The Thunder are currently mired in a four game losing streak that in all likelihood will become the first five game winless stretch of the season, once Pops and the San Antonio Spurs are done with them Thursday night. At least as much if not more troubling than the losses themselves is the why they lost them. Question: how do you score 121 points and lose? Answer, give up 126 points to your opponent.
In their last four games, the Thunder have averaged 107.5 points per game and have zero wins to show for it against teams that, were the season to end today, would be in the lottery this summer. It is hard to believe that a week ago the Thunder were just 2 games behind the Utah Jazz after beating them on February 28th, ready to make a late-season push to actually reach the playoffs with home court advantage in the 1st round. But today the Thunder are 5 games back and the Northwest division title is all but lost.
Where did the defense go? The Thunder have spent the majority of the season sporting a top ten defensive rating, but in the last four games they couldn’t stop the pendulum on a cuckoo clock and are hemorrhaging at a rate of 115.5 pts/gm. The latest loss to Portland marked the first time all season the Thunder have lost after shooting 50% or better as a team. And tonight, OKC has to contend with the #2 Spurs followed by a rematch with Utah. Needless to say, Thunder Nation is becoming restless:
Doubts are rising and some are going so far as calling Donovan a bad coach. An interesting conclusion when one considers the loss of a generational level player to free agency during the summer, coming into camp with only half of the previous season’s playoff rotation in tow, weathering numerous injuries throughout the season, incorporating 3 new faces at the trade deadline into a rotation already hampered with 3 rookies, and still sitting 3 games ahead of Basketballreference.com’s .500 expectation of 32 and 32.
The truth is, Donovan is making a habit of exceeding expectations, lest we forget the incredible run to one game away from the NBA Finals in the 2016 playoffs, when just a good showing in the second round was the most the experts would afford Billy’s boys. And this regular season is eerily similar to the last one.
Ups and downs, questionable rotations, and odd substitutions. Questions like, why is this guy playing? Why isn’t this guy playing more? Why aren’t we doing this or that, it was working? and why are we still doing that, it doesn’t work? are the very same questions that were being asked last season, and I hate to be the one to say, "I told you so"... but, "I told you so."
Donovan doesn’t look at winning and losing during the regular season like a fan does. For Billy, the regular season is an 82 game classroom/laboratory to ready his team for the playoffs, and apparently he is unwilling to waste one second of it just to appease the proverbial mob lighting the torches. On one hand it is absolutely maddening, but on the other, considering last season’s playoff results, Donovan’s methodology is also intriguing.
What if he pulls off something similar to last season (within reason)? If this rag tag rebuilding team goes into the playoffs at number 7 or 8, that would match them against either the Warriors or the Spurs. I dare say a prediction of a sweep would be well within reason, but let’s say the Thunder scare the bejeesus out of their opponent just like the 2010 team did to the eventual champion LA Lakers. Would that not qualify as exceeding expectations on the big stage again? Would that solidify a title of "good NBA coach"?
We know Donovan was a good college coach. Two NCAA championships prove that, but coaching in the NBA is much different. More games, players on high salaries different rules, and less practice time change the dynamics in ways that befuddle most college coaches.
Donovan’s results in his first season were promising. Many, including myself, feel the Thunder were the best team in the playoffs in 2016, but for all intent and purposes, the core of that team was set. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Serge Ibaka had already played in the NBA Finals and 2 Western Conference Finals. Donovan did well, but many of his doubters feel like he was handed a loaded deck.
That dynamic changed when Ibaka was traded to Orlando in June, then disappeared completely when Durant bolted to Golden State in July. With all the new faces, there can be no doubt that the team this year is Billy’s team and thus the question still lingers whether his unorthodox regular season coaching style will translate into playoff success.
Thankfully, the answer to that question is just over a month away. Donovan has but 18 games remaining to prepare his team for the 2017 playoffs, and I expect once he gets them there, we will see a huge change in the rotations and sets...just like last year. I just hope the outcome puts to rest once and for all the question, "Is Billy Donovan a good coach?"