Billy Donovan and the Impossible Job of Coaching the Thunder

In his first year coaching the Thunder, Billy Donovan has come in for plenty of criticism. He's deserved a lot of it, but coaching Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant is also much harder than it looks.
April 28, 2016, 8:24pm
Photo by Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.

The case for Billy Donovan is a lot more complicated than the case against him, which as it stands is pretty simple: that the rookie head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder is not a very good NBA coach in general, and that he doesn't understand how to correctly choose lineups or design a multifaceted offense in particular.

Donovan's best defense might be that his predecessor, Scott Brooks, received an equal amount of criticism in the last few years of his tenure as the Thunder's head coach. Now the Oklahoma City faithful seem to long for the days Brooks, even as their team pushes past the Mavericks and into the second round of the playoffs. It's entirely possible that neither of these men are very good NBA coaches. The other possibility, though, is that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are considerably harder to coach than they are perceived to be, and that the job itself is as much a problem as the people in it.

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"Difficult to coach" is often a pejorative label, because fans generally consider it to be reflective of a certain personal choice—either you choose to be coachable or you don't. That isn't always the case, though, which is why Donovan's job is tougher than it looks.

Durant and Westbrook's value rests almost entirely on their ability to take and make extremely difficult shots whenever they want. No player in the NBA is able to stop either of them, and only a select few make it even a bit harder for them to do what they want. Because they're so good, and because of the ways in which they're so good, no offensive sets or plays will give Durant or Westbrook a significantly better chance at scoring than if they just do whatever the hell they want. The nice thing about this is that letting Durant and Westbrook do what they want will result in success season after season. The tough part, for Brooks and Donovan and anyone else who might coach the Thunder, is what comes next: How can this team get anything from its stars beyond what they're already great at?

OK, cool, let's just do what you said. Photo by John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

If Donovan, or any OKC coach, is going to influence the game, it will be through managing the other players on the court, the ones who get the ball considerably less and need more help doing so at the right time and place. Donovan doesn't seem to be much better at this than Brooks. When Russ or KD has a matchup he likes, everyone else is left to stand around, just as they did before, and the Thunder's defense has gotten worse.

But the real problem might exist at a level above Donovan. Long before he entered the fold, the Thunder and their superstars have cultivated an "us versus the world" mentality that, while hardly novel in pro sports, has also locked the team into a sort of closed loop of defiance. But the extent to which the team's two superstars have been enabled, and the extent to which the team's mentality has isolated it—criticism is a thing to rebut, always; the rest of the basketball world exists mostly to be proven wrong—has put the Thunder in a strange place.

Half a decade ago, Durant and Westbrook were two young and outrageously talented friends who held the promise of the franchise in their hands. That all is still true, but the team's stagnation also seems connected to how little its two signature stars have changed over the past five years.

The series against the Mavericks saw a number of altercations that could have been avoided with just a little bit of composure by the Thunder. During their Game 4 victory over Dallas, Westbrook got a technical for a confrontation with Salah Mejri and was fined for telling a fan to "fuck off." Durant was ejected for hitting Justin Anderson across the face with less than a minute left and the Thunder in total control of the game.

Just my opinion: OKC has title-caliber talent but not composure. Shows in extracurricular drama and Thunder's struggles to close games.

— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon)April 24, 2016

Earlier in the series, when Westbrook angrily pushed Charlie Villanueva out of the way for stepping between his pregame dance routine with Cameron Payne before Game 3, it was clear Villanueva got the reaction he wanted. By the time the series was over, Durant had called Villanueva's antics "fake shit" and, in a press conference after Dallas's elimination, mumbled, "He might not even be in the league next year." Durant and Westbrook felt like they had the last laugh, and they did.

This all seems pointless, and it is. There are few other superstars realistically trying to accomplish the same thing as KD and Russ, and just about all of them would have "putting Charlie Villanueva in his place" low on their list of priorities. And that's why the Charlie Villanuevas of the world aren't trying the same fake shit on those other superstars, because they know a reaction is unlikely.

Someone asked Donovan before Game 3 if he felt that he had to talk with Westbrook to prevent the incidents from escalating. Donovan answered the question as politely and generically as he does most others: "Hopefully that's something the officials take a look at. There's a half-court line. Our guys are going to go out there and be who they are. I don't think our guys are going to change because they are worried about the potential of that."

In the moment, you might have translated that to "I don't really tell Russ anything."

When you're ready to listen to the coach. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Veteran forward Nick Collison told VICE Sports that the culture in Oklahoma City has remained the same since transitioning from Brooks to Donovan. "We have a new staff this year, so there are a lot of things that are different," he said, "but I think the organization stands for something and both coaching staffs have bought into that."

Donovan suggested as much earlier in the season. "Because of the success they've had had here, I wasn't going to come in and reinvent the wheel or blow everything up," he told the New York Post's Fred Kerber in January.

After a year of inconsistency and disappointment, though, it's reasonable to wonder whether that's a good thing. By passively allowing Durant and Westbrook to do what they've always done, Donovan and the Thunder hamper their chances at success. For this team, youth isn't really an excuse for a fourth-quarter meltdown or lack of composure; they aren't that young anymore. The extent to which they still play like they are is striking and strange.

For Donovan, who seems like a genuinely pleasant guy in a difficult job, the stakes are high. His path to the Finals likely includes match-ups with Rick Carlisle—that's handled—Gregg Popovich, and Steve Kerr. If the Thunder are beaten handily before the Finals, there are plenty of dominoes that might fall: Durant's free agency is this summer and Westbrook's looms the summer after.

No one is going to give Donovan credit for betting on Dion Waiters, who averaged double figures on 46 percent shooting in the first round. He'll definitely get all the blame for keeping promising rookie Cameron Payne on the bench when Waiters has a bad game. These are the downsides of coaching a team with such high expectations, but they are also the opportunities for Donovan to make an impact—because he doesn't seem to have much control over the decisions of his two superstars.

In their upcoming series against the San Antonio Spurs, the Thunder face arguably the most disciplined team in the NBA. Popovich has total control over every aspect of the team; the symbiosis between his system and his players is total. Donovan will likely get outcoached, but so does most everyone that goes up against Pop. The bigger problem is that, given his situation, Donovan might never have had a chance to make a difference in the first place.