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Sounds of Thunder: Oklahoma City Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan has altered the experiment

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We take a look at how Billy Donovan is adjusting to life after #35

Donovan may temper the revolving rotations somewhat, but he will never stop experimenting.

I became a Billy Donovan devotee during his introductory press conference as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since that time, my all-around appreciation of Donovan has only matured. To give you a sense of my perspective of Billy Donovan and the direction he is taking this team in his second season, I want to revisit some of my Donovan-related posts from last year. I am going to start at the most logical point, the beginning, Donovan’s first press conference.

Thunder Coach Billy Donovan's definition of the 3 levels of commitment:

"Here's what I think, when you’re in a highly competitive situation, you hear the word commitment used. Ok? And I just believe this in my heart to be true.

There's three types of commitment.

The first commitment is a verbal commitment, someone says they're going to do something. Well anyone can, that's the easiest commitment.

The next commitment is a physical commitment, you know? When your physically committed to doing something.

And then the third commitment is an emotional commitment, and that's when you actually give of yourself to somebody else. That you are actually emotionally connected to somebody else and emotionally take responsibility to help others...to help somebody else develop and grow."

Donovan went on to explain how his commitment philosophy translates into building a successful team:

"I think there needs to be an emotional connectivity for the team to reach its fullest potential. They've gotta be emotionally connected, because you can make a verbal and physical commitment but it takes more than that. And I would say that some of the players I had and the best teams I've been around, and I know the NBA is different than college, but I think team wise there are a lot of similarities at any level...they were emotionally invested into each other. That there was a deep rooted connection and an emotional investment and I think that is something that is very very important."

At the time I wrote about this, we had no idea what the next season would bring or how far Donovan’s philosophy would take OKC. However, according to Andre Iguodala, the Thunder plateaued as the playoff’s best team —and that is pretty far indeed.

Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind. - Theodore Roosevelt

It’s the old adage, actions speak louder than words, but old or not, those words still ring true. In Donovan’s case, his philosophy on the three levels of commitment are not just a team lesson, they are a life lesson, and one that saw he and his family through one of their darkest hours. The loss of a child.

In November of 2000, just a week before her scheduled birth, Jacqueline Donovan died when her umbilical cord became wrapped around her ankle.

I can’t imagine a more devastating event that a couple can experience than the loss of a child. Such an event is a complete violation of the natural order of things. Parents prepare for their children to bury them, not the other way around. To make matters worse, shortly after the loss of their daughter, an ill-informed grief counselor told the Donovans that as many as 90% of couples that lose a child eventually divorce.

Billy Donovan was NOT going to let that happen. He had just lost a child. He would not also lose his family.

Florida Gulf Coast v Florida Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Shortly after learning of the Donovan’s unfortunate circumstances, long time mentor and friend, Rick Pitino, called Donovan and said, “You cannot go back to work. You cannot go back to your team. Not yet. You need to stay home and make sure you're with her. This can cause problems in your family. Don't let it.”

Pitino spoke from experience, having lost an infant son some years before, and Donovan listened. From a ThePostGame article written by Jason King on January 1, 2011:

Donovan met with his players on Nov. 3 and told them he needed some time away and that he wasn't sure when he'd return. He spent the next week at home with Christine, helping her around the house, talking with her, listening to her.

Rather than weaken, their relationship began to flourish. Eventually, Christine convinced her husband to return to work, where people weren’t quite sure how to act.

"Even when a wound heals, there is still a scar -- and he will always have that scar," says Dr. Nick Cassisi, Florida's faculty rep at the time and one of Donovan’s closest friends. "What do you say to make it easy?"

Donovan told people about the inspirational message he saw on the sign at the church in the hours after Jacqueline's death. One of his staff members, Tim Maloney, took a picture of the marquee and gave it to his boss in a frame. Donovan looked at it often.

That message?

“God is good.... all the time.”

Donovan’s initial reaction?

"I'm sitting there," Donovan says, "and I look over at this church, and there's a sign on the marquee that says, 'God is Good All of the Time.' I kind of shook my head and thought, 'What's good about this?'

