The 2015-16 season is shaping up to be one of the most crucial periods in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s short history.
They enter the season with Billy Donovan at the helm after firing Scott Brooks in April, who had coached the Thunder for the past seven years.
Donovan comes into the job unproven at the top level, and despite his 21 years of coaching NCAA Division I teams, it is unclear whether he will be able to adapt to the NBA.
A brand new coach brings intense media scrutiny, particularly when the coach is taking over a team expected to make a deep run into the playoffs. That scrutiny is turned up to 11 when arguably the second best player in the league, Kevin Durant, is out of contract in 2016.
Durant speaks highly of how much grew under Brooks’ guidance, and despite saying he supports the decision to move on with a new head coach, it remains to be seen whether he and Donovan can build a similar relationship.
Analysts will be looking for signs all season that point to Durant being unhappy with the new direction of the franchise, and you can bet that any time there’s a run of poor form in OKC there will be a report that Durant wants out.
If that wasn’t enough to create media frenzy in Oklahoma, then the matter of Durant’s All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook being out of contract a year later definitely does.
Westbrook has only ever played under Scott Brooks in his time in the NBA and is known to wear his heart on his shooting sleeve, so if he and Donovan aren’t getting along cracks will start to appear.
While it might seem premature to speculate over Westbrook’s next contract, the Billy Donovan and Kevin Durant situations may have a direct impact on whether he re-signs.
The pressure falls on Donovan to get Durant excited about the direction of the franchise, or else risks losing one of the best players in the world. If they lose Durant, Westbrook could very well decide that OKC isn’t the place for him either.
These three different situations are poised to combine for a media storm that could rival the one which surrounded LeBron James before he made his decision to re-join the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, the Thunder’s locker room will be under constant scrutiny, even more than this past season where it was reported that the team had fractured into two different cliques.
Capping off the storm is the short fuse Durant and Westbrook both have when it comes to dealing with the media.
Westbrook has given a number of infamous post-game interviews, ranging from his refusal to answer questions with anything but “good job executing” and telling a reporter upfront that he doesn’t like him, to storming out of a press conference.
Durant on the other hand has simply gone on record to say that the media “doesn’t really know s***”.
The All-Star duo face an uphill battle to not let these external distractions effect what is happening on the court, with the Thunder expected to bounce back significantly after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Right now, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan would do well to enjoy the calm before the storm.