Before we jump off the deep end into a pool of speculation, I just want to say this up front:
Unless something drastic changes, like open revolt, the Thunder is not going to fire head coach Billy Donovan before the end of this season. Not only does it run counter to everything we know about general manager Sam Presti from his nine seasons in Oklahoma City, but it also just wouldn’t make sense. In the quest for cooperation, cohesion and chemistry, how would bringing in a new coach and hitting the reset button on offensive and defensive schemes, team scheduling and traditions, and communication style help?
Alright, now we can get to the fun stuff. The question that has popped into @UpTheThunder’s Twitter feed more than any other over the past few weeks: Should the Thunder fire Billy Donovan?
There have been some really head-scratching decisions, most commonly his choice of rotations. Josh Huestis will fluctuate between 25 minutes and games where he never leaves the bench, Alex Abrines has gone from sixth man to…never leaving the bench. And back. Or perhaps most grossly, Kyle Singler getting 23 minutes in the Thunder’s last game? Hard to defend that, though it bears reminding that these are decisions made by the full coaching staff, collaborative efforts that likely involve somewhere between five and 10 people.
“Tinkerer” has become like a four letter word in Oklahoma City. But the only thing we have to go on is past experience. And what does that tell us? Two years ago, with a team loaded Russell Westbrook and (he who shall not be named) and legitimate title hopes, they started 11-8! Or last season, when they opened up 8-8 and even fell back to 21-16 at one point, they finished the season 26-9. Donovan changed things around and eventually found his way. His substitution patterns during the playoff runs of each of the past two years have been above reproach.
The next complaint: He can’t control the superstars.
I don’t buy it for a second. Donovan doesn’t look the part of a “player’s coach,” considering his lack of playing experience and his buttoned up demeanor. But there’s reason to believe he is, considering the support he’s gotten publicly from all of the Thunder’s players, even tight-lipped Westbrook.
As someone who followed college basketball religiously, even before I was professionally obligated to do so by The Fieldhouse, I remember Donovan’s teams at Florida. They had outsized personalities, albeit on a different scale. But you’re trying to tell me Joakim Noah wouldn’t be tough to reign in? He won two national championships with him. Think Corey Brewer and Chandler Parsons have been NBA coach’s dream-players? Not by a long shot. The list goes on: Bradley Beal, Udonis Haslem, Jason Williams, Mo Speights. He won ball games with all of them. And how about the names of great locker room guys he’s fostered? Al Horford, David Lee, Matt Bonner, Mike Miller. It’s an impressive list.
I truly believe that coaching sure-fire NBA players in the college ranks is roughly equivalent to coaching superstars in the NBA. You’re on 24/7 ego management, and you have to always be thinking about what their roles are. In a lot of cases, Donovan had multiple on the same team just as he does now. And he’s always handled it well, off the court anyway.
Skip to around the 55 second mark. That’s genuine love.
If Donovan has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that he’s too trusting. Players love to be trusted, but at times Donovan can be a little too hands-off when managing his teams. He’s doesn’t have a quick hook for players who are damaging the team, and isn’t likely to berate a player during the course of a game. For lack of a better phrase, he “lets the boys play.” You know who else was notoriously hands-off during the regular season? Phil Jackson. But he also had Michael Jordan on his team, so take that for what you will.
This is where Donovan’s experience coaching in college doesn’t exactly translate to the NBA. There’s a different power dynamic. Unlike at Florida, the players on the Thunder are far more valuable to the organization that Donovan can hope to be. You can see it in his offenses. At Florida, there was never a problem with ball movement and player movement, and check out the quality of shots he was getting out of his motion offense.
The style of the NBA is just different. The players are longer and more athletic, the passing lanes and driving lanes close in an instant, and it would be impossible for the Thunder to run these same sets and find success. Based on all of his press conference quotes, he’s really trying to get ball movement going. Yet we’re certainly not seeing it on the court.
Personally, I believe the players are on the court are seeing these things develop real time and deciding to do their own thing. They truthfully believe it’s what’s best for the team. It’s not, though to be clear it’s this sort of attitude that enables these particular players to be the best in the world to begin with.
To a certain extent, there’s nothing Donovan can do. Especially in the moment. But don’t act like he’s not making adjustments. The recent three-game winning streak wouldn’t have been possible without Carmelo Anthony taking a lesser role in the offense in order to feature Steven Adams. Who besides Donovan can receive the credit for that?
The most difficult thing to hear if you’re a Thunder fan is to just endure. Last season there were only two streaks of longer than four wins. It’s just really really tough to win consecutive games in this league. But if the team launches into several stretches of three wins, one loss, four wins, one loss, that will be more than enough to launch the Thunder back into mid-tier playoff contention. With the recent injury of Steph Curry and the Rockets firing on all cylinders, the four or five seed may be all the Thunder need.
So endure, Thunder fans. Just endure. And don’t fire Billy Donovan.