Billy Donovan has a line he likes to repeat when he’s talking about his philosophy with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
How can I bring value?
Donovan said that line a number of times in his introductory news conference last summer and has dropped it periodically throughout his first season as Thunder coach. His focus from the moment he was hired until now — three victories from an NBA Finals appearance heading into Sunday’s Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors — hasn’t been in how he could overhaul the Thunder to fit his style. He wanted to refine them, to elevate them to a higher level of basketball. He has hammered home offensive concepts of ball movement and spacing. He has talked incessantly to players about discipline and composure. And he has been a keen observer and listener, soliciting the constant advice of his stars while flexing on defensive schemes, verbiage and rotation patterns.
There were plenty of question marks — NBA inexperience being the biggest one — when general manager Sam Presti made the decision to fire Scott Brooks and hire Donovan, who spent the previous 19 seasons at the University of Florida. He was thrust into an ideal, but difficult, situation from the start. A ready-made title contender with superstar talent, but with inclusion of win-now pressure.
And on top of it, Donovan started in Kevin Durant’s free-agency season, in which every move and decision would be critiqued and catalogued for possible future reference. To help with that, Donovan rounded out his staff last summer with plenty of NBA experience, adding Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks as his top two assistants. Williams hasn’t been with the team since February, when his wife, Ingrid, died tragically in a car accident. And Cheeks was away from the bench for six weeks late in the season due to hip-replacement surgery.
During the time when both were away, the Thunder hit their low point of the season, losing eight of 12 games following the All-Star break, a stretch which featured back-breaking lost leads. (As well as the deaths of minority owner Aubrey McClendon and the brother of Thunder guard Dion Waiters.) With Donovan’s top two assistants away, it was all on the first-year NBA coach to guide the Thunder as they tried to navigate a rocky time. Players have since lauded Donovan for his leadership during those weeks, noting his poise and focus helped keep the team from teetering.
“He’s gotten better,” Durant said. “He’s definitely gotten better.”
The question, though: Has Donovan actually made the Thunder better? Or has he just picked up the baton from Brooks and carried it on? Brooks took the Thunder to three Western Conference finals in his five seasons, the two he missed coming after Russell Westbrook’s knee injury in 2013 and Durant’s foot injury last season. Donovan has the Thunder back, but Westbrook and Durant are back, too.
You can’t deny Donovan this: He has beaten maybe the two most well-respected coaches in the league this postseason in Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich. Against the San Antonio Spurs, Donovan deployed a super-big lineup that swung the series. He has acquitted himself and won respect along the way, primarily from the Thunder’s superstars.
“It’s not about that for him, it’s about how we’re going to grow together as a team,” Durant said about Donovan getting credit. “Everybody is loving you when you win a game, but as soon as you lose a game, he doesn’t belong here. So it’s up and down on the outside how people feel about him, but we know throughout the whole season he’s poised and definitely giving us that confidence that we can play well every single night. He’s been a great motivator for us.”
With Donovan coming from college, there was the assumption he was going to have to earn the trust of his players, especially Durant and Westbrook.
“It shouldn’t even be that way. It’s vice-versa,” Durant said of that line of thinking. “He’s the coach, he’s the leader. He’s going to be here. So we’ve got to prove to him that we’re going to go out there and follow the game plan from training camp. From Day 1, we’re going to follow what he wants us to do. That’s how he weeds out the players who doesn’t. In this league, we tend to think of it as the coach has to earn the players’ respect, but really the players have to earn the coach’s respect when you’ve got to go out there and play for him. Professional sports are a little different, but growing up as a kid, it was all about following the leader, and that’s the coach.”
Film sessions have been different under Donovan. Brooks didn’t let players slide in the film room, necessarily, but there was a lack of application. Donovan is much more intentional with accountability, according to players. Problems and issues are being directly addressed; the process was inconsistent before.
Durant values coaching, telling those around him last summer he thinks it makes a significant difference. When Donovan was hired, Durant spent time researching his new coach, talking to former Florida players and reading articles about him. Durant came away impressed and excited to start work. And through a regular season and now deep into the playoffs, Durant has some firsthand evidence.
Boston’s Brad Stevens is hailed as the principal college-to-NBA success story, but he also had the advantage of not being in a high-profile situation his first season with the Celtics. Donovan has stepped into a team that was featured on national television close to 30 times in the regular season and now has the burning interrogation lamp of the Western Conference finals on him. He has already won seven more playoff games and two more playoff series than Stevens. He has had his struggles, from timeout management to questionable roster choices (benching rookie Cameron Payne during the regular season, then playing him randomly against the Spurs) to overcomplicating the defensive scheme earlier in the season.
But Donovan has reacted, adapted and adjusted well, improving throughout the season and really finding a voice in the playoffs. He has his work cut out for him in trying to level the playing field against the 73-win Warriors, but with a road victory already, the Thunder are positioned well. Not only in the series, though, because Donovan’s development serves as yet another piece in the recruiting cupboard the Thunder will throw at Durant this summer. That would be some real value.