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NBA PM: Who’s The Best Young NBA Coach?

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In what is  a weekly Thursday feature, we ask three of our Basketball Insiders to weigh in on a common question. This week, we asked: “Who’s The Best Young Coach With Less Than Three Years’ Experience?”

It’s rare for rookie NBA head coaches to be entrusted with the keys to a title contending roster, but on April 30, 2015 the Oklahoma City Thunder hired Billy Donovan to get the franchise over the proverbial hump.

Donovan definitely wasn’t a rookie to coaching at a high level by any stretch with nearly 20 years spent at the helm of the University of Florida, where he guided the Gators to two National Championships. Including Donovan’s stint with Marshall University, he compiled a 502-209 (.709) record at the collegiate level.

Joining Oklahoma City, Donovan had the good fortune of inheriting two Top-10 players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But this good fortune also eliminated a long tailed learning curve and the pressure to win at a high clip began immediately.

Donovan (102-62) has won 62 percent of his contests in the two seasons which includes a trip to the Western Conference Finals as a rookie skipper in 2016. Last summer, the Thunder were rocked by the news of Durant bolting in free agency to Golden State. The franchise also traded longtime power forward Serge Ibaka prior to the draft. In many ways the 2016-17 Thunder roster was an entirely different entity from the previous campaign. The team responded by winning 47 contests and securing a playoff berth. Westbrook also won the 2016-17 league Most Valuable Player award.

Entering the 2017-18 campaign, the Thunder’s roster will also look different from last season as the team acquired All-Star forward Paul George from the Indiana Pacers. There’s even more pressure for Oklahoma City to continue winning at a high level as Paul George, armed with a player option, will likely be an unrestricted free agent next summer. Westbrook also has a player option for the 2018-19 season and could also opt to test the waters of free agency next summer as well.

Compared to other new coaches hired around the same time or after, Donovan has had a talent advantage for sure. But those other head coaches have not had to manage day-to-day free agency tension, superstar egos and title expectations without the leniency of a learning curve.

If the Thunder have a successful season and convince George and Westbrook to return to Oklahoma City long term, the franchise will be certain it has the right guy in place calling the shots from the sideline.

–    Lang Greene

 

Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Nets, who went 20-62 in 2016-17, are in very good hands.

Last season, Kenny Atkinson helped the franchise earn back some of their lost street credit and effectively ended the Nets’ never-ending carousel at head coach. Praise flowed in across the board as players, coaches and executives quickly realized that the longtime assistant had some serious first-year chops. Through a summer overhaul, the Nets changed their plodding, iso-style offense to a more modernized version, effectively jacking up the team’s pace and three-point shooting almost overnight.

The biggest evolution came with Brook Lopez, the franchise’s star player since New Jersey drafted him back in 2008. Before Atkinson arrived, Lopez had made exactly three regular season three-pointers in his entire career, but with the encouragement of a new head coach, the center flourished. Lopez made a whopping 134 three-pointers in 2016-17 at a 34.6 percent clip – an outstanding result for a towering big man that had barely even considered that range prior to Atkinson’s hiring.

With key free agent Jeremy Lin shelved for much of the season after injuring his hamstring, the Nets were thrown into crisis by Thanksgiving. Quickly, Atkinson had to rely on Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie and Sean Kilpatrick to handle the ball, even crafting the latter into an emergency point guard. Despite the turmoil, Atkinson never wavered, constantly tweaking the Nets’ rotation and turning their numerous D-League call-ups into legitimate rotation pieces.

Even as the losses piled up and the Nets plunged into the Eastern Conference basement, the roster ran through wall after wall for their coach. And, once Lin returned for good in late February, the Nets finished the season on a high note with a respectable 11-15 record onver their final 26 games. Although Lopez has since been moved to Los Angeles, the Nets strengthened the rest of their roster by adding D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Allen Crabbe and, hopefully, Timofey Mozgov.

For the second-straight year, Atkinson found himself in charge of the Nets’ summer league team, much to his delight. As he battled in the trenches with his young core, Atkinson told Basketball Insiders that being in Las Vegas was important for everybody involved, himself included.

“Quite honestly, I need to get better,” Atkinson said. “I need to improve my game, I’ve had some situations out there where I was like: ‘Man, I could’ve done that better.’ I just feel like you’re in a flight simulator, the more reps you can get, the better you get.”

Atkinson, of course, spent four years each as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks from 2008-16. With the Knicks, Atkinson is credited as one of the major nurturing forces behind Linsanity, the electric two-week span that would help Lin earn his paychecks for years to come. Under the savvy Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, Atkinson developed strong relationships and earned a reputation as an impressive player development coach. So, no, Atkinson isn’t new to the coaching game by any means, but his long road has prepared him to lead the Nets.

Utilizing both Lin and his skills learned with the Hawks, Atkinson has been a nice fit for the rebuilding, pick-deficient Nets. His work with both Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has already seen both of their raw abilities expand in just one season at the helm. Additionally, it should come as no surprise that Quincy Acy, Joe Harris and Trevor Booker all had career years after working with Atkinson as well – undoubtedly, this guy knows how to coach, lead and develop a young roster.

Needless to say, the Nets are committed to Atkinson and the roster clearly respects him as well. If Atkinson can continue taking baby steps with this Nets franchise, they’ll be in a great spot moving forward, particularly so once they own their draft picks once again. With a better all-around roster and, hopefully, a healthy year out of the essential Lin, the Nets will grow once again under the evolving Atkinson, one of the league’s strongest new coaches.

–    Benny Nadeau

 

Nearing 50 years of age following a memorable tenure at the University of Florida, Billy Donovan decided to finally make the jump from the college level to the NBA in the summer of 2015.

Jumping into an organization featuring a group of young talent with tons of potential, the situation couldn’t be more ideal. In his first stint as a head coach in the league, Donovan was at the helm with superstars like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant leading the charge.

The Thunder were an extreme threat in the Western Conference throughout the season and especially during the playoffs, where they had the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination. After upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the round beforehand, many had pegged Oklahoma City to make it all the way to The Finals. But we all know how that ended up.

There was a 3-1 lead and it quickly vanished. Durant’s free agency rumors started floating about and turned out to be true. Thunder general manager Sam Presti traded Serge Ibaka on draft night. The core was completely reshaped before Donovan’s second year.

Since the offense suffered from the loss of both of them, Donovan gave Westbrook the go-ahead to set the tone every game. Sometimes coaches just need to let the players do what they do best and the results will show. That’s exactly what happened this past year.

Westbrook’s supporting cast wasn’t the greatest, though. When he was off the floor, the second unit couldn’t keep up with the opposition and often dug Oklahoma City into holes that the starting unit had to climb out of. The team also struggled to shoot the basketball. However, they still won 47 games and made it to the playoffs in their extremely competitive conference. For any team that loses a player of Durant’s caliber and to have that kind of success is incredible, and it deserves praise.

Entering year three, Donovan gets another superstar to insert into his system alongside Westbrook. The Thunder acquired Paul George in a gutsy move without his commitment long-term in order to strike gold and compete with the powerhouses of the West.

It’ll be intriguing to pay attention to the situation as Donovan tries to take a potential championship-caliber squad put together by Presti to the top. One thing’s for sure with Donovan—he’s not in over his head. He’s made for this.

–    Spencer Davies

Every Thursday we’ll ask three of our guys to chime in on a common subject. If there is something you would like to see us address, drop it to us on Twitter at @BBallInsiders using the hashtag #ConversationThursday.

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