The Oklahoma City Thunder have endured a tumultuous year in the NBA. In the offseason, they went from a team on the brink of their 2nd NBA Finals visit in 5 years, to a team that was decimated by the loss of superstar Kevin Durant in the offseason to Western Conference rival Golden State.
In a cruel twist, it was Golden State who had achieved the impossible to knock the Thunder out of the playoffs (Of course, we all know what happened in the Finals itself). Fans knew that this season would be different as they handed the keys to the franchise to Russell Westbrook, a superstar player who can sometimes act rashly in the face of adversity. However, this season hasn’t turned out the way they wanted it too, which speaks toward the reliability of their coach.
Billy Donovan was a great coach in college basketball. There’s really no question about it. He won two championships at Florida and led them to sustained success over almost two decades. However, he has presided over some questionable decisions in his tenure as an NBA coach. He offered promising results at the end of last season, as the Thunder nearly made the NBA Finals. He also allowed Serge Ibaka to be traded to Orlando, which probably was a factor in Durant taking his talents to the gold coast.
Obviously, while that wasn’t his sole decision, he was allowed to give input into what kind of team he wanted to run, a team that probably didn’t include Ibaka or Durant in long-term plans.
Donovan has also been chastised for his unorthodox coaching style. He doesn’t care about regular-season record, just that his team makes the playoffs. The regular season is just an experiment for him, where he can make as many lineup changes, trades, and signings to find the right fit. This could be attributed to his time as an NCAA coach as the powerhouse teams don’t necessarily care what seed they are if they show up to play in the tournament (see Duke, Michigan State). This is an interesting style of play coming to the NBA as he has shown success in the playoffs in his first year.
However, this also allows players like Russell Westbrook to sacrifice wins in order to pad stats to achieve triple-doubles every night. Obviously, the argument comes up where the Thunder are 26-6 when Westbrook completes a triple-double and 12-23 when he doesn’t. I’d argue that the wins are more a catalyst than a consequence of that action.
To elaborate, Westbrook obviously plays well giving the Thunder an opportunity to win, but feels that he has to hit that allotment of ten rebounds and ten assists to make the win memorable. While that is of no consequence down the stretch in a win, it does make a difference earlier in games when Westbrook gambles for rebounds, or tries forcing a pass when there isn’t one to get that early assist. This mentality puts the Thunder at risking of falling behind early, which means it is much harder to track whether Westbrook had an adverse effect on his team. This also allows Westbrook to play from behind, which gives him an even better stage to accumulate counting stats that ultimately count for naught in the standings.
The Thunder acquired two dynamic players at the deadline, dealing Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, and Joffrey Lauvergne to the Chicago Bulls for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott. Clearly, Donovan is making his mark on the team given that he’s also been a fan of the bruising tall players having coached Gibson’s former teammate Joakim Noah at Florida. With Steven Adams and Domantas Sabonis as the only real big men threats, Donovan acquired two more guys that could either space out the floor in McDermott and cause trouble inside in Gibson. Admittedly, it has been a small sample with only 10 games played for each of them, but the early returns are not looking promising. Gibson and McDermott sport PER’s of 11.5 and 5.9 respectively (average player PER is 15) and Donovan hasn’t figured out to play Gibson and Kanter together, which in theory should be the makings of a dominant defensive lineup.
Donovan has shown that he has the long-term potential to be a good coach in the NBA. His handling of Russell Westbrook shows that he seems to be prioritizing experimental play in the regular season in lieu of wins, a dangerous ploy for any coach hoping to have a long future as an NBA coach.