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Billy Donovan, the Thunder, and the Beautiful Game

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Rookie Head Coach Billy Donovan has to do more than just win - he has to do it playing beautifully.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever an NBA team hires a new head coach, the goals are generally pretty well-defined. Get more wins. Get more out of a young star player. Re-energize the franchise.

This year, Billy Donovan is taking the reins of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his goals and challenges are perhaps unprecedented in league history. He inherits a team falling somewhere between good and great; the Thunder have already won – a lot. He gets two megastars both in their prime, with both having already reached levels reaching the loftiest of expectations yet saddled with three consecutive years of shortcomings.  Meanwhile, the franchise and its fans don’t need to be told that a fork in the road draws near. The entire OKC franchise is engulfed in an anxious excitement as they count down the days until the 2015-16 kicks off, while keeping an eye squarely fixed on the following summer and their MVP's impending free agency. For almost a calendar year, no water will pass beneath any bridge, and the space between all lines will be the source of in-depth commentary.

Such is Billy Donovan’s new office environment. His goal is not just to win, but to achieve greater (and perhaps even impossible) levels of success. He has to win, and his offensive system needs to be the clear reason he wins, lest his influence will be seen as irrelevant or redundant to that of his superstar core. Sam Presti didn’t hire Donovan as the next guy in line to manage Durant and Westbrook. He brought him in to be the guy to take perhaps the most athletic, most talented duo in recent history to compete for a championship. It will start on offense, where Donovan will be installing a system that has to be organized and ball-movement oriented, or the first close loss that sees the team struggle to score down the stretch will bring the same old criticism of what will be called the "same old Thunder." They can’t run an offense. They won’t run an offense. Donovan must know this storm is coming if he cannot successfully implement a potent system right from the outset. He must win, and he must do it in a style that silences five years’ worth of criticism.

There will be substantial challenges in revamping an offense that has finished in the top five in points per game every year for the past half decade yet always seems to fizzle in the heat of the playoffs. There will be new sets and new vocabulary, all communicated by a new voice in the huddle. A relative transition period is inevitable, but will ultimately be mitigated by a cast of elite offensive talent. Per 100 possessions, the should-have-been starting lineup entering the 2014-15 season (Westbrook/Roberson/Durant/Ibaka/Adams) outscored opponents by 15 points and grabbed nearly five more offensive rebounds. The fact that opposing defenses only had to guard three positions in that lineup speaks not only to the preposterous offensive skill-sets possessed by Westbrook and Durant, and to a lesser extent Ibaka, but also of the potential for Donovan to mix and match at the 2 and 5 spots to add even more firepower. A dream scenario features Enes Kanter splitting minutes with Adams alongside the other starters, with Cameron Payne quickly emerging as a true backcourt scoring threat to augment Westbrook’s hellfire production.

Despite his substantial, widely-noted shortcomings on defense, Kanter was so good in the pick-and-roll offense last year that adding a merely competent scorer at shooting guard will be nothing short of a tectonic shift in Thunder basketball. Enes Kanter and Kevin Durant have never worn the same jersey on the same night, and even if Donovan is forced to used Dion Waiters as the exclusive offensive 2, the Thunder should score more points - more easily – than they ever have.

But the Thunder have always scored. Even last year, as a non-playoff team, the Thunder tied for  4th in points per game at 104.0, and posted an offensive rating of 107.8, good for 10th in the league. The issue has rarely shown up in the box score or statistical rankings. Instead, it has always been about how the Thunder have scored – and how they have not. The narrative has been as accurate as it has been repetitive: too many stagnant sets and too much isolation. Too many 15-dribble possessions by Russell Westbrook, and too many clear outs for Serge Ibaka that inexplicably result in three-point attempts. The curse of OKC’s sheer talent has always been how regularly players like Westbrook and Ibaka are able to finish off so many fundamentally flawed possessions. So often, Westbrook wills his way to just enough buckets (or free throw attempts), and Ibaka hits just enough of those god-forsaken contested threes (or worse, 21 footers) to pull away from less-talented teams. The Thunder’s box scores and even win-loss columns have traditionally hidden some monumentally sloppy and lazy offensive performances that are instead later posed as examples of the team "grinding out a win" or "battling through a tough shooting night."

