Thunder

Reflecting on Billy Donovan’s Rollercoaster OKC Tenure

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The Oklahoma City Thunder had an incredible season that shocked many, but the reality is they are entering a rebuild. The Thunder and head coach Billy Donovan opted to part ways following their departure from the Bubble. The rebuild, though not officially started yet, has already made good strides with some exciting young pieces in place. However, there is a long road ahead and this journey didn’t appear to be one Donovan wanted to be a part of at this stage in his career.

Donovan’s contract expired at the end of this season, which officially came to a close after a hard-fought, seven-game series against the Houston Rockets. He was in charge for five seasons and had an overall record of 261-180 (including playoffs). On the surface, a 60% win record in the stacked Western Conference sounds fairly impressive, but does it paper over the cracks of a mediocre tenure?

Debut Season

Donovan got the OKC job in April 2015 after a disappointing 2014-15 season in which they missed out on the playoffs due to a number of injuries to both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In his first season as head coach, they finished with an impressive 55-27 record, good for third in the West behind the historic 73-9 Golden State Warriors and a veteran 67-15 San Antonio Spurs team.

The team was rolling through the regular season, with impressive victories over some of the league’s best teams. Heading into the playoffs, they took care of business against the Dirk-led Mavericks in just five games. Their second round series saw them trail 2-1 against the aforementioned Spurs, but OKC reeled off three straight to win the series 4-2.

Then came the conference finals– the series that would alter the franchise’s future. They mounted a 3-1 lead on the Warriors after dominating their first two home games. OKC looked destined to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2012.

Despite leading in all three remaining games, the Splash Brothers showed the league why they went 73-9 and came back to win the series. Golden State would proceed to blow their own 3-1 lead in the Finals, leaving them stumped as to how they would beat LeBron and the Cavs moving forward.

Life Without Kevin Durant

In the Summer of 2016, Kevin Durant left the Thunder and teamed up with the Splash Brothers to form a generational super-team in the Bay Area. This left Billy Donovan without his MVP and a lot of work to do to put more pieces around Westbrook.

2016-17

OKC acquired Victor Oladipo to pair with Westbrook for the 16-17 season. As expected, the team dropped off slightly but still finished the season with a 47-35 record and the sixth seed.

But this will be known as the Russell Westbrook season. The explosive guard averaged a triple double for the season and brought home the MVP trophy.

Despite the impressive individual season, they fell short in the playoffs once again, losing in five games to the Rockets in the first round. OKC realized that Oladipo, whilst a solid role player, wasn’t the co-star that Westbrook needed. They would ship him to Indiana for Paul George in the offseason hoping to make a deeper run in 2017-18.

2017-18

Donovan added George and veteran Carmelo Anthony to his core rotation for the 2017-18 season. Donovan, of course, decided to run the offense through Westbrook again and he would average another triple-double for the season. In spite of this, swapping George for Oladipo ultimately only led to one more win. OKC finished 48-34 but did manage to secure the fourth seed, giving them a match-up against the Utah Jazz in the first round.

OKC was the favorite heading into a series once again. Utah was led by rookie Donovan Mitchell and over-performed in many peoples’ eyes. Unfortunately, Donovan’s team simply could not handle the surprise rookie and shockingly lost the series 4-2.

2018-19

Heading into 2018-19, Donovan recognized that he needed to strengthen his squad’s bench. OKC traded for Dennis Schroder, who they hoped would be able to lead the second unit. They finished a game better than the season prior yet again at 49-33, but in a top-heavy West, this was only good enough for the sixth seed.

This set the table for a first-round bout against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers — another series that would eventually change the future of the franchise. Donovan decided to run much of his offense through Paul George, a move that would backfire. OKC could not compete with Portland, as they were held below 100 points in three of their losses. They went on to lose 4-1, with that Dame buzzer beater sending the Thunder packing. The summer that was about to embark on Donovan’s team would be even more franchise-altering than 2016.

Final Season

Going into the 2019-20 season, OKC gutted their core, sending Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Jerami Grant away in numerous trades. In return, they acquired Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, veteran guard Chris Paul and a plethora of draft picks. Most experts predicted that the Thunder would tank the season.

They did anything but that, however. Donovan, with the help of Chris Paul, built a culture around playing for each other. He came up with the successful ‘three-headed guard’ lineup of Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander. When these three shared the floor, they had an incredible net rating of 28.6. Donovan’s team reached the playoffs against all odds, but ultimately fell short. They took their Summer trade partners to a grueling, seven-game series that could have went either way. Donovan’s impressive season also won the praise of his peers, as he was the co-winner of the Coaches’ Coach of the Year award.

What Next for OKC and Donovan?

Donovan’s tenure could be perceived as slightly disappointing– they were only legitimate title contenders in one out of five seasons. The team did lose Kevin Durant, however, so Thunder fans will be grateful for the winning culture he brought to the team. Especially as this is something they might miss in the near future, as they begin their rebuild. The Thunder have a good young core in SGA, Lu Dort and Darius Bazley, but still have a lot of work to do before they are title contenders again.

As for Donovan, he won’t be a part of OKC’s journey, but we will see him coaching again next season. The Chicago Bulls recently announced that Billy Donovan will be their new head coach. This announcement came as a slight surprise, as it was widely reported that Donovan didn’t want to be part of a rebuild, yet Chicago is in that exact situation.

Nevertheless, this is a great pick up for Chicago; they are getting one of the premier coaches in the NBA. It’s certainly going to be intriguing to see what Donovan can do with the exciting young core they have in the Windy City.

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About Eshan Arya

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