Near the end of the broadcast of the Oklahoma City Thunder's 121-95 win against the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday, Fox Sport's Brian Davis praised Billy Donovan for becoming only the second rookie coach in NBA history to reach the 40 win plateau before the All-Star break. I was really excited until he revealed who did it first:
Oh well, since everything Donovan says, does or accomplishes this season will eventually be stacked up against Steve Kerr's rookie year anyway, comparing who had the easier path to 40 wins appears to be the next logical step.
Steve Kerr's Rookie Season VS Billy Donovan's Rookie Season Round 3,762, The Hard Road to 40
Based solely on winning percentage the Thunder's shiny 40 and 13 record, while praiseworthy, loses some luster compared to the Golden State Warriors' 44 and 7 mark prior to the 2015 All-Star game. Not only did the Warriors win more games, but it took the Thunder playing two additional games to crack Kerr's 40 win barrier.
However, Kerr's Warriors didn't lose their primary scoring weapon for 6 games at ANY time last season, much less during the critical adjustment games early in Kerr's tenure. In all, Kevin Durant has missed 7 games thus far this season while Stephen Curry missed a grand total of 2 games throughout the entire 2014-15 season, none prior to the break. During Durant's absence, the Thunder lost 4 games.
Additionally, the Thunder have been without defensive specialist Andre Roberson for the past 7 games. Last season, the Warriors were without their defensive watchdog Andre Iguodala for only 2 games in the same period. Ironically, both teams lost only one game without their best perimeter defender, and it was to each other. The Thunder topped the Iguodala-less Warriors by 12 on 1/16/15 and the Warriors finished off the Thunder minus Roberson with a late surge on February 6th.
Edge? Steve Kerr
An area that has helped Donovan's 40 win achievement is the schedule. Whether it be by coincidence or design, the Thunder's early line up of opponents would not make too many experts' lists of the who's who in the NBA, but it is important to note that no team has looked past the Thunder since 2011. The Warriors were considered dangerous, but they didn't earn the bulls-eye the Thunder wear every night until somewhere along the way last season.
Defense was not on Donovan's side when he took over the team. Even now there are many, including yours truly, who point to the Thunder's current ranking outside the top 10 in Defensive Efficiency as a reason for serious concern at this point.
Going into the break last season the Thunder were ranked tenth, with an overall rating of 1.000 but after their initial 53 games the Thunder dropped to 15th with a rating of 1.018 over the next 29 games.
Over that same time period, the Utah Jazz who ranked 26th with a 1.049 rating at the break catapulted to number thirteen with a final rating of 1.013 after the infamous trade that took the "defenseless" Enes Kanter out of the Jazz rotation and into the Thunder fold.
There really is no other way to put it. After the trading defensive anchor Kendrick Perkins for Kanter, the Thunder's defense totally collapsed.
Prior to the trade, the Thunder played 54 games and held 29 of their opponents under 100 points. After the trade they held only 8 opponents under the century mark. That works out to 53.7% before the trade vs a woeful 28.6% after and that during a hard no nonsense push to make the playoffs. When the dust settled the Thunder held 45.1% of their 2014-15 opponents below 100 points.
That is what Donovan walked into this season with, but there is a glimmer of hope.
To date, the Donovan's Thunder have held 47.2% of their opponents below 100. Not an impressive improvement on the overall results from last season but still a huge jump over what we were witnessing coming down the playoff stretch. Additionally, after months of experimenting with various lineups, some good, some bad, and some very very bad, the Thunder's defense is currently ranked number 11 in Defensive Efficiency with a 1.009 ranking. Virtually identical to last seasons ratings at this point with a healthier line-up and more established rotations going forward.
Obviously a great deal of that improvement comes from personnel. Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka being back on the court has clearly been a boon, but adjustments such as helping Kanter hold up more of his end of the defensive bargain deserve recognition as well.
In complete contrast to the defensive sieve Billy Donovan inherited, Steve Kerr took over a defense that ranked 3rd at the end of the 2013-14 season. Add Ron Adams on top of an elite defense and you are set to take on all comers no matter what a schedule might throw at you. Thunder fans should remember Adams. He was the defensive guru on Brooks' staff that set the foundation that eventually led the Thunder to the 2012 NBA Finals before Adams joined Tom Thibadeau's coaching staff at Chicago in 2010.
Given the choice between going into a season with an elite defense against a normal schedule vs zero defense against a soft schedule, pick the elite defense, you won't regret it.
Edge? Steve Kerr
Defense wasn't the only thing Kerr had working for him going into his rookie coaching season. The Warriors averaged 104.4 pts/gm the year before he took over. Good enough to finish 9th in the league, and seven members of that 2013-14 team played against the Thunder on February 6th. The Thunder, on the other hand, went into the same game with just 5 of the rotation players that faced the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Finals and only 4 saw any court time.
The significance is that Kerr took over a team with a clearly established core while Donovan took over a team in which his number one player had little or no playing time with a large part of the rotation.
Edge? Again... Steve Kerr.
Another huge factor working for Kerr last season came in the form of 6'7" backup point guard Shaun Livingston. They say timing is everything, and Livingston's time finally came when he signed with the Warriors on July 11, 2014.
Before destroying his knee in one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever seen in 2007, Livingston was a star on the rise. This former Parade All-American and number 4 pick in the 2004 NBA Draft fought his way back from an injury that doctors warned might cost him his left leg to orchestrating one of the most productive bench attacks in the NBA.
Edge? Shaun Livingston vs the Thunder's D.J. Augustin and rookie Cameron Payne? Clearly a no-brainer.... Steve Kerr.
Kerr 4 (injuries, defense, continuity, bench leader), Donovan 2 (number of games played, soft schedule).
An argument could be made that the additional games the Thunder played reduced time on the practice court and viewed as a wash if not a slight edge for Kerr as well.
Be that as it may, no matter how much weight one might apply toward any single factor, when it is all said and done, Billy Donovan and the Thunder deserve at least a pat on the back for being only the third team to reach 40 or more wins this season and Davis's praise of Donovan's accomplishment was well deserved.