A caveat, before we dive into OKC’s controversial head coach. There’s a lot to coaching that fans, reporters and analysts don’t see and will never see. Coaches manage relationships between players, coaches decide what to emphasize in practice, coaches work on developing young players, and coaches ‘coach’ other coaches. It’s hard to judge how successful a coach is at that even from inside an organization, and nearly impossible from outside.
That said, what we can judge from the outside is how successful a team is, and the Thunder fell well short of where preseason expectations placed them. It takes time for guys to learn how to play together, especially 3 guys as ball-dominant as Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony. That, combined with some truly terrible late game luck (the Thunder lost one game when Andrew Wiggins, the $146 million dollar man, hit a 35 foot bank shot 3 pointer despite not calling “bank’s open” first, and lost another when a referee missed the Greek Freak stepping out of bounds right in front of him) led to the Thunder starting 8-12 despite having the point differential of a much better team. The Thunder turned it around after that, and Donovan deserves some of the credit for the elite level they played at in December and January. And of course, it isn’t his fault that Andre Roberson got hurt.
But injuries happen to every team. Roberson was at most the 4th most important player on the Thunder. The team struggled to figure out how to replace him for a month, and the lineup they settled on — Corey Brewer starting in his place — never even approximated the success of the original lineup. That speaks to one of Donovan’s biggest failures — despite his reputation as a “tinkerer” who likes to experiment with lots of lineups, the most successful units the Thunder displayed got far fewer minutes than they should have.
I have harped on this repeatedly, but the best 5 man unit the Thunder had once Roberson got hurt was Westbrook, Alex Abrines, Paul George, Jerami Grant, and Steven Adams. They posted an unreal net rating of +31.9 in the regular season, per Cleaning the Glass. Would that number have gone down if they’d played more minutes? Of course — no one is that efficient. But their success in limited minutes should have led to them getting more run or, if Donovan knew what he had and planned to use them as a secret weapon, he should have been more ready to use them. Instead, the group didn’t see major minutes until the team had their collective backs against the wall and were facing elimination in game 5 of the playoffs. The unit then ripped off a major comeback, saving OKC’s season...for exactly one game, before the team was eliminated in a game 6 that featured little of this lineup.
The reason this lineup worked was because it featured OKC’s 3 best players- Westbrook George and Adams- along with two young, athletic guys, one of whom (Abrines) can hit 3’s, one (Grant) who is a reliable defender across positions, and both of whom can credibly switch on defense and at least not get blown by. Abrines and Grant are role players, both young and with legitimate flaws, but they are far better suited than the men who were starting over them- Corey Brewer and Carmelo Anthony.
Brewer’s usage on the team was always a bit baffling to me. He’d spent the last two seasons in a limited, off the bench role with the Rockets and then the Lakers, but OKC inserted him into the starting lineup and gave him 28 minutes a night after acquiring him in the buyout market. There’s something to be said for veteran leadership and a guy who makes the right plays — not to mention one who has a long history with Donovan — but beyond that, Brewer’s fit never made much sense (shades of Derek Fisher). Brewer was never the defender Andre Roberson is even in his prime, but he also didn’t have the skills to juice OKC’s offense. The lineup of Brewer and the other 4 starters finished the regular season with an offensive rating of 110.8, virtually unchanged from the original starting 5 (110.7). With Roberson, however, the Thunder posted an elite defensive rating of 96.2, while with Brewer they were a mediocre 109.9. The upshot of that is the team went from outscoring opponents by over 14 points per 100 possessions to less than 1 point with Brewer.
When Abrines played with the starters, the offense jumped to 116.4, a very high mark- enough to at least somewhat offset the defense cratering to 111.0. There’s a logic to that- Abrines is no great shakes at defense, but he hits enough 3’s and spaces the floor enough to improve the offense over what Roberson gave. And yet Brewer got the start and got nearly twice as many possessions with the starters as Abrines did, despite being with the team for less than half the year. Even Terrance Ferguson got the chance to start over Abrines (before Brewer was signed), with unsurprisingly terrible results (net rating of Ferguson and the starters: -3.0). Abrines isn’t perfect, but he was clearly a better fit alongside the starters than Brewer or Ferguson. Donovan refusing to give him the chance to start at any point was puzzling.
Donovan’s biggest coaching failure from a lineup perspective, of course, was the least surprising. From the moment he arrived from New York, everyone knew Carmelo Anthony was the biggest question mark on the team. He was never a great defender, and his scoring efficiency began to taper off his last few seasons with the Knicks. The hope was that by playing as a third option to Russ and PG, Melo could get a ton of clean looks, draining open 3’s or getting to the rim attacking defenders closing out the way he did in Olympic basketball. Instead, Melo had the worst season of his career, shooting a miserable 40.4% from the field. It’s a pretty open question who’s fault that is, by the way. I know a lot of thunder fans hated Melo’s postseason exit interview where he said him coming off the bench was out of the question. I’ll grant you, he sure looked like a bench player by the end of last season. But Melo also had this to say: “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here, me being a part of the actual system and what type of player and things like that…”.
