The Thunder's 2015-16 regular season is finally finished, and before we jump to the much-anticipated playoffs, it would serve us well to reflect a bit on what has transpired. Here are a series of questions we put forth to a few of the WTLC staff to comment on briefly, and we welcome everyone to chime in as well in the comments.
1. What were your expectations for Donovan's inaugural coaching season, and how did he perform relative to those expectations?
Brandon - Donovan's inaugural season went about as expected for me. OKC has shown over the past five-six seasons that with a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that they can win between 50-60 games every year. Much like last season, ball movement and spacing were the words that garnered the most hype from training camp. However, there wasn't much of a difference in terms of the on court product. It's hard to completely overhaul a system that an organization has had implemented since its formation, but we all had our hopes up that we might see the slightest difference in the offense and were let down once more. Where Donovan has been an improvement is with the media. Whereas Scott Brooks seemed to a robot created in a lab by Sam Presti, Donovan actually had conversations with reporters and even his players. In the end a 55-win season as a rookie coach is a huge accomplishment, but we're going to need NCAA Tournament Billy Donovan to show up if OKC is to challenge for the title this season.
Jeff - The expectations for Donovan’s rookie coaching season were unprecedented not by size, but by a lack of general definition. Everyone expected him to lead the team to 55-60 regular season wins, which he has done (though barely), and everyone hoped the team would at least enter the playoff race with a reasonable seed and a chance to dethrone the past two Western Conference champions.
But apart from that, what were anyone’s specific expectations for how he would do it? Did anyone expect an already-good Thunder team to suddenly flip the switch and ignite elite ball movement and Spurs-ian defensive tactics? Anyone who did is certainly disappointed by now, but it’s more realistic to think that such a revelation was never Donovan’s true mandate. The actual reason for his hiring probably lies somewhere between the need for a new voice and a fresh face to help reign in OKC’s elite talent and merely change for the sake of change. Those arguing that Scott Brooks had seemingly peaked as the coach of this team probably weren’t wrong.
Where Donovan absolutely succeeded, though, is in not trying to disrupt the team’s core identity. An outrageous byproduct of the Warriors’ season has been the anxious need for analysts and fans to wonder how certain teams and players can adjust to play "Warriors ball," despite the fact that playing "Warriors ball" against the Warriors is the path of least resistance towards humiliating defeat. Want to run and gun and throw up 30 footers against Golden State? Be their guest. Do any Thunder fans want to see similar ball movement, knowing that said ball movement will often result in things like Kevin Durant turning down shots to feed Kyle Singler?
What is undeniable is that Donovan let the Thunder play their game, added a slight bit of refinement, and has helped lead them to exactly where they want to be: first-round favorites with a reasonable chance to challenge the Spurs in Round 2.
Sherman - Rewinding the Thunder to a year ago, a season lost, you won't find me equivocating about my preference of a new head coach after Brooks got fired. I have and always will be opposed to coaches going directly from the college rankings, even a wonderfully successful one like Florida, to a head coaching gig in the NBA without any prior professional coaching experience. I've seen too many high profile college coaches, apparently secure in their massive egos and confident in their abilities to bend young millionaires to their will, completely fail and take the franchise with them (Tim Floyd in Chicago and Rick Pitino in Boston being the most obvious examples). The one rare exception has been the Celtics' Brad Stevens, who was given the perfect mix of opportunity to succeed - he brought a high coaching acumen (but without the ego) from a successful program at a mid-major (Butler), he was brought in with low expectations, and he was allowed to completely rebuild the team concept. So far, the Celtics' patience and commitment has been rewarded.
Knowing all this, and then watching Sam Presti hand the keys of the Ferrari to Billy Donovan, had me shaking my head. Donovan's 1st year challenges could not have been more daunting - lead a championship contending team with 2 of the 5 best players in the world, rebuild the offense, polish the bench, bring greater accountability, and make it happen with the risk that if it all falls apart, Kevin Durant may leave the team in less than a year. To Donovan's eternal credit, he didn't wilt and have the kind of season that Fred "Zoidberg" Hoiberg did (which is about what I would expect from a college coach). But to Donovan's detriment, I'm not sure how far he moved the needle. Despite coming from an 'advanced metrics' coaching perch, he has seemingly ignored the most glaring ones, particularly pertaining to line-ups, pace, and bench rotations, and most glaringly, we still see the same 4th quarter foibles that have plagued OKC since...I don't know...2011(!).
My final verdict, entering these playoffs - Donovan deserved a fair shot as a head coach in the NBA with reasonable expectations and lots of patience. Too bad he agreed to a head coaching job that offered neither. But...we're not done yet.
Kevin - After Scotty Brooks, I was kinda hoping for a true-blue strategist. Didn't come in with much knowledge of Billy Donovan before the season, but the way people talked about him, it sounded like he ran a pretty tight offense in Florida. Well, I thought he was ostensibly the same as Brooks. That's probably more a function of coming in and coaching a team with this kind of structure (see: David Blatt in Cleveland), but I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little disappointed. The late-game sets are uninspiring.
