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The Evolution of Billy Donovan & the Thunder

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Billy the Kid has come a long way.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Donovan has had doubters since day one in Oklahoma City. "A rookie coach? What are they thinking?!?" was the general response to his hiring. After many suggested a change to the Thunder coaching staff, they weren't happy when they got it. It was clear though that the team grown stale under long term coach Scott Brooks, and a new voice and fresh ideas were needed to get the Thunder to the next level. This is how Sam Presti put it:

"As we all know, this past year we had unique and challenging circumstances and as I have conveyed, not many people could have accomplished what Scott and this team were able to. Therefore, it is very important to state that this decision is not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain," Presti said. "We determined that, in order to stimulate progress and put ourselves in the best position next season and as we looked to the future, a transition of this kind was necessary for the program."

Donovan's appointment as head coach initially was not what fans and analysts envisioned when Brooks was given his marching orders. Injuries have had an undoubtedly tragic impact, with key players struck down at key moments every year. In Brooks' last season, almost nobody survived the season unscathed, with Durant missing nearly the entire season and Westbrook notoriously having his face broken (which cost him a single missed game, naturally).

It was clear the playing group had tuned out their coach, and Sam Presti made the hard decision of letting a man adored by his players and his city. Presti knew who he wanted though, and it was clear from day one that Presti and the ex-Florida man he had chosen for the head coaching job were on the same page.

Donovan's debut campaign endured struggles however. Defensive struggles continued, and the team was leaking points in transition as well as the half court, and were unable to get stops in crucial moments. His rotations were widely criticized, as he experimented with the array of personnel available to him as Donovan learned the pro game on the fly (but with the crucial help of Maurice Cheeks and Monty Williams).

The team's 4th quarter struggles were a thing of legend, as the Thunder lost fourteen regular season games when they held a lead heading into the final quarter. The narrative was largely overplayed as the statistics can be somewhat misleading (for example a one point lead is included), but it doesn't change the fact the whole team was horrible in the clutch.

Per, their offense in the last 5 minutes of games was around league average posting a rating of 107.6 points per 100 possessions. However their defense was a dumpster fire, bleeding a horrendous 115.9 points per 100 (25th in the NBA). With an overall net rating of -8.3, they were the 24th ranked team in the NBA in clutch minutes.

For the team with the 5th best record in the NBA, it was an indictment on the problems that the Thunder have had this season. When it came down to it, Donovan's men had been horrendous at closing games.

Because of the late game struggles, they could never really get going and put together long stretches of consistent play. Their record against the league's five other best teams (by record) was 6-9, including the collapse against the Los Angeles Clippers and three incredibly dramatic losses vs the Champions Golden State Warriors. The prospect of facing the league's best teams in the playoffs was daunting.

Criticism abounded toward Donovan in the fiercest fashion. They claimed the team did not look any different under their new coach as compared to Brooks, the offense looked exactly the same (read: star-dominant and vanilla), and the defense just wasn't working under a complicated new scheme Donovan had changed to this season from Brooks' pack-the-paint-and-react defensive system.

Even though the offense rolled, averaging 109.1 points per 100 possessions, they still turned the ball over an incredible amount, and it was a trait that haunted them as much as late game struggles did. The rotations were problematic, as Kyle Singler in particular struggled to be the bench linchpin that Presti had envisioned, signing Singler to a lucrative off-season contract extension. Combine that with uncommitted and generally terrible transition defense and that's a recipe for disaster in modern basketball.

Outsiders could not understand why Donovan persisted with his experimentation throughout the season, and this became more of an issue around playoff time. When the Thunder collapsed in the fourth quarter again in game two of the Dallas Mavericks first round series, many critics ruled the Thunder out from even being competitive in the 2nd round against the Spurs.

