“Fighting means you could lose. Bullying means you can’t. A bully wants to beat somebody; he doesn’t want to fight somebody.“
– Author Andrew Vachss
After the Oklahoma City Thunder named Billy Donovan Head Coach last May, he immediately acknowledge in his introductory press conference:
“There will be a transition period. That is something I will go through and work through.”
– Billy Donovan
During the regular season, it appeared as if Donovan may be in over his head. He struggled with substitution patterns and other nuances of the NBA game as opposed to the NCAA, in which he had so much success coaching Florida to 2 consecutive championships. After knocking the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs out of the playoffs and then pushing the Golden State Warriors to the brink it appears the transition period is over.
When Donovan took over Head Coaching responsibilities, his first task was to put together a staff to help him through the transition, and then contribute to the team’s character in the future. His first hire was Monty Williams, who was relieved of his head coaching duties by the New Orleans Pelicans and assumed the role as the Associate Head Coach. After him, Donovan brought in Maurice Cheeks, another former NBA Head Coach. Between the two of them, they coached 1,014 NBA games as head coaches – these two coaches assisted Donovan with his leap from the college game to the pros.
The Thunder struggled out of the gate, posting an under-whelming record of 12-8 in their first 20 games. Right away, the media was ready to pounce on his poor substitution patterns; Donovan sat both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the bench, despite their superstar status and their team’s lack of creation without one of the two on the court. The bench was not producing, and their second unit at the start of the season was a negative 18.7 points per 100 possessions. Donovan eventually came to the conclusion that he must keep either Westbrook or Durant on the court at all times. His decision was soon validated:
On February 9th, tragedy struck the Thunder Organization when Ingrid Williams, the wife of Associate Head Coach Monty Williams, was killed in a car crash. Williams took leave from the team to tend to his family and would not return for the remainder of the season. Then, not long after, Cheeks would have hip replacement surgery during the All-Star break and be out for the next six weeks. Donovan watched his Thunder drop 8 out of their next 13 games without his top two advisors by his side.
It looked as if Donovan was not going to figure out the NBA game and be yet another among the college coaches who failed in the pros. The Thunder led the league in blown fourth quarter leads and never reached it’s full potential during the regular season. The bench was a mess, and even their trade deadline move to bring in Randy Foye for DJ Augustin wasn’t paying off. All signs pointed to the Thunder being incapable of competing with the elite Warriors and Spurs come Playoff time.
Then, things started to click for the Thunder. Donovan’s first playoff series was against an aging and injured Dallas Mavericks, directed by the wizard Rick Carlisle, one of the better NBA coaches in the league. The Thunder dispatched the Mavs in five games, losing game two by a single point and, later, bringing this gem of an after timeout – ATO – play to keep the Thunder’s hopes alive:
Westbrook receives the inbound pass and dribbles to the center of the court, as Durant is moving in the opposite direction coming off of a pick set by the immovable Steven Adams at the free throw line. Durant gets an open look at a three – he buries it.
The Thunder’s next test came against the mighty San Antonio Spurs, a 67-win team coached by Gregg Popovich, who is widely considered to be either the best or second best coach in league history. Game 1 of the series didn’t go according to plan: the Thunder were blown out off the court by 32 points. Yet, the Thunder regrouped to steal a controversial Game 2 on the Spurs Home Court, where they had only been beat once prior since the start of the season
The Thunder found their lightning in a bottle by exploiting the Spurs outmatched athleticism – length, size, and strength. Despite losing game 3, the Donovan harnessed Andre Roberson’s defensive stopping ability, using him to harass Kawhi Leonard and neutralize one of the Spurs’ two reliable creators on offense. Enes Kanter proved that he could provide scoring and rebounding off the bench, without being exploited too severely on defense, and Dion Waiters showed unexpected signs of maturity, playing under control as a reliable asset.
Before everyone’s eyes Donovan crafted a rotation that took down the 2nd seeded Spurs, winning three straight games, including a second road win San Antonio.
Donovan’s rate of evolution was incredible: he tweaked the ATO from the Dallas series, modifying it into a lob for Durant. The key to the play is the pick-and-roll action with Westbrook and Adams, a potential threat that froze Boris Diaw, who never sees Durant coming:
Donovan’s most formidable challenge came in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors. Despite going down by as much as 14 in the first half, the Thunder stole Game 1 in Oakland; in a fascinating reversal of fates, the Warriors blew a fourth quarter lead, surrendering home court advantage to the surging Thunder. Though the Warriors won Game 2 by riding a Steph Curry outburst in the third quarter, the narrative truly shifted after Donovan unveiled the Thunder’s long lineup to combat the Warriors death lineup. To combat the Warriors small lineup with length, switching every pick-and-roll. Donovan adjusted further by tweaking OKC’s rotation, reducing the defensive liability present during Kanter’s minutes. It became clear that the Warriors intended to attack Kanter in pick-and-rolls, exploiting him in every defensive possession he was on the court. Donovan still doesn’t get enough credit for having the foresight to shift his strategy away from Kanter, despite his performance through the first two rounds. He was the Thunder’s fourth leading scorer going into this series at 11.6 ppg, and was the most consistent threat off the bench. Kanter went from averaging 21.6 minutes throughout the previous two series, to only 12.2 mpg against Golden State.
Donovan unveiled yet another evolution of the Thunder’s ATO, this time called out of a Horns set: First, Westbrook comes off Durant’s side as KD rolls into the paint. Next, Westbrook immediately changes direction and comes off of an Adams screen, who instead of rolling to the rim, sets a pindown screen for Durant. Last, Durant curls off the Adams pick for an easy jumper:
The ATO evolution is pivotal for Donovan in his NBA development. Great Head Coaches have only a handful of plays they call for their team out of timeouts. In the regular season, Donovan’s play calls led to .886 points per possession: he improved in the playoffs to .893 according to synergy sports. These are the types of plays that win close games for teams, and players recognize and trust a coach that can draw upmagic on the clipboard.
Though Oklahoma City would go on to give up their 3-1 series lead on Golden State, Donovan took them further in the Playoffs than most anyone expected in his first year as an NBA head coach. He proved his ability to adjust on the fly; first by changing his rotation to make sure one of his superstars was always on the court, and then by benching his most consistent bench player in the Warriors series. Donovan said it best last May:
“Whether it’s high school, college or the NBA, the ingredients that go into winning go across the board”.
– Billy Donovan
If anything, this playoff run by the Donovan coached Thunder has free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant thinking that his best chance to win a championship, mighty actually be with the Billy Donovan recipe.