He has a point. The whole idea of the “Big 3” was that Melo was not going to be the hub of the offense he had been in NYC. At the same time, he’s never been a spot-up 3 point guy- Olympic Melo drains 3’s , but the Olympic 3 point line is shorter than the NBA 3-point line, and Anthony is actually a below average 3 point shooter throughout his NBA career. And yet, the Thunder almost exclusively operated in those two ways. When OKC wanted to make a concerted effort to get him the ball, they’d run a stagnant post-up, where Melo could be allowed to jab-step a bunch and then fire a contested jumper. Once upon a time, Melo became an all-star by nailing those kinds of shots, but those days are long gone. Melo was actually more efficient than PG or Russ in isolations, averaging 0.89 points per possession, but that’s still not efficient by any stretch. But aside from those plays and transition opportunities, OKC mostly asked Melo to stand behind the arc and wait for the ball. You don’t have to love Melo’s game to realize he has a point about being misused.
Melo wasn’t alone in being used in uncreative ways offensively. All season, and really for all of the Billy Donovan area, the Thunder have had a stagnant offense, which is one of the least discussed revelations since Donovan’s calling card coming out of college was his coaching acumen and dynamic offense. Some plays, OKC will run an initial action, but if that doesn’t produce anything, they’ll settle for an isolation or a bad jumpshot. Sometimes, they don’t even bother with the initial action, going into the ISO straight away.
The Thunder ran the second most isolation possessions in the entire NBA, but ranked 23rd in points per isolation possessions. While teams like the Rockets creatively hunted for mismatches before launching their isolation attacks, OKC ISOs featured Russ, PG, or Melo repeatedly attacking their initial defender, the person the defense wants guarding them. Sometimes they scored anyways simply because these are 3 gifted offensive players, but more often than not, they missed. To be fair to Donovan, the offensive stagnancy predates him. Russ and Melo like to isolate, and Russ in particular doesn’t move without the ball, and that’s been true since Scott Brooks coached the team. Getting Russ to embrace a more free-flowing style is not an easy task, and since he’s such a poor 3 point shooter, it’s tricky to find ways to make him effective off the ball.
But Donovan has been with the team for 3 seasons. If he hasn’t figured it out how to craft a better offense around Russ by now, you have to wonder if he ever will. Last year we saw the Raptors, another team known for a stagnant offense, reinvent themselves without changing their coach, to notable regular season success (of course, when Toronto still got swept in the playoffs, they fired Coach Dwane Casey anyways despite the improved offense in the regular season). Maybe Donovan can do the same. But getting players to buy into a system is a difficult tasks, much harder than simply drawing up the plays. This is where the part of coaching that we don’t see comes back into play- if Donovan can use the relationship he’s built with his star over the last couple years to get him to buy into a more varied offense, he can make up for the failure of this season.
That remains to be seen, however, and this season was indeed a failure- and possibly a catastrophic one. Everyone knew what was at stake this year- Paul George was under contract for only one season, and OKC needed to knock it out of the park to re-sign him to remain a contender. Winning 50+ games, finishing top 3 in the West, and making a deep playoff push would make it a lot harder for PG to leave. Instead, OKC limped into the playoffs and were handily defeated in their series against the Utah Jazz- a series that laid all of Donovan’s shortcomings (and the team’s weaknesses) to bear while getting schooled by Quin Snyder on the opposite sideline.
Donovan has a reputation as a great in-game tactician, but Snyder coached him right off the floor. For the first 4 and a half games of the series, the Thunder stuck with an aggressive “blitz” defense against the Jazz’s pick and roll attack that led to a ton of open dunks and open 3’s. The reason you run such an aggressive scheme is to force turnovers and prevent the point guard from rising for 3 pointers. Problem: the Utah guards, Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell, aren’t great 3 point shooters off the bounce, and the entire Jazz offense is filled with good ball movers and smart passers. They might be the single worst team in the league to run such a scheme against- and yet OKC kept doing it for 4 straight games, even when it was obvious after literally 2 games that the Jazz had figured out how to break it. By the time Donovan abandoned it and inserted the aforementioned Westbrook-Abrines-George-Grant-Adams lineup, it was too late; the Thunder managed to eke out game 5, but they went on to lose game 6 and that was the series.
Donovan seems to have waited so long to bust out this lineup because he wanted to keep playing Carmelo, but again, how he used Melo was disastrous. There were two good ways Donovan could have dealt with Melo: either find a more creative way to integrate him on offense, making up for his defensive shortcomings, or just give him less minutes and accept that he’s not quite the right fit for the team. Donovan chose to do neither, failing to find good ways to involve Melo (witness that awful shooting percentage) yet continuing to play him major minutes until the season was effectively lost.
That’s this season in a nutshell for OKC and an indictment on Donovan. Billy had the reputation as a great in-game coach, relies on advanced metrics to make informed decisions, and has built a career on trust between the players and himself. And yet, Donvan didn’t adapt when things didn’t work. He didn’t find a good way to replace Roberson. He didn’t find a good way to integrate Carmelo, and then when he didn’t do that, he didn’t come up with a better offensive plan (perhaps more touches for Steven Adams, who was actually their third best player?)- he just let Melo keep shooting.
When the Jazz ripped apart OKC’s defense, Donovan didn’t adapt with his best lineup — what good is collecting data unless you pursue that which it clearly informs you? — until it was too late. And when OKC’s offense was as stagnant on game 82 as it was on game 1, despite a reigning MVP and season assist leader, the league’s best assist screener, and an off-ball all-star in George, one has to wonder what it will take for the Thunder offense to ever actually evolve.
That inability to adapt is why OKC’s season will be judged as a failure, and why the man at the helm must be judged the same way. For all the things that went right earlier in the year, and for all the things Billy Donovan might be great at behind the scenes, he was unable to lead OKC where it needed to go when it mattered most. That doesn’t mean he should be fired, but it means he’ll need to be a lot better next season to get the Thunder to where they want to go.