Only seven players, including just four rotation players, from the Thunder’s 2015-16 Western Conference Finals run finished out the 2016-17 season in Oklahoma City. Two starters gone, and three of the team’s top four scorers.
In return? Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan, in his second NBA season, had 19 different players on the roster at some point in the year. The team was hit by crucial injuries to Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter, who combined to miss 25 games.
Between two trades, the influx of new players, missing key cogs of the team and having nine players aged 25 or younger playing serious minutes throughout the season and in the playoffs, Donovan had rough seas to traverse. According to Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti, the head coach did a masterful job navigating the waters.
“Billy did an incredible job of integrating those players and building on the system during the season, which is really, really hard to do,” Presti said. “And then we got to the playoffs and he was still experimenting and doing things to try to put us in a position to succeed.”
Donovan spent 19 years at the University of Florida before joining the Thunder for the 2015-16 season. He’s used to consistency, but change as well. In college, there’s no choice but to have complete player turnover during a four-year span. In today’s modern NBA, that type of revolving door is becoming more and more prevalent.
Between two National Championship victories and four Final Fours and some subpar finishes, Donovan experienced the whole gauntlet of seasons a coach could have while at Florida. He saw purpose and meaning in each of those years, regardless of outcome. That hasn’t changed one bit since making the step to the NBA.
“One thing I always love about coaching is that every season is totally different. I may come into the same office every day, but every day provides something new, and I find that to be great,” Donovan said. “I feel very blessed and fortunate that a lot of times in jobs it can be the same old mundane thing. It’s not that way in coaching.”
The three words that best describe Donovan are diligent, flexible and creative. He’s willing to try different combinations, rotations and matchups in order to give his team the best chance to win each night, and to develop his group with the postseason in mind. When required, he showed confidence in big lineups, small groups, scoring-heavy bunches or a five-man unit that could play lock-down defense.
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A specific example of Donovan’s coaching prowess was how he utilized Andre Roberson, the unique shooting guard who impacts the game in somewhat unorthodox ways. In each of the past two seasons in the playoffs, Donovan has put Roberson in positions to play off the ball on offense while still occupying defenders: as a screener, as a cutter and as an offensive rebounder. The time, commitment and thought it takes to exploit an opposition’s strategy did not go unnoticed by the Thunder’s players and staff.
“To use the way they’re guarding and certain actions and different stuff, to manipulate it to our advantage, it just shows how valuable a coach he is and make those adjustments,” Roberson explained. “It just gave me more confidence to go out there and play.”
“One of the things that was probably unheralded was the job Billy did. He did an excellent job,” Presti opined. “That’s one of the reasons that we really wanted him to be the coach here, because he’s creative and he studies.”
For Donovan, however, it’s not just about the x’s and o’s. This past season was a crucial one in the history of the franchise. How would the Thunder adjust, on the fly, to deal with its new reality? The next chapter of Thunder basketball was being written in real time. Russell Westbrook as the leader and the centerpiece of the offense, with new, young players being integrated into the mix.
On some teams, the ship would fall apart with that much change and uncertainty. Everyone stayed in the boat, all season long. Regardless of minutes or role, the Thunder had incredible chemistry. Despite potential off-court distractions like contracts or external criticism, or on the court issues like shot attempts and performance, Donovan made sure that his players had belief in themselves and the team and that everyone put the group first.
“(Donovan) pulled me to the side early on in preseason. He told me he had all the confidence in the world in me in going out there and making plays,” Roberson said. “He’s been with me every step of the way, telling me things and keeping my confidence up high. So it was all him.”
“He has a real love and a closeness to the guys that he has and a belief in those guys,” Presti noted. “He values chemistry. He values cohesion, and he worked really hard this year to create that. The chemistry on the team is great and I think it showed throughout the season.”
As a result of all of that, Donovan put his team in position to win games and be competitive night-in and night-out. The Thunder won 47 games and were the sixth seed in the ever-tough Western Conference. With what the team lost last offseason and the constant, relentless change it had to deal with all year, that is quite the accomplishment.
But it was just a re-balancing. The organization is settled. It weathered the storm, thanks to Donovan’s steady hand. Now comes the real work – developing the young players it has, analyzing the team’s performance and where NBA basketball is headed, and then pointing the ship that direction. With Donovan at the helm, the team has the wind at its back. Now it’s time to start rowing.
“If you want to be very, very good and continue to get better, there is no shortcut to that,” Donovan said.