court but was unplayable in the playoff rotation. Dennis Schröder has one more season on the books. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander is likely to get the reins and a big rookie extension when his deal comes up in two seasons.

But most of the team’s cap is tied up in Paul, and after he played at an All-NBA-caliber level this season, the trade market will be active for him. Two executives expressed to The Action Network reservations about a trade for Paul based on his contract and age, but also felt that ultimately there would be a good deal for Thunder President of Basketball Operations Sam Presti.

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Head Coach Billy Donovan, Chris Paul #3 of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

If a deal is done, it will no doubt include more young assets or draft picks. This ties into Donovan’s decision. If the Thunder indicated they planned to continue to reach for the playoffs and pursue a roster that could compete then Donovan likely returns. That he did not suggests that OKC is steadfast in its understanding of its long-term goals.

There are always black swans that occur in the league. Maybe SGA makes a leap. Maybe Paul decides he wants to retire with the Thunder — though that’s unlikely given Paul’s professionalism and competitive desire — maybe the Thunder find a diamond in the rough in the draft.

However, the most likely scenario is that OKC is truly initiating a rebuild, which would make other players available.

There have been no names reported from OKC’s side, but one name several league executives mentioned would be at least be in the discussion is former Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson spent three seasons under Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, who Presti worked with during his tenure with the San Antonio Spurs.

The big takeaway from Tuesday’s announcement is that Donovan is still ready to compete for a title as a coach, and the Thunder are still ready to continue pursuing a rebuild after the fall of the Westbrook-Durant era.

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