With Billy Donovan at the helm, a huge offensive output won’t be enough. The Thunder have to score, they have to win, and they have to do it all playing The Beautiful Game. By taking the job as the Thunder’s head coach, Billy Donovan, like perhaps no coach in history, will have 115-point scoring nights scrutinized. He will be asked questions about Russell Westbrook’s shot selection after games in which Russ pours in 35 points on 18 shots. Kevin Durant may lead the league in scoring, and Donovan will be tasked with explaining whether or not 32 points per game is enough for his star forward. The Thunder’s embarrassment of riches will leave Donovan chasing a white rabbit every night. Easy victories and huge stats won’t be enough. Only an undefined state of offensive nirvana will quiet OKC’s critics. How’s that for pressure on a first year head coach?

And yet, even if the new offensive system is immediately successful, the first losing streak will still bring cries of "Let Westbrook Be Westbrook!" and "Durant is the best ISO player in the game – why force him to play in such a rigid offense?" That’s the fine line that high-profile coaches must tip-toe around. Billy Donovan is faced with a no-win situation where he must completely reinvent Westbrook and Durant while still allowing them to do what has previously made them so successful in the past. OKC will win big,  and win often, and there will be critics no matter what.

The Billy Donovan Locker Room Presence is already drawing rave reviews from core Thunder players. The Billy Donovan Face of the Franchise has said all of the right things, and seems to have rejuvenated the roster from top to bottom.

The Billy Donovan Offensive System is what will be judged more than any other component of his tenure as Thunder coach. Was team defense a disaster in 2014-15? Yes, and that is a more polite way of putting it than the team deserves. But despite what almost has to be an improved defense in the upcoming season, the 2015-16 Thunder have to win by scoring. And they have to score by executing Billy Donovan’s offense. If, a few months into the season, even a successful Thunder team is still falling back on the same aesthetically hideous bad habits on offense, it may be the first harbinger of what could be a brief stint in the Western Conference Playoffs. Conversely, a small statistical step back on the offensive end that shows glimpses of evolving into a steamrolling juggernaut could be the rest of the league’s worst nightmare.

While there is nothing simple about designing an NBA offense, Donovan has it pretty easy. Any offense that is unable to highlight Durant’s immense skill set is simply offensive. While corralling Westbrook may present a more unique challenge, Donovan knows it’s one that 29 other coaches would gladly wait in line for. As a team installs an entirely new offense, Donovan can rest easy knowing that if the shot clock is winding down, he can sit back and watch some of the game’s best players go to work.

No matter the initial results, Billy Donovan will say all the right things. He’ll talk about progress and how all that matters is finding a way to win. Progress and wins are important, but the Thunder and their coach will be judged by the absolute value of their play. When a championship is the only marked representative of that progress, November victories over the teams like the Sixers will be judged more by how well-oiled Donovan’s system presents itself than by the effect they have on the win-loss column.

The scrutiny Donovan will face in his first season will perhaps be less similar to the NBA’s other rookie head coaches, and more like the challenges faced by FC Barcelona’s Luis Enrique or Brazil’s Dunga – two soccer managers whose fans prioritize highlight-reel beauty as a very, very close second to actual victories. If Donovan's offense is sloppy or, worse, ineffective, history will judge him as simply another figurehead who failed to maximize one of the most talented offensive rosters in league history. None of the previous sky-high benchmarks set for Scott Brooks are being reset for Donovan, and if he can’t help the Westbrook, Durant, and the Thunder win playing The Beautiful Game, he’ll end up just another guy who couldn’t solve an easy puzzle.