Coaching in today’s NBA isn’t just diagramming plays, calling timeouts and deciding when to substitute. As the game has evolved, it’s turned more and more into a players’ league, and fortunately for the Thunder, Head Coach Billy Donovan is experienced in dealing with player turnover and fostering an environment of selflessness amongst highly competitive, and starkly different, personalities.
That’s why it’s not rare to see Donovan sitting one-on-one with not just the likes of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George but also younger players like Semaj Christon and Jerami Grant. So far in U.S. Cellular Thunder Training Camp, it’s been the talk that has helped ease the process along. Where players like the ball, how they work in certain situations and utilizing their skills for the betterment of the team are all crucial topics that are breached in the early going.
There’s still plenty of growth to go before the Thunder gets to where it wants to be, but from a chemistry standpoint, there’s been the most important requirement: investment.
“It’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that you have to constantly keep working at and knowing who you have on your team and figuring it out from there. We’ll figure it out.”
That shows itself not just in the quiet conversations off the court, but in the chatter that happens on the floor too. There are seven players who are likely to make the new 17-man roster who didn’t play for the Thunder last season, which means there’s bound to be some adjustment when it comes to terminology. In order for this Thunder squad to be on the same page, all five players have to be speaking the same language. Loudly.
“You always want those guys communicating and talking through different situations,” Donovan said. “They’ve done a really good job. Carmelo is a good talker. Paul is a good talker. Russ is the same way. Steven (Adams) has been really vocal and really helpful defensively. Andre, obviously, is really good defensively as well. His voice has been really important. But regardless of who’s out there, you’ve have to have five guys communicating and playing with each other.”
With the seemingly gradual, then all the sudden rapid changes that have morphed the landscape of how teams play in the NBA, there are so many actions that teams have to guard and handle on any given night. The types and varieties of screening actions, pick-and-rolls and offensive concepts have become more challenging to deal with, so there have to be defensive rules in place that everyone is bound by.
“(We’re) trying to create clarity with them for what we want,” Donovan said. “What you’ve got to do is step by step go through these different situations. The foundation of what we want to do and how we want to play is in, but pick and roll coverage has changed on personnel, screening action has changed on personnel, but you want to make sure you have clarity on what you’re doing and have the adjustments, the changes, based on scouting and personnel.”
The attitude that the Thunder brings to the floor is half the battle. With defensive tenacity and engagement comes the concentration and focus it takes to execute each defensive assignment, for all 48 minutes. George said early in camp that the Thunder is filled with players who have a defense-first mentality, so as the chemistry builds, it should get easier to get stops collectively.
There will be bumps in the road no doubt, but with the way the Thunder’s veterans are approaching the task at hand, the team has high upside for not just this season, but for the future. After all, the Thunder’s youngsters are naturally going to take their cues from the guys who have been around the block for years.
“If we start out with a defensive mindset and start getting after it defensively, everybody kind of falls into it and a defensive stance picks up for this team,” George said.
“A lot of times when you probably come into the NBA as a younger player, you’re gonna probably build your habits based on your veteran guys,” Donovan added. “That’s where it’s gonna come from, and I think we’re fortunate here that we have really good, quality veteran guys.”