There's been a lot of criticism of Billy Donovan over the first seven games of his tenure as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Most notably, Charles Barkley accused the Thunder of running the same offense that they always have during crunch time. But there was also a good column from Michael Erler of Pounding the Rock, describing the argument against coach Donovan in a more eloquent fashion. Here's the crux of his argument:
"Nothing has changed in Oklahoma City and it's fair to wonder if anything ever will. Either the organization is held hostage by the stubborn competitiveness of stars who cannot accept coaching (or even protective measures in their own best interests) or it's a flawed philosophy from the top down. No matter who's the coach and who the role players are, the stars continue to play all the meaningful minutes and they continue to take virtually every shot down the stretch of games, no matter how well contested. Their front office keeps adding offensive talent to the equation, in the futile hope that someone, anyone will click with Durant and Westbrook enough to earn their trust in crunch-time. All it does is the weaken the team defensively, further emboldening KD and Russ to take the matter into their own hands."
It's really hard to argue against this, because it's all correct. All you can really say in defense of Donovan directly is that he hasn't been given enough time to iron things out. By the end of the year, it's possible that KD and Westbrook will trust their teammates a bit more. We've seen flashes of it. And we also have seen secondary players like Waiters and Kanter step into major roles during key moments. So if things like that can continue to flourish, the Thunder might be a lot more fearsome by season's end.
But there are a few definitely positive things in Donovan's favor that I feel like everyone's missing out on. Here's the three biggest reasons to feel good about Donovan moving forward:
1. Brooks had a rock solid rotation, and Donovan doesn't
Seven games into the season, Billy Donovan has given 12 different players meaningful time at some point or another. By contrast, Scott Brooks' best teams were always strictly limited to 10 men.
Donovan's flexibility doesn't mean that guys don't know their roles, either. Under Donovan, players seem to fall under three strict categories. The first, a guaranteed rotation player, will play every night regardless of how they're doing. These players are Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kanter, Waiters, Adams, Roberson, and Augustin. Category number two under Donovan would be fringe rotation players. These guys won't play every single night, but they will be brought in if it's seen as advantageous to the lineup. Collison, Singler, Morrow, and McGary fall under this category. The third category is for emergency options and prospects who likely won't be seeing time. This includes Payne, Novak, and Huestis.
Donovan's ability to play different players on different nights means that the Thunder can adjust to their opponent. For example, Donovan chose to play Mitch McGary and Kyle Singler against the run and gun Suns. McGary was put in the game for energy, while Singler was put in the game for perimeter defense. Neither had a particularly inspiring performance, but the Thunder won by 21. Another good example of Donovan's adjustments comes from opening night against the Spurs. Donovan went with Nick Collison and Anthony Morrow on that night. Morrow's quick threes forced the slower Spurs to guard the perimeter, while Collison's solid inside defense got the Thunder some key stops.
By contrast, Scott Brooks would be making none of these adjustments. Brooks went with the same 10 guys every single night, and had very regular substitution patterns. During crunch time, Brooks wouldn't even make adjustments. Instead, Brooks played with the same five players at the end of every game. This made the Thunder consistent, but predictable.
(Note: Obviously, this is ignoring Brooks' last year as coach, simply because constant injuries forced him to experiment with lineups.)
2. Enes Kanter is focusing on his inside game
Last year, Kanter took 28% of shots outside the paint and inside the three point line. This year, through seven games, Kanter has taken 20.9% of his shots outside the paint and inside the three point line. It's a small sample size, but it's clear that Coach Donovan is trying to steer Kanter away from mid-range shooting. In fact, during the pre-season, Kanter didn't take a single shot outside of the paint at all.
Getting rid of Kanter's mid-range shot entirely should be Donovan's end goal. It's apparent that Kanter can't shoot from mid-range very well. Last year, Kanter shot 35.9% from mid-range. This year, Kanter's doing even worse, shooting 30.8% from mid-range. By contrast, Serge Ibaka shot 43% from mid-range last year.
Furthermore, it's very important to have Kanter's presence at the rim as a rebounder. Donovan understands that more than anyone. To amplify Kanter's rebounding, Donovan has had Kanter play with small lineups and stay back to get defensive rebounds. As a result, Kanter's defensive rebounding rate has gone up from 7 rebounds per 36 minutes under Brooks to 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes under Donovan.
I will concede that Brooks had to expect a bit more out of Kanter due to injuries. But overall, I feel like Donovan has a better sense of how to amplify Kanter's strengths.
3. Donovan plays D.J. Augustin next to bigger players
When D.J. Augustin played with the Thunder under Scott Brooks, he shot just 37% from the field and 35% from three. This year, through seven games, Augustin has upped his percentages to 47% from the field and 46% from three.
What's the difference? Augustin has been able to play next to different personnel. Last year, the three players that spent the most time were Morrow, Waiters, and Westbrook. This year, those three players are Waiters, Kanter, and Durant. In other words, Donovan has made more of an effort to put Augustin with traditional lineups that suit his strengths. It's hard to play Augustin next to Morrow for extended periods of time, because that backcourt gives up too much defensively. For the same reason, Augustin will struggle next to Westbrook.
But when Augustin is able to play next to players like Kanter and Durant, things change. Augustin is an expert at feeding Kanter in the post off of the pick and roll. Furthermore, Augustin is a great player to use in a pick and roll with Durant. Because Augustin is such an effective shooter around screens and off the catch, it gives KD a lot of options.
Obviously, Brooks couldn't have played Augustin with KD. But Brooks could have played Augustin with Kanter more, and perhaps had a more effective bench. And Brooks would have never been willing to sit Morrow, who played every game that he was healthy last year.
How do you feel about Billy Donovan so far? Drop a comment and let us know!