OKC Thunder: Why Brian Keefe is returning to the Thunder bench as an even better coach
by Erik Horne
There was the sound of basketballs no matter the hour. P.J. Carlesimo remembers it vividly, from Seattle to Oklahoma City, and the two guys who were most often the cause.
Carlesimo would be in his courtside office late at night or early in the morning when he’d peer out the door.
"When the ball was bouncing, more often or not it was Kevin and BK in the gym," Carlesimo told The Oklahoman.
Kevin is Kevin Durant. BK is Brian Keefe, who has returned to the Oklahoma City Thunder as an assistant coach and has a reputation as one of the best player-development coaches in the NBA.
In the five years since Keefe left the Thunder bench, he’s developed into more — a coach who can not only nurture talent, but also lead it.
"I would hope I’m a better coach than I was five years ago," Keefe told The Oklahoman. "I think that’s part of what’s exciting to be back — is to use these new things and to be part of a group that still has the same value system I believe in."
When Keefe talked about returning to Oklahoma City, he was humbled to be a part of the franchise’s success. It’s easy to forget he was one of the architects.
After graduate-assistant work at South Florida and Division II Bryant University from 2000 to 2005, Keefe joined San Antonio as a video coordinator in 2005, brought in by Spurs assistant general manager Sam Presti, who went on to become GM of the Thunder.
Keefe compared San Antonio to going to Harvard, only his professors were Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford and future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobilli and Tony Parker.
"It was a great example of how to handle your business, act with humility and do your job the best you can," Keefe said. "Those are things hopefully I was able to carry with me when I went to Oklahoma City, where I got to do more of it on my own and help implement structure into a young team."
Many who made the transition out of San Antonio to new franchises were young upstarts. Presti was 29 when he became the general manager of the SuperSonics in 2007. He collaborated with Carlesimo, hired as the Sonics’ head coach, to bring Keefe to Seattle.
Keefe’s now been married nine years and has two daughters, ages 5 and 6. When he came to Oklahoma City in 2008, he was 31 with no family, but a budding relationship with a transcendent talent.
"We were very young and you’re totally engrossed in your environment," Keefe said of the hours he spent working with Durant. "That’s what made it kind of special — you were really trying to establish something.
"There was all this energy, all these young people trying to push the organization, and we were putting in that time. As you get older, you’re hopefully smarter with your time and you can’t just run through a wall, but you’re always there to support."
It’s that support — and tough love — that’s endeared Keefe to players across the league.
Keefe’s resume goes beyond Durant.
In five seasons with the Thunder from 2009-2014, he worked with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the core that helped the Thunder to three Western Conference finals appearances and one NBA Finals appearance.
Plucked from the Thunder staff by Derek Fisher in 2014, Keefe coached Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis with the Knicks. In three seasons with the Lakers, Keefe received high praise for the development of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram.
Kauffman Sports, which represents Keefe, has powerful quotes on its website from Nick Collison and Ingram that tout Keefe’s impact. But no words have cemented Keefe’s resume more than Durant’s validation to David Aldridge back in 2014.
It wasn’t about Keefe helping Durant with mechanics (which he’s done for Ingram and Andre Robeson, among others), but about Keefe checking Durant’s body language and attitude when the Thunder was in a post-All-Star break slump.
"That was probably one of the most realest conversations I've had with a coach, ever," Durant told Aldridge back in 2014. "I just decided to look at myself and self-evaluate. And he was right. I had to change how I was thinking, how I was acting toward my teammates. Everything."
Durant said Keefe taught him about work ethic and being a professional.
"Sometimes you have to tell him something that’s not going to be great," Keefe said. "There were probably many times he didn’t love what I said, but I think he respected it and took it and used it going forward. It was just a unique relationship, but I would hope I treat every player that way."
Following the trades of Westbrook, Paul George and Jerami Grant, the Thunder is entering the early phases of a roster reconstruction. Among the core will be four players 21 or younger in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (21), Terrance Ferguson (21), Hamidou Diallo (21) and Darius Bazley (19).
But Keefe is more than a molder of youth. While he’s become known for player development, Keefe ran the Thunder’s defense for four seasons after Ron Adams left for Chicago in 2010. Asked if he wants to be a head coach, Keefe answered with a flat "Yes."
Carlesimo said Keefe’s path reminded him of current Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown, who was also labeled a player-development coach in San Antonio.
"There’s a tendency to keep the guy doing that even if he’s the whole package," Carlesimo said. "BK is the same way.
"He’s a front of the bench guy. He’s an excellent X’s and O’s guy. He’s a very good advanced scout. He’s the whole thing."