The Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the NBA’s most stable franchises, got another one right this week when they picked up coach Billy Donovan’s contract option for the 2019-20 season.
It’s easy to blame coaches in the NBA no matter the stakes. The best teams cast aside the coaches who built them into contenders when they hit a road bump expecting a title. Lottery teams ignore their futile roster-building to peg renowned coaches with the lion’s share of responsibility. It’s unfair most of the time.
Donovan could easily have been seen a target appear on his head after last year’s first-round playoff bounce at the hands of the Utah Jazz. But rather than bail on a coach who has a good relationship with the franchise’s star, Russell Westbrook, and reset the culture and scheme on a top-four team in the Western Conference, the Thunder stuck with Donovan. General manager Sam Presti, who has been in Oklahoma City since 2007 and sets the precedent of stability, seems to understand the value of comfort and chemistry between star players and the coaching staff.
You know them by now: the Donovan-Westbrook Thunder play physically, they make tough shots and they grind out wins. Donovan’s Thunder have been first in the NBA in offensive rebounding rate every season since the former Florida coach took over. They have cleaned up their turnovers the past two seasons since Westbrook’s historically high-usage MVP season in 2016-17. They have begun to run more set plays since George came to town, using the former Pacer’s off-ball gravity to clear up space for Westbrook.
Last year’s Oklahoma City team was seventh in offensive rating and 10th in defensive rating, generally the mark of an elite team. This balance developed even after trading for Carmelo Anthony late in the offseason and losing depth and versatility in that deal and the Paul George trade. Yet despite such huge changes, Donovan’s mark remained.
This summer, the Thunder cut bait with Anthony and got a long-term commitment from George. It’s difficult to parse responsibility in free agency decisions, but aside from Westbrook, the coach is the guy whose day-to-day actions rub off the most on George.
Donovan himself has perpetuated the stability Presti’s longevity and Westbrook’s 2017 contract extension enabled. Three assistant coaches — Maurice Cheeks, Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic — have sat beside him on the bench his entire tenure, and renowned assistant Adrian Griffin was around for two years before leaving for Toronto this summer. Many of the players helping Oklahoma City recover from its playoff failures now despite the botched Anthony trade are young players who developed under Donovan’s watch the past four years.
Donovan’s ability to develop these players and commit to them on the court is another strength. From Alex Abrines’ improved defense to the starting-caliber play of Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson, the Thunder staff consistently puts role players in position to succeed.
While Presti is a master of tinkering with his roster on the margins, Donovan is adept at adjusting and maximizing the team around Westbrook. Most surprising of all has been Donovan’s ability to get so much out of the Dennis Schroder-Westbrook pairing that many were skeptical about heading into the year. Both carry earned reputations as inefficient chuckers, but they have a plus-17.1 net rating in 681 possessions this year, according to Cleaning the Glass.
According to ESPN, a “strong playoff performance” could have led to a contract extension for Donovan, but the Thunder opted to lock him in now.
At some point, Donovan will have to truly answer for his team’s first-round playoff exits in 2016 and 2017. There were excuses both years — losing Durant then getting Anthony — but Oklahoma City is sitting pretty right now with the league’s best defense and both his stars playing well. Coaches notoriously hate working without job security, and now the Thunder rightly have alleviated the pressure on Donovan ahead of another big postseason test in the spring.