By Randy Renner
The Oklahoma City Thunder will have one of the most experienced group of coaches on any NBA bench this coming season, especially when it comes to overall head coaching experience.
The Thunder finalized their staff of assistant coaches yesterday when Mo Cheeks agreed to return to Oklahoma City. He joins newcomers Monty Williams and Anthony Grant and holdovers Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic.
Among that group Bryant is the only one without head coaching experience but he's regarded as one of the NBA's best "big man" coaches and has been particularly praised by current Thunder big men Steven Adams and Mitch McGary for his role in their rapid development.
Cheeks spent four years as Scott Brooks' lead assistant before leaving to take the head coaching job in Detroit. Cheeks had also been head coach for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Portland Trail Blazers and has a combined 620 games of NBA head coaching experience over parts of nine seasons.
Williams spent five seasons and 394 games as head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans. He was fired last season despite leading the Pelicans into the playoffs. Williams also spent five years as an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers and is an assistant coach on Team USA.
Grant is a longtime friend and colleague of Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. He was an assistant for Donovan both at Marshall University and Florida before leaving to be head coach at Virginia Commonwealth and then Alabama. Grant has a combined 303 games of head coaching experience in college.
Rajakovic was a highly successful head coach in Europe before joining the Thunder to become head coach of the Tulsa 66ers, the Thunder's D-League team at the time. Rajakovic then moved to Scott Brooks' staff.
“I’m really excited about the vast experience that this staff will bring to our team,” Donovan said in a written statement released by the team. “The opportunity to bring these coaches together will help us work towards our goal of having a defensive identity, sharing the ball and playing efficiently on both ends. The group delivers an incredible set of individual skills, knowledge and background to the table, and I believe that the impact of their collective efforts will be very beneficial as we continue to build the tradition of the Thunder.”
Not to be overlooked is Donovan's own head coaching experience, though none of it in the NBA. In 21 years as a head coach at Marshall and Florida he made the final coaching decisions in 708 games, winning 502 of those games and two National Championships.
Another plus for both Cheeks and Williams is their previous relationship with Thunder superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Cheeks was very influential in Westbrook's development and could be seen many times having one-on-one conversations with Westbrook on the Thunder bench.
Williams got to know Durant during Team USA activities. Both men grew up in the same area of the Washington, DC suburbs.
“Monty Williams has been a big influence as well,” Durant told USA Today last summer, “just coming from the same area I come from, knowing his background and knowing his story…to know him from afar, just knowing that he put in so much work to become a head coach, just being around him for a week with USA Basketball and knowing how great he is with the guys. He is a phenomenal leader, so he inspires me a lot because he’s from the area I grew up in and the route he took to making it in the NBA and being a coach and being just a great leader.”
With all those head coaches on one bench, chemistry and trust between those guys is going to be paramount but so far Donovan appears to be just the kind of boss who can make it all work.