"But then I sat there a little longer, and I said to myself, 'I've got an incredible wife, and right now I'm going home to three healthy kids.' A lot of times, when bad things happen in your life, you fail to remember all the good things that are in your life, too.

"At that moment, a calm came over me, a peace that made me realize that, although this was a terrible loss, I was still very, very blessed."

As stated, rather than crumble, Donovan’s family relationships flourished. Forget basketball, this was life stripped down to its most primitive and cruel core —and the three levels of commitment, Donovan’s life philosophy, transcended mere words. This ethos became a lifeline to a family’s survival. And the verbal, physical and essential emotional commitment the Donovans made to one another turned tragedy into an unbreakable bond.

Four years after Jacqueline passed, Donovan, a devout Catholic, gave this answer to a question posed in the Catholic Exchange, November 4, 2004:

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what happened to you and Christine a year and a half ago? (the Catholic Exchange article came from an interview Donovan did with “The Word Among Us” in January of 2003)

A: In October of 2000, when Christine was nine months pregnant with our fourth child, she became concerned because all of a sudden, she wasn’t feeling any movement from the baby. A few days later, our daughter Jacqueline was stillborn. It was the most devastating experience we ever went through. I can’t begin to explain what Christine was feeling. She had carried Jacqueline within her for so long. For me, it was very hard to accept. I know Jacqueline is in a better place, but not having her with us really hurt.

When I asked, “Why?” my mind raced. Was it because I wasn’t a good person? Did I do something to offend or upset God? Is God doing something drastic to get my attention? In hindsight, I don’t believe any of that stuff now. We will never know why our daughter died. We would love to have Jacqueline with us and to watch her grow and develop, but for some reason God wanted her with Him. This is the way we look at it. Maybe Jacqueline’s not being here is the best thing for her. (emphasis mine)

What happened to Jacqueline affected my outlook on life. I saw how fragile life could be. I saw how we are here on earth for only a short time. I saw how God wanted me to use every second of my life to do the best job that I could with my family, with the players and coaches, and in my life in general.

I’ll never forget what it felt like for Christine and me to tell our kids — ages eight, six, and three — that their baby sister wouldn’t be coming home. It was very painful and yet, I believe that our great loss will bring us closer together as a family and closer to God.

Sadly, Donovan witnessed how important interpersonal commitment is on multiple occasions. Little Jacqueline Patricia was laid to rest at the cemetery at Forest Meadows Funeral Home in Gainesville, FL on November 3rd, 2000. Beside her lie John Patrick Pelphreys and Brandon Harrell Grant, the infant sons of John and Tracy Pelphreys, and current assistant coach Anthony Grant and wife Christina.

Thunder Assistant Coach Anthony Grant Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Just twenty-one months before the Donovan’s loss, Coach Grant and his wife lost their son to a ruptured placenta. Also, the Pelphreys lost their child to complications from a treatment for an iso-immunization condition Tracy had just 34 months later.

Former Donovan assistant, John Pelphrey Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Three families, three tragedies, three levels of commitment. Donovan doesn’t just talk commitment, he embodies it. Consequently, who is to say his staunch belief didn’t play a major role in leading the Florida Gators to National Championships in 2006 and 2007. One thing is certain though, Donovan’s creed took the Thunder to heights no one expected in 2016.

The 2015-16 Oklahoma City Thunder... who would have thought.

Long time Thunder head coach Scott Brooks was gone, Kevin Durant’s future was in question after spending much of the previous season riding a scooter, and a rookie college coach was taking control of the team! LIONS, TIGERS, AND BEARS... oh my!

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder Press Conference Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A team, considered by most a perennial title contender when healthy, was now a team entering the season with more questions surrounding it than a SAT exam. Would Durant come back 100%? How well would a college coach, even a successful one, transition to the NBA? After many years of relatively injury free seasons, was 2015 and its plethora of physical setbacks a sign of things to come? How would the team respond to a new coach and would the new hire result in the loss of #35 when the hounds came sniffing at his pending free agency door that summer?

