8 min read

Counterpoints: The Case for Billy Donovan

Counterpoints: The Case for Billy Donovan

Based on booing levels and @mentions, the consensus among Thunder fans is that Billy Donovan – who is coaching on an expiring contract – should be let go yesterday. That decision is obviously the organization’s to make. But do his detractors have a point?  Cray Allred makes the case for Donovan and against The People, who are represented by Dom Flaim.

He deserves (a little) more time

Cray Allred: Admittedly, this courtesy is fading. I thought Chris “pound the rock” Paul would be the man standing in between Billy Donovan and a theoretically free-wheeling offense, but Paul has clearly been amicable to deferring (see the expanded and preserved roles of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder, respectively). The Thunder are making more than 50 additional passes per game, but have sunk further to the bottom of the league ranks in assists per contest.

But, the ever-shortening preseason didn’t give Donovan much time to implement an offensive scheme for a roster overturning 40% of its starting lineup and about 90% of its playmaking talent. The roster is also still something of a mishmash of creators and standstill/energy players who can’t create for others at best, or themselves at worst. So, when CP3 has deferred to the likes of SGA and Schroder they default to running score-first possessions. And while these stats are very volatile this early in the season, the team has sported close to an average offensive rating (if you take out the clunky first couple of games of the season). Assuming one or more of the veteran guards are gone by the deadline, I’m still interested in what kind of offense Billy Donovan paints on a truly blank canvas.

Dom Flaim: Billy Donovan was hired in the Spring of 2015 and was supposed to be a breath of fresh air from Scott Brooks’s offense. While still maintaining the defensive identity from the Brooks era, the extra offense would be enough to get the Thunder over the hump from contention to a title.  As much as I respect Donovan the person (and hate seeing anyone lose their job), I don’t see a way Donovan should stay on as Thunder coach. And frankly, he’ll be quickly re-employed in the college ranks.

He’s had four-plus seasons and is yet to really implement any visible offensive strategy. Though we’ve seen little pieces of it, not much has ever really come to fruition.  OKC’s offenses haven’t ever felt like they performed to the level of talent, and prior to this season have gone without any real systematic ball movement. When asked, Paul George even said they were essentially allowed to do as they pleased, and even this year with increased ball movement OKC ranks 2nd to last in shot quality per pbpstats.com.  Blame it on players if you’d like, but it’s the coach’s job to get them to buy in, and in four seasons they haven’t.

The Thunder need development, something Donovan delivers

Allred: Donovan’s sterling .600 record is viewed as something he simply inherited — landing in a cushy job with superstars at the peak of their powers (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George) — carrying him to four straight postseasons. But in the classic all blame, no credit coaching dynamic, Donovan is never appreciated for his significant contribution to that success.

If you argue that Donovan stifled players like Victor Oladipo and Domantis Sabonis, you also have to acknowledge the development of players like Jerami Grant, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and yes, Terrance Ferguson. The early returns for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Darius Bazley, and Hamidou Diallo are promising this season as well. That’s seven players who came under Donovan’s tutelage at age 24 or younger. None were drafted in the top 10, three were in the 20s, and two were second rounders. Seven likely rotation players from that crop is a remarkable output, especially for a team that has been both top-heavy and pushing to contend every season.

Flaim: I’d disagree on development of a few guys, namely Adams and somewhat Dre. Adams’ best year was 2016 and he’s been downhill since.  I distinctly remember thinking during the 2016 playoffs that he was really getting somewhere with his ability to switch on the perimeter, as well as pass (anyone else remember the baseball pass to a cutting Roberson?).  Since then, he seems to question his own decisions on both ends of the court more and more every season and his offensive role hasn’t expanded.  He’s been a cleanup guy, which is fine, but not really something that developed.  Roberson improved, but it was mostly in line with what would be expected naturally.  Ferguson seems to still be the same limited player just with added strength and maybe a (very minor) touch of ball-handling.  With PG and Westbrook gone many thought he could blow up a little bit, but he’s currently in the running for lowest usage ever. Grant’s breakout year may be an outlier. He did improve somewhat, but some of that was natural progression and some seemed like a fluky shooting year.

However I wouldn’t blame Donovan for either Oladipo or Sabonis not really improving a ton in OKC; that was a roster construction issue forcing them into ill-fitting roles.  At the time Dipo was not a real primary ballhandler and Sabonis wasn’t (and still isn’t) a stretch four.  Those roles are what the roster desperately needed even though Dipo and Sabonis didn’t fit them and couldn’t perform to expectations.  To me, that’s on Presti and where he was left post-KD.

Billy’s defense

Allred: You may notice that most of those players mentioned have built their careers on their defensive prowess. That’s fit the Thunder role player profile around Westbrook the last few years: young, athletic, defensive-minded and not too shot-hungry. It’s not Billy’s fault that he’s coached the players selected for him to their skillset.

