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The Growth of Billy Donovan

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Coach Donovan has exceeded all expectations this season

Oklahoma City Thunder v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

At the start of the season, Billy Donovan’s tenure in Oklahoma City looked precarious. The Thunder did not do well in postseason against a beatable Portland team. People believed that a coaching change would make sense.

It is difficult to assemble a new core of players on the fly; it is easy to bring in a new coach. There was cause to believe that Billy Donovan should have been fired by Sam Presti. Donovan’s light touch style of coaching allowed Russell Westbrook to walk all over him.

This style does work, the NBA is a players’ league but Billy seemed to give Russell too much leeway. A coach must hold his players accountable when it is necessary. Coach Donovan did not do this enough last season.

Dennis Schroder alluded to Donovan’s laidback style last season after the Thunder were knocked out of the playoffs. Schroder appreciated the willingness to listen from Donovan but acknowledged that this strategy could backfire.

Billy’s style of coaching was not the only aspect of his job that came under fire. There was a lot of criticisms about Donovan’s offensive scheming. Billy was brought in by Sam Presti to get the Thunder to move the ball more and reduce the number of bad shots taken by the team.

Scott Brooks was fired by the Thunder as his offense was overly dependent on Westbrook and Durant. Brooks’ offense required the two stars to constantly carry the load. This worked to some degree but it did mean that the Thunder struggled when Westbrook and Durant missed time due to injury.

Billy Donovan came with the reputation of being a coach who preached ball movement and a progressive style of play. These concepts did not come to fruition with the Thunder. The offense was isolation heavy and Oklahoma City did not swing the ball around the court.

The offense running through Westbrook and George meant the Thunder were very predictable. Opposing teams knew what to expect and adjusted accordingly. The Blazers had a vast amount of film on Westbrook’s tendencies when handling the ball. Portland were aware that Westbrook would make the majority of his passes on kick-outs near the rim.

The Blazers used the data to good effect. Portland ran a drop coverage in the pick and roll all series and baited Russell into taking mid-range jumpers. Westbrook fell for the trap and jacked up shots from that zone of the floor. The offense misfired and Portland were able to win the series.

The three consecutive first round exits led many to believe that Billy was not capable of leading the Thunder deep into the postseason. The offensive scheming and easygoing approach seemed to make the Thunder weak.

Billy was on the hot seat and talk of a return to the college ranks only grew louder. Head coaching jobs opened up at prestigious programs such as UCLA and Ohio State. Billy seemed like the ideal candidate for a program looking to rebuild.

Donovan dismissed these rumours and emphasised that his focus was on the Thunder. It was a difficult statement to believe at the time when you consider how the Thunder looked during the summer of 2019.

The Thunder had traded away the team’s two best players and were no longer a contending team. Members of the Thunder’s coaching staff had left Oklahoma City to join Monty Williams in Phoenix. The omens were not good at all.

However, Billy Donovan has stayed to see out the last year of his contract. It is unknown whether the Thunder will offer Billy a new deal to stay and rebuild the roster. During this year, Billy Donovan has grown as a coach.

Chris Paul came to town with a reputation. Paul is known for butting heads with coaches and speaking up about the decisions made by the coaching staff. Donovan did not run from confrontation; he embraced Paul’s willingness to talk about the game of basketball.

The bond built between Chris and Billy has stemmed from the fact that both of them are hoops junkies. They love the game and they love to discuss the game in granular detail. This relationship is one of the reasons why Chris trusts Coach Donovan.

The presence of Paul, an elite floor general, has allowed Billy Donovan to focus on designing an offensive system that works well. Billy does not need to worry about getting players into their sets as Chris will take on that responsibility. Donovan can work on the broader schematics.

The Thunder’s offense this year is free flowing and Donovan does not call many plays. Donovan has installed the core tenets of his offense and is happy for the ball-handler to make decisions on the court. This choice means the point guard can react to a defense in real time without hesitation; they do not need to worry about the coach wanting a different play to be ran.

The Thunder have ran a well-oiled, slick motion offense this year. The ball shifts around the court until someone gets a great scoring opportunity. The presence of multiple playmakers in the starting lineup does help a lot but it is obviously something that Billy worked on at the start of the season.

Coach Donovan realised that he did not have a player like Westbrook who can get a bucket at the rim whenever he wants. Billy had a talented roster but every player needed to work in harmony to be productive on offense. Donovan adjusted his schemes accordingly.

The Thunder used to run a lot of ‘Horns’ actions. ‘Horns’ is a ball dominant action in which there is very little passing. The Thunder run few very ball dominant actions at present. The system now consists of high spread pick and rolls and hand-off actions at the top of the key.

I will also say that Billy does not seem to be over-thinking his lineups anymore. In previous years, Billy was overly committed to closing games with certain units. When Carmelo Anthony played for the Thunder, it was a certainty that Melo would close the game even though Jerami Grant provided more defense to the team.

Donovan’s decision to stick with Carmelo harmed the Thunder against the Utah Jazz. Anthony was roasted by Donovan Mitchell and Utah got a lot of easy buckets. Grant’s inclusion in the closing lineup stopped the bleeding and gave Oklahoma City a chance in the series.

Billy did eventually use Grant to close games with the Thunder but it was much too late in the series. The Thunder was in a hole against a motivated Utah team. It was very difficult to overcome the deficit.

It has been a different story this year. Billy knows his best players and will use his five best players to close out games. It is one of the reasons why the Thunder have ran the ‘Three Amigos’ lineup a lot over the course of the season. Schroder is a better player than any of the wings on the team; it makes sense for him to be in the closing lineup.

The other aspect of Billy’s improvement is in regard to his ability to improve players. In previous seasons, it seemed like role players would come to Oklahoma City and underperform hugely. Patrick Patterson was supposed to be a versatile forward on defense who could knock down threes at an efficient rate.

Patterson’s shooting fell off a cliff and Patrick looked very slow on defense. The same story applies to Kyle Singler and Doug McDermott. Players came to OKC as solid role players and left as a fringe rotation guys.

Donovan has found the knack for getting the best out of his guys. Dennis Schroder has been given more freedom as a shot creator and Schroder’s production has soared. Dennis looks more comfortable in a role where there is less pressure for him to lead the bench unit.

An injury to Darius Bazley posed a lot of questions for the Thunder. Oklahoma City did not really have a player who could play as a reserve Power Forward. Billy got creative and installed Hamidou Diallo at this position. Diallo found success as a roll man in pick and roll actions.

Great coaches find ways to maximise the abilities of their players. Erik Spolestra has made a player like Duncan Robinson into a threat on offense. Rick Carlisle has displayed an ability to build highly productive bench units out of ill-fitting lineups. Donovan has managed to extract every drop of ability out of his players this year.

Billy’s growth as a coach has been impressive and my opinion of him has changed. In the past, I was more than happy for Billy to go back to college basketball. I did not believe that he was a capable NBA head coach.

At present, I want Billy Donovan to stay with the Thunder for the foreseeable future. His offensive system and style of coaching has worked very well for the Thunder this year. I am confident that Donovan will be able to develop young talent effectively and build the next generation of the Thunder.