Many felt, myself included, that the coaching change came a year too late. That Donovan would need a season to grasp the professional nuances and earn his team’s respect. I was wrong. Lo and behold, after 82 games of seemingly crazy experimentation and endless rotational changes, Donovan surprised everyone in the playoffs.

Personally, I felt pushing the Spurs in the second round would be the benchmark to naming 2016 a success. I even confided such sentiment to J.A. Sherman before the postseason. Even though I wrote more posts about trusting Donovan than any writer at WTLC last season, I never actually allowed myself to dream Donovan and the Thunder would best the greatest statistical San Antonio Spurs iteration in the playoffs. Yet, OKC did just that, and followed suit by pushing the best regular season team of all-time, the Golden State Warriors, to the brink of elimination in the Western Conference Finals. Remarkable. Truly remarkable.

I have my theory about why the best team in the 2016 playoffs, according to Iguodala, didn’t finish the job, and yes, that theory relates to what transpired on July 4th, but it doesn’t matter now, #35 is but a distant memory. (or would be if he would just shut up about it)

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder Press Conference Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

No, this post is about life in the post #35 era and what I see Billy Donovan doing differently as a result.

Logically, it makes perfect sense to center an offense around a generational player, and in the Thunder’s case, two generational players. However, centering an offense around two players doesn’t mean they are the only two players in the offense. An issue that was a recurring theme for much of last season.

Many were critical that relying on just two players, especially at the end of close games, was by design. I disagreed then and after seeing what Donovan’s offense was capable of after games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Finals, I will disagree with that assessment until doomsday.

Donovan’s plan was to take the two-man isolation game Westbrook and Durant had employed during the Brooks era and expound upon it. To use how teams defended the iso game against them. To take advantage of blatant double teaming to get wide-open shots for others in the offense, and thus open more opportunities for the iso game, making it that much more effective.

At times during the season, we saw Donovan’s system at work, and in games 3 and 4 of the WCF’s its beauty was in full bloom and it was obvious to anyone that watched those games that the Thunder were just what Iguodala said they were, the best team in the NBA. Unfortunately, old habits apparently die hard and the two-headed..... nah.... that’s not accurate (and it wasn’t when I first coined the phrase last season. I only called it the two-headed monster in the hopes that #35 was sticking around)... the one-headed monster reared its ugly head again and the Thunder blew a three-games-to-one lead.

Now that beast is gone. The Dark Lord has taken the advice of Horace Greeley and gone west. So be it. Life goes on.

The 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder..... Life after 35.

I’m certain it was a luxury for Donovan to have two proven super-stars to work around last season. As a coach completely sold on the virtues of advanced statistics, Billy knows the more data one can accumulate over the course of an 82-game season, the more accurate and reliable personnel decisions become.

Westbrook and #35’s talent allowed a measure of leeway for more experimentation with rotations he probably wouldn’t have otherwise tried. Now a big part of that leeway is gone. Now Donovan has one star and a bench full of promising, yet unproven talent.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Oklahoma City Thunder
Russ draws a crowd. He needs help.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike last season, in which Donovan hoped to see every player on the floor involved with the offense, this year demands that each player contribute on every possession. Shots that could be deferred to Westbrook or that other guy now have to go up, and with confidence. And in that lies the rub.

Confidence.

When the game is on the line and Westbrook is being double or triple teamed, who you gonna call? Well, contrary to what many believe, a lot of players on this current Thunder roster are ready to take up the slack. I’ve said countless times they were ALWAYS ready to take up the slack. They just rarely received an opportunity to prove themselves.

Case in point. Andre Roberson.

I’m watching the Thunder’s last two games and I can hear the Roberson-haters out there squawking about Robes being in at crunch time. WELL HEAR THIS!!! Had it not been for the HUGE late three-point daggers that Robes dropped in each of those contests Oklahoma City likely wouldn’t have earned victories.