R.K. - Coming in as a college coach I expected Billy the kid to face challenges adjusting to working with pro players instead of college kids and he has. I think he will improve in that area in time as he gains trust and respect. I feel he inherited a big dumpster fire, especially on defense and it would take a ton of trial and error to sort through a large number of role players with various skill sets and it has. Would have liked to see him settle on a tighter rotation earlier but understand that I am an outsider looking in and not in the inner circle and have a complete understanding of what may have caused the extended rotation experimenting. Had he been hired last season, most of the experimenting we saw this season would have been finished and this season would have progressed much smoother.
Personally, I think Donovan was placed into almost a no win situation this year so I wasn't expecting a miracle, just a solid effort so all and all, considering some of the tragic setbacks he and his staff have had to deal with, I am not totally disappointed in Donovan.
2. To what degree do you think the Thunder addressed their team weaknesses (if any)?
Brandon - They've tried throwing body after body into the rotation, but as the postseason approaches the bench still remains a weakness for the Thunder. Even though Enes Kanter put together a viable Sixth a man of the Year campaign OKC has had too many nights where their bench didn't produce. Players like Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler, Cameron Payne, Anthony Morrow, etc. are the pieces that will have the biggest effect on the Thunder's playoff outcome. If these limited wings and rookie point guard can consistently give OKC a solid 15-20 minutes on a nightly basis this team evolves into one worthy of going toe-to-toe with Golden State and San Antonio.
Jeff - As they are currently formed, the Thunder are probably unable to realistically address what many consider to be their biggest weakness: the isolation play of Durant and Westbrook in the closing minutes of games. To go away from this is, unfortunately, also to go away from their sheer talent and athleticism – the single greatest advantages they have over nearly every opponent.
The Thunder have laid the groundwork for a talented bench in 2016-17, assuming they can keep Durant for at least one more year. Enes Kanter is the rare NBA big man who can create his own shot from 15-feet and 5-feet alike (much less one coming off the bench), and Cameron Payne has shown the talent and the willingness to make plays in key situations. The problem is that building a bench with quality youth is not a quick process, so their method of augmenting their bench talent will probably end up having been a failure if they eventually lose Durant and/or Westbrook in free agency. Even if they are picking up quality pieces, the process has to fit the timeframe, and I’m not sure Cameron Payne’s career arc fits whatever window of contention the Thunder might have.
Sherman - The most necessary weakness that the Thunder have had over the past few seasons is to put an overwhelming burden of production on their two stars Durant and Westbrook. The top-heavy approach brings lots of success, but if one or both of them falter, especially in the 4th quarter, there is little fall back upon. You can solve that dilemma either by adding another playmaker OR strengthening your system so that role players simply have to do their part.
To OKC's credit, we saw a little bit of both, albeit in limited dosage. We got to see rookie Cameron Payne begin to make his mark on the 2nd unit and also as a solid finisher, given his offensive ability, and we got to see what Westbrook can do when he's maintaining distribution mode in the 4th quarter, routinely setting up role players Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, and Steven Adams in key moments. However, the execution is still sloppy, with bad turnovers and clipped possessions often undermining finishing efforts. OKC notoriously lost 14 4th quarter leads this season, but that statistic is a bit misleading, as Royce Young writes:
They did lead the league in leads lost going into the fourth quarter with 14. That stat can be misleading, though. They were 41-5 when leading by five or more; 36-3 when up six or more; and 30-1 when up 10 or more entering the fourth.
Ultimately, there were steps in the right direction, but still a LOT of room to get better to be able to hold off teams, a trend that will surely be tested in the upcoming weeks.
Kevin - Like I said earlier, I was hoping that the Thunder would spice the offense up with more creative sets. Their defense slipped as well, so it's a loss on that front as well. Not to poo-poo the Thunder too much – they're the third best team in the league as far as I'm concerned, and the conversation is relative to two historically noteworthy juggernauts – but there wasn't much forward progress this season, I thought. Not that they would've really needed it in a typical year.
R.K. - Defense: After the trade what was left of the defense collapsed. After seeing the Thunder bench win the fourth quarter against both Portland and San Antonio recently, I think the team's primary weakness was vastly improved by end of season. We knew the role players could score when given the opportunity, but they couldn't guard a cemetery. I remember thinking as I watched them play defense at the end of last season that it was like watching someone herd cats and saw a lot of that early this season as well. Still not perfect, but the defense is going in the right direction compared to what I seeing at the end of last year.
3. What was your regular season highlight?
Brandon - The only right answer to this question is the regular season finale. With KD, Russ and Serge Ibaka all having the night off to rest the second unit along with Steven Adams and Andre Roberson scraped their way to a two-point defeat in overtime at the AT&T Center. Yet, the real highlight was the end of game production from the Thunder. A Waiters missed step back jumper followed by a turnover off the sideline out of bounds play to end the game. Never change Dion, never change.
