Billy Donovan’s Strong Case for COY


0.2% chance to make the playoffs. That’s the stat that has been all over social media recently. Before the season began, ESPN gave the Oklahoma City Thunder this 0.2% chance at the postseason. Fast forward 10 months, the Thunder sit fifth in the Western Conference and probably like their chances in any playoff match-up. But how did they get here? A lot of the credit will go to the players, and rightly so, but the excellent coaching of Billy Donovan should not be ignored.


Early Season Struggles

It wasn’t the easiest start to the season for Donovan and the Thunder. Coming off a summer where they traded both Paul George and Russell Westbrook, they headed towards the poor start to the season that many anticipated. They weren’t very good offensively, averaging just 107 PPG through November. This was expected, after losing a combined 51 PPG from their two MVP-caliber players. Not only were they struggling to score, they were also struggling on the defensive end. Donovan’s previous Thunder teams had consistently been a top-ten defense. Now, they were allowing over 112 PPG. A 7-11 start to the season left the team already seriously questioning their identity.

Many thought that the Thunder should cash in on Chris Paul as soon as they could and start tanking. This surely would have been the logical thing to do considering CP3’s huge contract and their lack of star power surrounding him.

Turning Point

December proved to be a turning point in the season for the new-look Thunder. With impressive, double-digit, back-to-back wins at Portland and Utah, they began December with a 4-1 record. They followed this up later in the month with wins against the high-flying Clippers and the reigning-champion Toronto Raptors. One key for Donovan’s team during December was improvement on defense. Donovan added two-way player Luguentz Dort to the rotation, who brought great defensive energy to the team. They discovered the defensive identity that Donovan’s teams were known for and shot up the rankings to be a top-ten defense once again. By the end of 2019, they had improved to 18-15 and found themselves seventh in the West.

The League’s Surprise Team

The Thunder continued their improvement into 2020. Since the turn of the year, they have been both a top-ten offense and defense. Not only have they been winning games, they have been beating some of the league’s best. Wins against Houston, Boston and Denver put the league on high alert. Donovan can out-coach some of the best in the NBA. His three-headed monster of CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder is one of the scariest offensive trios in the league. Schröder is a candidate for MIP and 6MOY, and CP3 made the All-Star team for the first time since 2016. Both of these achievements wouldn’t have been possible without Donovan creating their roles for them and trusting three undersized guards to share the court at the same time.

Since the dreadful 7-11 start, the Thunder have gone 36-15. That’s just shy of 60-win pace over a regular 82-game season. Whilst you can’t ignore the poor start, they did have a huge roster overhaul in the off-season. Three of the five starters were brand new (four, once you account for the more recent addition of Dort), including an entirely new backcourt. Billy Donovan deserves huge credit for making adjustments and turning their season around.

NBCA Coach of the Year

On August 3rd, the NBA announced the results of the Coaches Association COY award. All 30 coaches vote for one of their peers and recognize the dedication, commitment and hard work that they have put in throughout the season. This year’s award went to Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer and OKC’s Billy Donovan. This is encouraging news for Thunder fans and strengthens his case for the official award. To be recognized by your fellow coaches must be a honor. Hopefully, this emphasizes to the media just how impressive Donovan has been this season.

Budenholzer and Nick Nurse both have strong cases for the award with what their respective teams have achieved this year. Both of their teams had some roster changes, the Raptors of course enduring the biggest loss in Kawhi Leonard. Despite this, they were both expected to win games and they did just that. But losing two MVP-caliber players and still taking a new group of players to the fifth seed is an incredible achievement.

Billy Donovan has taken a team that many anticipated to have the worst record in the league and through inspiring levels of commitment and enthusiasm, generated some well-deserved playoff buzz. That in itself should warrant multiple first-place votes, and hopefully, enough to bring home the award.

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About Eshan Arya

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