Even as the Thunder eventually put away Dallas, their struggles particularly on the defensive end continued, as lazy switching and gambling caused them to leak points. They beat the Mavericks by 29, 11 and 14 in the remaining three games to complete a gentleman's sweep, but also conceded 102, 108 and 104 points in those contests. Then they were humiliated by the San Antonio Spurs in game one of the Western Conference semi-finals 124-92. The Spurs ruthlessly exposed every flaw in the defensive system the Thunder employed, punishing their lazy commitment and poor switching at every step, at one point going up 40 points in the 3rd quarter.

However, something changed after that humiliating defeat. After that game 1 embarrassment, the Thunder only lost once the rest of the way in winning the series 4-2.  In those five games, the defense finally showed up,  conceding only 97, 96, 97, 91, 99 points. This is against the league's 4th best offense this season, and with two wins on the home court of a team that had lost at home only once all season.

It wasn't necessarily the stars who carried the Thunder through this though. Steven Adams has had his national coming out party, as he and Enes Kanter brutalized in the Spurs in the paint. Since game two of the series, Adams averaged 11.4ppg (on 73% shooting), 12.2rpg and 1.0bpg. He played less in the Warriors series as both teams went small but he gave Draymond Green as much trouble as anyone has in a long time.

Dion Waiters also came out of nowhere to be the sixth man punch off the bench that Presti envisioned when giving up a late first round pick for him last season. He shot 44 percent from three in the Spurs series, whilst playing some of the best on-ball defense displayed by the Thunder. Later on his post work in switches against Draymond Green in the Warriors series was key to attaining the original 3-1 lead.

Whilst Serge Ibaka's playoff numbers aren't popping, posting 12.0ppg, 6.3rpg and 1.3bpg, he too found his role to play. He shot 45% from the perimeter on almost 4 attempts per game, and was great around the rim defensively. He grew game by game and may have helped allay fears during the season that he was regressing as a player at age 26. It was Ibaka's presence in the Warriors series as a versatile 5 in the "megadeath lineup" of Ibaka, Kevin Durant, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and Russell Westbrook that allows the team to do what they do defensively alongside Durant's incredible defense which has been a key feature of the Thunder's Playoff evolution.

Amidst all the tinkering, Donovan had placed trust in role players throughout the season, even though the line-ups looked haphazard. He made them just as accountable as the stars on the team, whilst giving them all an opportunity to prove themselves whilst experimenting with them in different lineups. This is something Brooks would have never done. His experimentation through the season has been justified through this deep playoff run where so many contributed.

Andre Roberson is the perfect example of Donovan's trust. Up until game five of the Warriors series, Roberson had averaged 10.3ppg, 6.5rpg, 1.5apg, 1.7spg, 1.0bpg in 28.9mpg through previous last six games while shooting 57% from the field and 58% from three. This is through the faith Donovan has put in his players, showing everyone is important.

Roberson was marginalized through the first two games vs the Warriors, and was bordering on unplayable status after the game two thumping. Donovan adjusted on the fly, and found a way to get him involved after the Warriors completely ignored him on the offensive end. Donovan used him as a cutter, slasher, and screener, forcing the Warriors to account for him defensively. 4 on 5 became 5 on 5 all of a sudden, and the series turned the Thunder's way. Here is what Donovan said about the unheralded shooting guard:

"Andre's a good basketball player, and I think sometimes the things that go missing with him is that he makes winning plays. There's lots of things he can do. I have confidence in him shooting the basketball. We can put him in different roles and different situations and put him in different screening actions and different cutting actions where he can be effective and he can be useful."

Scott Brooks was a creature of habit, with strict rotations and beliefs. Roberson's role would never have changed from standing in the corner, let alone what Donovan has done. Brooks rarely played small ball let alone adjusted his rotation night to night, something that haunted him in the 2012 NBA Finals when he refused to bench Kendrick Perkins despite the need to go smaller against Miami's versatile, smaller team.

The decision to go big with Adams, Kanter and Durant in the front court against the Spurs beat up San Antonio inside, whilst the Spurs lack of athleticism in the back court allowed the Thunder to use less of theirs to work them inside. Brooks might have made this kind of adjustment late in the series like he did in 2014, but it was too late then. Donovan kept tweaking things throughout the series and stuck with it when it worked.

