Before Brad Stevens was hired by the Boston Celtics and he became a household name around NBA circles, both front offices and fans alike, there was a constant theme that college coaches couldn’t cut it in the NBA no matter how much success they had in the college game. There was Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd, and Reggie Theus among others, all of whom had a lot of success at the college level before accepting a job in the NBA. Well collectively they were 336-632 (.347) and of those five, only Pitino made the playoffs only to lose all three games. This is important because Brad Stevens changed the thought process of NBA executives from “college coaches can’t make that jump” to “maybe we are overlooking some guys” and now just a few years after Stevens was hired, Billy Donovan has executives thinking Stevens is the outlier rather than at the front of a long list of deserving college coaching candidates ready to make the jump. (Fred Hoiberg also made the jump, but it is hard to judge him after the numerous injuries and locker room turmoil that was brought up throughout the year)
After all, Donovan was a coach of the highest level at Florida, winning back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2006 with the Florida Gators and running a top-tier program year after year. Combine that with the fact the Thunder had one of the best rosters in basketball containing two of the five or 10 best players in the NBA at two of the premium positions in today’s game in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant at point guard and small forward respectively.
Instead, people now have been questioning Donovan and his NBA mindset with the numerous blown fourth quarter leads for a team that up until this year was one of the best team’s at closing out games in the fourth quarter on the shoulders of their two superstars. To be fair, though, Donovan is in his first season and it will take him maybe even a couple more seasons to get a firm grasp on the NBA level play and how to coach at this level. The only problem though is that the Thunder cannot afford to wait that long, which makes this hiring even more perplexing.
Coming into this season, the Thunder and the rest of the NBA for that matter, all knew this summer Durant would be a free agent and for the first time in his NBA career, there were whispers of him potentially leaving Oklahoma City and testing free agency hoping to find greener pastures. That made this year even more important for the Thunder’s front office to make sure Durant is happy and wants to stay. After all, players like him do not grow on trees and they will have fierce competition to keep him as Durant seems certain to take at least a handful of meetings with some or all of the following: Lakers, Celtics, Wizards, Heat, Spurs, and Warriors. Conversely, though a run to the NBA Finals could persuade him to stay and reconsider the fact he already has a superstar playing alongside him and he has a very deep team that has proven to be in the mix every year.
After Durant turned in one of his worst performances in his career, you can feel the pressure the Thunder have and the weight of the pressure on his shoulders. Durant is tired of second place finishes, injuries, and inconsistent support casts. He just wants to win and despite their solid record in his time there, the Thunder have not gotten it done in the playoffs. Anything short of a Finals run and Durant will no doubt seriously consider moving on from a coach, who may very well be among the top half of the league in the next few years and a solid cast built by general manager Sam Presti.
That is not the only reason that this is the most important run, though. The Thunder have operated as a small market team the past few years because they are one and despite the rising cap, there is no guarantee the Thunder will be able to hang with the likes of the Celtics, Lakers, Warriors, Cavaliers, Bulls and others who pay the luxury tax whenever there is a shot of winning. That makes the draft incredibly important for a team like OKC. The only problem is since they have been winning so much, they haven’t had a chance to snag any elite or starter level talent. Steven Adams, Cameron Payne, and Andre Roberson are all nice players, but not the kind the Thunder need to keep the system fresh and stay out of the dreaded lure of NBA free agency.
More importantly, though if the Thunder are unable to convince Durant to stay, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters are all free agents the following year, serving as a reminder that a departure of one of the best players in the game could lead to an exodus of their remaining pieces that they worked so hard to develop. Westbrook for that matter has already quietly put it out there that he intends to try to return to the Lakers when he hits free agency. If Durant goes, there is a far better chance Westbrook and Ibaka consider their options the following year and that could leave the Thunder’s roster suddenly barren and after a long rebuild of hitting on every draft pick, Presti and company know how long and tough the rebuild road can be.
After all, consider the 76ers who have been at this for years and yet still resemble a laughing stock. At a minimum, it is a four-year window to NBA title contention, a window and time span that no one wants to wait and suffer through when they have already seen what it is like to hold two crown jewels in a league where most rosters are suddenly devoid of star talent let alone superstar talent.
That is what makes this year so important for the Thunder and why this series is so much more than just a first round series. The future of the Thunder, one of the league’s top contenders the past few years likely hangs in the balance on the results of this year’s playoff run, but that is the NBA for you. Just four years ago the Thunder blew out LeBron James and company in-game one of the NBA Finals, only to lose the next four and the championship, but at that moment everyone though there would be many more trips for Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and the Thunder yet to come. Fast forward to the present and we could be talking about that as the lone run of this group’s history, but as previously mentioned that is the NBA. Nothing is taken for granted and it feels like the Thunder are about to learn that the hard way.