When Oklahoma City Thunder General Manager Sam Presti made the surprising decision to fire head coach Scott Brooks on Wednesday, the clock on Kevin Durant’s free agency officially started.
And Kevin Ollie’s tenure as the next Oklahoma City head coach may have already begun.
“Kevin Ollie, he was a game-changer for us. He changed the whole culture, I think. He might not say it, but I think he changed the whole culture in Oklahoma City. [Ollie’s] mindset, his professionalism, every single day. And we all watched that, we all wanted to be like that, and it rubbed off on Russell [Westbrook], myself, Jeff Green, James Harden. And you know, everybody that comes through now, there’s a standard you’ve got to live up to as a Thunder player. And that started with Kevin Ollie.”
Those words, from February 2014 (via ESPN), are from Thunder franchise player Kevin Durant.
From OKC’s official press release:
Therefore, it is very important to state that this decision is not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain. We determined that, in order to stimulate progress and put ourselves in the best position next season and as we looked to the future, a transition of this kind was necessary for the program.
Presti, like other skilled general managers, chooses his words very carefully and deliberately when he speaks. Sometimes, Presti will offer a quote or assessment so rich in generalities that you may have thought he was running for political office. However, Presti was quite clear when speaking to the media, revealing further insight into his decision to seek out a new head coach.
“The decision was about what was next,” Presti said. “We could not make this decision based on the past.”
If you don’t think that’s a direct reference to Durant’s pending free agency and Russell Westbrook being eligible for a new deal the season after that (2017 offseason), Presti and the Thunder are staring at a very uncertain future with absolutely nothing guaranteed.
After initial news of Brooks’ departure was reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports (of course, because who else?), USA Today’s Sam Amick followed up with the intel that Presti’s decision came without the consultation of his players, meaning Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, all of whom had gone on the record over recent days in defense of Brooks, had absolutely zero input in the discussion. “I think that would be a terribly unfair position to put players in,” Presti said.
The biggest takeaway from Presti’s media availability was this, from Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: “I think we have a clear idea of what we’d like to see.”
Does that include satisfying the desires of its Big 3?
Following Thunder’s three most notable players all voiced their opinions about a desire to see Brooks return next season, each took Wednesday’s news in different fashion. Durant posted an Instagram message that thanked Brooks while recognizing him as a friend. Serge Ibaka tweeted a simple “SMH” to display his disapproval. And Russell Westbrook? Maybe someone should check on his automatically scheduled tweets.
This is a big moment in the franchise’s history. This is about more than changing coaches, much more than Scott Brooks’ X’s and O’s and this decision will be entirely defined by the results rather than the process. In other words, it doesn’t matter how methodical the Thunder go about this coaching search—a failure to get it right, and it sets this team back years.
Get it right? Well, that could be the hidden key to unlocking the seemingly sealed potential of this Thunder roster.
Time is running out. The clock is moving quickly and ticking loudly within the organization, and that includes General Manager Sam Presti. There is a massive pressure on Presti that has not existed before, and through his decision to fire Brooks on Wednesday, and fair or not, he is accepting sole responsibility for whatever happens with Durant’s future.
Can Kevin Ollie the coach have the same impact as Kevin Ollie the player with this Thunder team? Does Ollie want to accept the challenge of coaching a Thunder team with an incredibly high ceiling or a very low floor and a ton of room for volatility in between?
“As I have said many times, I am proud and honored to be the head basketball coach at the University of Connecticut and I have no plans to pursue other opportunities. We are already excited about next season and I am looking forward to preparing our team to be the best we can be on the court, in the classroom, and in our community,” Ollie said in a statement prior to Brooks’ firing.
What else is he going to say? Regardless of whatever rhetoric emerges out of Ollie’s mouth right now, it would be asinine to simply assume that he’s a non-option for the Thunder’s next head coach, especially when there has been so much smoke brewing behind this potential fire. Despite Ollie’s public stance insisting he’s not interested in vacating his current position in order to rejoin law offices of Durant and Co., Wojnarowski reports that the mustachioed man has “significant interest” in becoming the Thunder’s next coach, and Presti has already identified Ollie as a “top choice.”
CBS is reporting that Ollie has removed his name from the coaching search, but that could simply be a negotiating tactic.
Ollie has all of the leverage here. He’s had it for a while, and now with Brooks out of the picture, the Thunder head coaching job is his if he wants it.
Ollie knows it. Scott Brooks knows it. Sam Presti and Kevin Durant both know it.
Oklahoma City is about to push all of its chips toward the middle of the table. And in a season where the Thunder have demonstrated they’re unafraid to gamble (Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter), Ollie is Presti’s clearest target to date.
And with Ollie a clear frontrunner, no real secondary option and Oklahoma City facing a clear pressure to win big with this current core next season, it sure looks like Ollie’s pocket aces give him all of the leverage at the negotiating table.