Scott Cacciola, NY Times (http://mobile.nytimes.com/2016/01/26/sports/basketball/oklahoma-city-thunders-billy-donovan-goes-one-on-one-to-foster-team-unity.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share&_r=3&referer=https%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FzHLf1bF42u)
Not long after Billy Donovan became coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring, he had a member of his staff reach out to the players. The team had scuffled through an injury-marred season, and most of the players had scattered for the approaching summer. Steve Novak, for example, was home in Wisconsin when he got the phone call.
“It was, basically, ‘We want to fly you in so you can meet with him for an hour,’ ” Novak recalled. “My first impression was, well, we could just Skype.”
But that was not what Donovan had in mind. He wanted face-to-face meetings in Oklahoma City so he could better gauge his players and learn from them. Donovan wanted to know about the previous season, about any changes the players hoped to see. In the months since, Donovan has maintained the same approach.
“Not that I’m involved in all those bigwig meetings,” said Novak, a reserve forward, “but he’s continued to have those talks with guys where there’s just a lot of open communication so he can see what the vibe is that day, that week, and how guys are feeling so he can make adjustments.”
The most compelling case any team can make when wooing superstars comes in the form of winning, of proving that titles are viable. The Thunder have put themselves back in the mix this season by running their record to 33-13, third best in the Western Conference behind the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.
“I like the direction we’re going in,” Durant said.
The Thunder are playing high-level basketball, having won 22 of their last 27 games. Their loss Sunday night to the Nets was a rare stumble.
“We took a little bit of a step back,” Donovan said. “But I always say this: When you talk about progress and improvement, it’s never a smooth line.”
Donovan paused and made a wavy motion with his hand, a demonstration of the season’s ups and downs. The team’s loss to the Nets was one of the downs.
“Hopefully we can utilize this,” Donovan said, “and learn from this and improve from this and take another step forward because this team has improved and done a lot of good things.”
“I think a lot of times people fail to realize that, even though these guys are stars and they’ve got brands that are worldwide and they have unbelievable name recognition, they’re still people,” Donovan said. “They still go through normal things that people go through.”
The unusual demands on coaches like Donovan have come into even sharper focus since the Cleveland Cavaliers fired David Blatt last week. All Blatt did was coach the Cavaliers to an N.B.A. finals appearance last season before guiding them to the best record in the East at the time of his dismissal this season.
It was clear, though, that Blatt struggled to connect with his players, to get them to buy what he was selling. In the parlance of the industry, he lost the locker room — and then his job.
By all appearances, Donovan has emphasized communication — a constant exchange of ideas with his players. It was a point he made to them by expressing a desire to sit down with each of them during his first few days on the job. He asked questions. He solicited their opinions.
No player on the team has thrived more than Russell Westbrook, who is averaging 23.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game while shooting 45.2 percent from the field — his highest percentage since the 2011-12 season, when the Thunder advanced to the N.B.A. finals before falling to the Miami Heat. Westbrook is also averaging 9.7 assists and 2.5 steals, both of which are career highs.
“It wasn’t about trying to get Russell to play a certain way,” Donovan said. “It wasn’t about having Russell change his game. It was really more about trying to help him be more efficient, and how I could help him become more efficient as a player.”
Many of their early conversations revolved around offensive concepts, Donovan said — discussions about post-up situations, spreading the floor in transition, avoiding double-teams.
“It was much, much more of a collaborative effort working with him than it was saying, ‘Hey, listen, this is what you’re doing,’ ” Donovan said. “Because he’s clearly one of the best players in this league, and his voice to me matters in terms of how I can help him and help the team.”