The proverbial tea leaves weren’t particularly hard to read as the Thunder split with coach Billy Donovan this week, his contract having expired after five successful seasons with Oklahoma City. Just last week, OKC was a playoff darling, pushing the Rockets to seven games with Chris Paul turning back the clock and undrafted rookie Lu Dort hounding James Harden with legitimate effectiveness. At a glance, a coaching change might seem surprising. But in insider circles, the move all but confirms long-held suspicions that the Thunder are ready to rebuild.
Of course, things started to feel that way a year ago. General manager Sam Presti laid substantial groundwork last summer by dealing Russell Westbrook and Paul George in separate moves, bringing back a trove of first-round picks and swaps from Houston and the Clippers that gave OKC the richest collection of draft assets in the league, running through 2026. The Westbrook deal also brought back Paul from the Rockets, a player who almost certainly didn’t fit that long-term timeline. But Paul’s hefty contract made him difficult for the Thunder to move a second time, and after the team began to click in mid-December, OKC chose to buckle down for a playoff push. It would seem that decision paid off: Promising young players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dort and Darius Bazley got to play meaningful minutes in consequential games, while Paul, Dennis Schröder and Steven Adams revitalized their market value.
At this point, all signs point to those three players being made available. In a press conference Presti framed Donovan’s exit as a mutual decision spurred on by a lack of certainty surrounding the roster moving forward, which can be read into accordingly. It’s unclear exactly to what degree the Thunder feel the need to strip things down, but that conversation starts with Paul, who it would seem still has plenty in the tank at age 35. He has two years and north of $85 million left on his contract (next season guaranteed, and a player option for 2021–22), which makes trade scenarios even tricker amid an uncertain financial climate due to COVID-19, but Oklahoma City tends to be creative, and teams like Milwaukee and New York could be interested parties. Moving Paul enables Gilgeous-Alexander to play point guard full-time again, which should be important for his development.
Schröder and Adams are entering the final years of their contracts and are proven contributors who can help playoff teams without long-term financial burden. Adams has been quietly available for some time and remains one of the more underappreciated, winning players in the league. Danilo Gallinari’s deal is expiring, but most of the teams expected to have cap space aren’t contenders, and the Thunder could conceivably facilitate a sign-and-trade to help him land with another team while picking up something else of value in the process. There’s enough here for OKC to make the best of the situation without going full tank job, but getting younger and focusing on development for a year or two as the Western Conference contenders age might be the best thing for the franchise’s long-term health.
There should be franchise-changing talent available in the 2021 and 2022 drafts, and don’t think Oklahoma City doesn’t know it. The Thunder have a wealth of draft capital moving forward, but most of their extra first-rounders belong to contenders and may not turn out to be lottery selections until 2023 and onward, when the Rockets and Clippers may end up on the downswing. It goes without saying that getting into the lottery typically requires being bad yourself. But if the Thunder want to get into conversations at the top of this year’s draft, they may have enough to do so.
All of this is to say that the Thunder are probably wise to pivot now, and it’s equally as prescient of Donovan to move on. When he took the job, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still on the team. If he wants to coach a contender, he’ll need to look elsewhere. There’s some thought around the league that Oklahoma City may promote their next coach internally. Donovan will be a candidate for most, if not all the other open jobs. But it’s a clear sign that all parties know which direction things are heading—there just may not be clarity on the details. Maybe that’s kind of the point.