It was the same in the Warriors series, after the Thunder stole game one and were blown out in game two. Donovan recognized that Kanter was mostly unplayable when he didn't have a match-up that suited him (like Anderson Varejao), and dared to go small when many analysts in their predictions said the Thunder could not win against the Warriors death line up that way.

How wrong they were. Those adjustments and employing less Kanter and Adams, whilst the megadeath lineup blew the death lineup off the floor. He placed key trust in players like Randy Foye, and even called upon the benched Anthony Morrow in game five and he provided 10 key points on the bench despite the loss. Brooks would never have taken a chance like that.

It is true that Donovan's success must be tempered by the fact that his team held a 3-1 series lead and eventually lost, but what should not be overlooked is how good he got the Thunder to be to reach that 3-1 lead in the first place. And the development of these roles players thanks to Donovan's faith and guidance is important going forward. Waiters' free agency, Durant's this year as well as Westbrook and Ibaka's next year may be impacted by the on court improvement seen this postseason.

Donovan has taken risks at key parts in series and at crucial moments, which has helped define the Thunder's fortunes. It didn't get them quite to the NBA Finals, but this is a huge part in playoff coaching, and it's helped him beat Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich, losing only three games in the process.

Amidst his successes and failures, Donovan has also been a surprisingly open interview throughout the post-season, constantly going into detail and giving press conference questions real answers rather than the generic, wide ranging responses coaches tend to give when their guard is up. This was on display even when the team was going through struggles, but never by undermining his team's long-term goals.

He was even remarkably candid and humble in the light of the Thunder's defensive evolution through the Spurs and Warriors series, explaining how the complexity of his new defensive scheme at the beginning of the season was doing more harm than good:

"To be honest with you, I think it was too confusing for them and it was too much. As we maybe simplified some things and made it very, very clear and a little bit more concrete. You have to have flexibility with what you're doing defensively. So we have our core package and our core base which I think we cleaned up and maybe they've gotten better at it. I also think the second half of the season some of the teams that we've had to play against, it's forced us to get better and grow defensively."

That sums up the evolution of the team under Donovan as compared to Brooks. They've adjusted and been versatile where they've needed to be. Presti has built a versatile roster, which has meant minutes have varied based upon matchups. Without those adjustments, there's a good chance they go home in the second round against the Spurs.

The Thunder coach is open and frank about the team going forward, and like the team he knows it only took a few minor changes and the team would likely be preparing to play the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday:

"There was opportunity for us to close out the series in 5 and 6 and 7, and we came up a little short. But I don't know if that tells the story of the full seven games if you look at the entirety. What will keep me up is I think the habits that we were able to build during the course of these playoffs, how can we continue to build next year in training camp? But hopeful that we can utilize these experiences and grow together to become even better collectively and individually."

With what they have right now, the Thunder were closer than anyone else to beating the best regular season team of all time and perhaps the greatest team of the modern era. This is with a coach in his first year with a group, who is figuring out how best to get the most from his personnel, both for his stars or his role players. Donovan stood toe to toe with the three coaches who are widely regarded as the best in the NBA: Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and Rick Carlisle. There is room for improvement without a doubt, but also there is room for acknowledgement of Donovan's impact.

With the doubters now silenced and some even singing Donovan's praises, it's now up to him next season to continue the progress the team has made this postseason, with the hope to next year catapult themselves to the pinnacle of the NBA. This version of the Oklahoma City Thunder are here to stay, and if the players and Donovan can learn from the errors that led them astray that is entirely possible.


Adam is a freelance writer from Melbourne, Australia and a passionate Thunder fan. KD pull up 3's in transition, Russ' incredible athleticism, Serge's jumpshot, and Steven Adams dunks make me weak at the knees. If it's sport, Adam will talk about it. This is his inaugural post at WTLC.