Jeff - Both wins over the Magic were incredible, and featured everything a fan could ever want in a Thunder game – huge plays made by the stars and stat lines that look like guitar tabs for Van Halen solos.
Sherman - It is really odd that there was never really a signature "KD - Slim Reaper" kind of game this season, but that is a testament to how great of a complete player (at least offensively) Westbrook morphed into this season, and no game better underscored that than the Thunder's win over the Clippers on March 10th. That was, in the words of Durant, Westbrook's "NBA2K on rookie" game where he recorded 25-19-11 in 37 minutes, thoroughly overwhelming Chris Paul and the Clippers. It was the full realization of what Westbrook can do when he chooses to utilize his full offensive repertoire to break down a defense. Furthermore, it came a week after an epic collapse against LA, which made the correction of the team's direction all the more prominent.
Kevin - Russell Westbrook, man. He's overtaken Kevin Durant, at least in terms of watchability and fun, in my books. The triple-double record is fun to talk about, but what I'm really overwhelmed by is the pure quantity in terms of THINGS MADE HAPPEN. Consider the mad fast break dashes, staggering box score totals, usage percentage and so on. What it comes down to is a superhuman amount of energy exerted over 80 games (and 80 games is impressive in its own right).
R.K. - This one is simple. When Cameron Payne was promoted to back up point guard. That is when things began to fall into place.
4. What was your regular season lowlight?
Brandon - The trade deadline. After steadfastly denying that any swooping big changes were going to happen with the Thunder roster I got caught up in the rumors of potential PJ Tucker, Gerald Henderson, Courtney Lee additions in OKC. Once at my peak of belief that a new a wingman was on the way I found out that the team had acquired Randy Foye. Foye is a solid player, but after allowing myself to believe the 3-and-D wing that OKC has needed since the untimely departure of James Harden.
Jeff - The Curry shot, without even a hint of doubt. The first two Golden State losses in general were especially depressing. Through 8 quarters, the Thunder played winning basketball against Golden State through about 5 ½ of them. The team battled back so well after the first half in the first game, and then was so close to grabbing a cornerstone regular-season victory in the second, and still wound up with two losses. Brutal.
Sherman - Jeff steals my #1 lowlight, but in particular loss #2 to the Warriors was doubly-painful because the Thunder and Durant...quite literally...had the win in their grasp before KD committed an awful turnover with only seconds to go, and then fouled Andre Iguodala as time expired, giving Golden State new life.
For my runner-up, I'm going to go with the 2nd loss to the Cavaliers following All Star Weekend. OKC had just come off a dominant stretch leading up to the break and they should have taken the challenge to show LeBron and the Cavs that they would be undaunted against the East's best. Instead they played a horrible game and got blown out on their home court, leading many of us to wonder if James simply has KD's number. That question still has no positive answer, and may not unless/until OKC meets Cleveland in the Finals.
Kevin - That stretch of games immediately after the All-Star break, where they really struggled amid a brutal schedule and some poor play by their own making. I thought, at that point, there were real issues being uncovered, but the conversation shifted too far towards "this team has fundamental issues" as opposed to "this team is really good against historically great competition."
R.K. - Another easy one, when Randy Foye took Cameron Payne's minutes after the trade. The no PG lineup is a bust, Foye has zero growth potential, and Payne should have been allowed to continue to develop.
5. Is OKC ready for the playoffs to begin?
Brandon - YES! This has been the part of the season that all OKC fans have looked forward to since the opening tip off of the 2015-16 season. This postseason could have a huge impact on the present and future of the Thunder franchise and while I'm sure it's going to make me into a walking ball of frenzy and pressure. But I'll take that over not watching KD and Russ play playoff basketball.
Jeff - The Thunder have been anxiously awaiting these playoffs for two years – they better be ready. I wish Westbrook was shooting a little better going into the playoffs, but the optimist in me says it’s a good thing he didn’t peak too early. First up for OKC is a team that doesn’t turn the ball over often, so there won’t be many easy buckets – the halfcourt game better click early and often, or this series could get uncomfortably long.
Sherman - I thoroughly enjoyed Donovan's coaching where he rested the stars and let the B-team take on the Trail Blazers and Spurs. I really wish he had done the same in more games, because I think we learned more about the bench guys' abilities in those two games than nearly the rest of the entire season. The message that I get is that they CAN get the job done in the playoffs, but the question is, have they been given enough opportunity to try?
Kevin - Aren't we all???
R.K. - Well... ready or not, here they come. I think they have the potential to be ready. We have seen glimpses of how good they can be. I just hope they recognized them as they were happening and strive for that level of excellence from here on because after Dallas they have no choice. San Antonio, then Golden State, then most likely Cleveland.... take your choice, if you don't take care of your business against any of those 3 teams they will chew you up and spit you out.