Against Washington, the Thunder were down by seven in the fourth, and reeling. The team had blown a double-digit lead and the lid was the basket so tight it took a 25- foot ICBM from Roberson to blow it off with just 3:03 remaining in the game. Robes shot cut the Wizard lead to four, the Thunder went on to tie the game, force overtime, and win it going away in the extra stanza.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Two night prior, the Thunder were in New York playing the Knicks. Again, the offense stagnated as the Thunder dangled on the precipice of a crushing loss when Roberson nailed the 24-footer from the corner with 3:47 left, thus turning a two- point Thunder cliff hanger into a five-point, two-possession cushion. Ultimately, the Thunder would parlay this advantage into a satisfying eight-point win.

Those shots breed confidence, and are exactly what Kenny Smith spoke of last season when he said this after a Thunder win against the Toronto Raptors:

"When you have arguably two of the top five basketball players in the world on one team, when they get the ball as great players as Charles Barkley did, as Shaq did as well, every time they feel they have the advantage....

However, for continuity of the game, your advantage sometimes is a disadvantage because when you don't allow guys to be participating, then they shy away from moments." (emphasis mine)

Smith went on to discuss how critical it is to nurture a player’s confidence in make-or —break moments. To accept there will be failure before there is success —but in the end the effort will pay huge dividends.

Last year Robes wouldn’t have taken those shots, much less made them. In fact, he was taking those shots two weeks ago, and it was killing the flow of the offense. Now he is taking them, and making them, but not without some painful misses along the way. Here is the thing, however, those misses were painful, but not the end of the world. Robes shot, Robes missed, and the sun came out tomorrow.... the world didn’t end. That was Robes’ first obstacle, overcoming the fear of failure, and he cleared it.

Hats off to Russell Westbrook for continuing to pass the ball to a wide-open Andre Roberson, and not letting Robes quit. Also, hats off to Billy Donovan for helping Westbrook understand why.

If Robes can do it... don’t you see readers? If Robes can do it, then Victor Oladipo can do it, then Enes Kanter can do it, and Steven Adams, and Domantas Sabonis, and on and on right down the Thunder roster.

No one knows what the rest of this season will bring, but I truly feel it will be an exercise in confidence building to prepare every player on this roster to rise to the challenge when their number is called. Donovan will still experiment, he will still have Semaj Christon on the floor late in a tight game at times just to see how he responds. He will still do things that defy logic, but after starting the season 6 and 1, and then losing seven of nine games, I sense a shift in Donovan’s tweaking.

For one thing, Anthony Morrow —the 11th best three-point shooter of all time— has finally been brought out of moth balls, and his impact was immediately felt. The Thunder have won four of the five games in which AMo has logged meaningful minutes. With this development, the dead offensive quarters in which the team had produced embarrassing High School type numbers have all but disappeared. Yes, Morrow’s defense is still struggling, and will always be an issue considering his lack of foot speed and overall athleticism, but his dedication to improvement may turn this one-way player into a critical part of the Thunder’s playoff hopes.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Another change I’ve noticed comes from the triple-double machine himself, Russell Westbrook. Whether prompted or not by Donovan, Russell is playing sounder defense over the last five games. Westbrook isn’t taking so many chances, and is staying tighter on his cover. I give credit where credit is due, but something tells me that Donovan reminded his lone super-star that he is the sole leader on this team and the team will do whatever he does. It’s a heavy load, but Westbrook has the shoulders to carry it.

Finally, I see Donovan relying on his coaching staff more. Steven Adams has pointed to Darko Rajakovic’s help as key to becoming one of this season’s surprises at the free throw line. Adams, a career 57.4% shooter from the stripe has missed only seven charity shots all season. According Foxsports Oklahoma’s Brian Davis, during practice, at any given moment, Darko will nail Adams with an elbow to the solar plexus and then tell a doubled over Adams to go shoot free throws.

Again, who knows how good this team will be by season’s end, or how well they will perform in the playoffs, but one thing is for certain: they will earn every win and deserve every accolade because they will do it together. Committed to each other and to one goal, just like Billy showed them.

Thunder Factoid - After twenty games last season the Thunder’s record stood at 12 and 8. The Thunder played their twentieth game against the Wizard on Wednesday night and after winning, boast the same record as the season before, 12 and 8.