OKC Thunder evaluation: What does Billy Donovan really think about this team? 

Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday, April 10, 2019, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

Editor's note: Today begins a 13-part series evaluating head coach Billy Donovan and each Thunder player under contract heading into the 2019-20 season. The series will appear on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday in the Transcript Sports section. Today, we take a look at Donovan. Thursday is Russell Westbrook, Sunday is Paul George.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Billy Donovan. Where to begin? Where to end?

If you believe media speculation that appears to be entirely that — speculation — there’s a reasonable chance he may not be back as Thunder coach next season because Michigan would be crazy not to make him their first choice to replace Jim Beilein — who took the Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching job Monday — and given Donovan’s middling success as Thunder skipper, he might be crazy not to take it if offered.

On the other hand, all postseason indications other than the mere fact a big college job came open Monday, appear to have Donovan back in the fold for the 2019-20 season.

On April 25, at his end-of-season exit interview, Donovan said it was “business as usual … handling our players and the team today and giving them some things to think about going into the off-season,” which sound like the the kind of thing a returning coach would say.

Also, on April 29, general manager Sam Presti said, though he’d yet to have a full-season debriefing with Donovan, “We anticipate Billy being back.”

So there’s that.

Unless Michigan hires him before the end of the week, and the Wolverines may not even want him, he would seem to have a fifth season waiting for him in Oklahoma City.

As to evaluating his performance, Donovan makes it difficult because he offers so little of what he really thinks or believes. Instead, he tends to speak the way he spoke about Russell Westbrook during his exit interview when, after generally complimenting Westbrook for playing faster and incorporating Paul George, Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson more fully into the offense, he said this:

“But there’s always ways that he’s always, I think, looking at being more efficient,” Donovan said. “I think when you talk about Russell, he always wants to be an efficient player and play efficiently, so I think there’s always ways to try to improve in that area as a point guard.”

An answer like that offers no clue if Donovan is involved in trying to make his point guard play more efficiently or simply hoping it might magically happen.

Talk like that is horribly frustrating to fans and media who crave a sense of what Donovan actually thinks and believes. Additionally, it fuels the narrative that Westbrook and other players, as a matter of course, are not held accountable for poor or unwise performance.

Still, we try.

Donovan deserves credit for mostly successfully implementing the play-fast, play-defense, crest-more-possessions identity Presti said he saw the team moving into last preseason.

The Thunder ranked second in the league in possessions-per-game at 106.9, trailing only Atlanta; finished the regular season with the league’s fourth-best defensive rating, allowing 109.8 points per 100 opponent possessions; led the league with 12.6 offensive rebounds per outing and finished third in offensive rebounding percentage (29.8); and led the league in opponent turnovers per game at 16.7.

However, by Donovan’s own admission, the Thunder had serious consistency issues and, worse, to the naked eye, those issues often appeared more rooted in focus rather than a lack of talent or experience.

When the Thunder struggled, though it was impossible to know what Donovan was trying to do about it behind the scenes, he didn’t appear to be doing much about it for public view.

He stuck with Abdel Nader playing big minutes off the bench as the Thunder went on their post All-Star break slide until finally making Raymond Felton a much bigger part of the rotation, a move that coincided with Oklahoma City winning five straight games to end the regular season.

He also stuck with Markieff Morris all the way to season’s end, thereby demoting Patrick Patterson the same length of time, after Morris was acquired during the All-Star break. Though nobody’s claimed Morris responsible, even in part, for OKC’s late season slide, all of it nonetheless occurred following his emergence in the rotation.

Additionally, Donovan abandoned Hamidou Diallo as a rotation player about 50 games into the season and never brought him back.

It’s hard to know if those were bad moves or the best moves available at a time the real problem was Paul George’s ailing shoulders, both of which are supposed to be fixed this offseason, yet leave him questionable to participate in OKC’s next training camp in the same way Westbrook’s participation was questionable in the last one.

What kind of a season did Donovan really have?

It’s still a good question.

All we really know is he and his team were bounced in the first round of the playoffs for a third straight season, and almost nobody expected that.


Horning is senior sports columnist for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.

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