Like Scott Brooks before him, Donovan has been lampooned for lacking the force of will to override his best players’ tendencies. But like Brooks he has also motivated sturdy team-wide defense for years. The Thunder have been a virtual lock to finish top-10 in defensive rating for the Billy years, and have started strong on that end again this season.

Note how poorly Houston has done trying to fold Russell Westbrook into their team defense, which has plummeted to the bottom of the league as they try to implement a switching scheme that funnels his inevitably-freed assignment into help without falling apart. Perhaps Westbrook and Harden is a higher degree of difficulty to scheme around as far as leaky perimeters go, but it’s not like Donovan has had only standouts to roll out–Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter, Alex Abrines, Dennis Schroder, Abdel Nader, D.J. Augustin, and Dion Waiters have all been features of Donovan rotations that held up on the whole.

Flaim: Defensively, I admit Donovan has been mostly good, though again I think this is quite heavily influenced by personnel. The aforementioned role players were just that, and generally their lineups did drop off defensively.  Remember this?

Not long after, that same Enes Kanter was roasting Donovan and Steven Adams in the playoffs.  Turned out Kanter could play in the right scheme.  Lineups with Kanter and Dion Waiters were quite poor defensively, and D.J. Augustin’s were actually fine, though his offensive on/off splits were even worse.

Donovan has largely been good at coaching up the defense but he’s had strong personnel in Adams, Grant, Roberson, George, Noel, and Ibaka among others.  There’s been some confusion over the years as to how they go about switching (or not) at times.  “We’re an over team” became a popular joke among some Thunder fans, but then sometimes they just weren’t.  And sometimes they were when honestly it didn’t make sense.  Credit where it’s due, and they’ve had defensive success so I’ll give it, but there have also been some head scratchers.

I’d note Houston’s entire roster has probably got two plus defenders (Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker) and no depth. Donovan’s had some defensive depth to work with, and comparing any coach defensively to Mike D’Antoni doesn’t really tell you much. Houston has also had some dreadful shot luck that’s skewing the numbers a hair.  I don’t think they’ll be a great defense, but they’ve actually allowed fewer wide open 3 point attempts per game than the Thunder per NBA.com.  The issue is, opponents were hitting 48.8% against Houston and 31.4% against OKC through November 6th, and I’d expect these to normalize some.  To add, Houston’s starters with Danuel House have been oddly solid on defense, the strongest defensive lineup over 50 minutes so far this season (also as of 11/6); OKC’s remaining players have however been much stronger on that end.

Plausible deniability

Allred: I do not think Billy recently rolled out a fourth quarter lineup of Schröder, Deonte Burton, Abdel Nader, Darius Bazley, and Mike Muscala because the Thunder were ahead and needed to lose. But if he did, you wouldn’t be able to tell. This is the man who is almost as verbose as Sam Presti when giving very long answers never make it to specifics, and who pretended not to notice when Dion Waiters forearm-shivered Manu Ginobli on the deciding possession of a playoff game. With tanking questions incoming, he’ll never crack.

In all seriousness, if Donovan is anything, he’s loose with his rotation commitments. He’s played Raymond Felton in three point-guard units, he’s lost at least two starters every new season, he’s buried your favorite 12th man, he’s played your most hated 15th man. In what is sure to be a topsy-turvy era of even more turnover and trades, Donovan is the rare coach who isn’t beholden to veterans at the expense of raw developmental pieces.

Flaim: Possibly the most infuriating part of Donovan as coach has been his looseness with rotations! It was known as experimentation in 2016, where he’d just toss out lineups that didn’t make sense and people wanted to see what worked.  But it became more and more clear it was just kind of nonsense the whole time, or at least seems that way when he’s used lineups that were destined to fail from the start in high leverage situations.

Minutes distributions have been off too.  Some may excuse this one, but Carmelo Anthony’s numbers with the bench in 2017 were far superior to those with the starters, yet he rarely played that role.  In 2016 Westbrook and Durant still weren’t staggered terribly often. Last season, OKC really needed a backup center after trading Kanter. They picked up Nerlens Noel, and he barely played.

Final statements

Allred: As I mentioned in my bold prediction that the Thunder would let Donovan go this season, Donovan is a convenient casualty for the rebuilding long play. When a fan base used to winning gets impatient with the losses piling up, an easy distraction is to let the coach go and signal that “we’re doing something.” It’s almost a formality.

But Sam Presti has been very forthright about this rebuild, and that’s how I like it. Firing a coach to placate angry fans, who will just be angry again by the same time next season (of losing), is a concession the Thunder shouldn’t make. I prefer the organization to keep treating its fans like grownups.

Flaim: I’ve seen some comparisons saying he was as good at things as Scott Brooks was. I actually think this is somewhat fair, though I also think Brooks did a better job at developing talent. Seeing the current Wizards, I feel like that trend may be continuing.  I’d also add that if he’s the same as Brooks, Brooks was let go as well.  At this point it feels as if the question is why should Donovan remain on as coach because we’ve now learned he can’t be the one who takes the team over the top.  If you’re going to need to find a replacement someday, why not now?