NBA Coach of the Year: The Case for Billy Donovan

BY Fansided and Eric Snyder/FanSided via Thunderous Intentions • December 31, 2016

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Billy Donovan lost his best player, received no help from his Front Office and has led the Thunder to a Top-5 record in the NBA Western Conference.  Suffice to say the race for NBA Coach of the Year may already be over.

What Was Lost Can Never Come Back

Every Thunder fan remembers being one game away from the NBA Finals last year.  That team included Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Randy Foye and others who are no longer on the team.  Each player who left took with them the experience they gained by playing a highly competitive Playoff series.

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The offensive efficiency seen over the last few years was either traded away or ran into the safety of Steph Curry’s skinny arms.  Not only did last years team have a 1-2 punch in Durant and Westbrook; there were legitimate offensive options elsewhere on the court.  The offensive system Coach Donovan instituted ran smoothly and would have been a match-up nightmare for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The statistical losses from the 15-16 Thunder exile are both sad and impressive.  Offensively, the team lost 56.2 points per game when Durant, Ibaka, Waiters and Foye either left or were sent away.  Similarly, those same former players represent 20.5 rebounds and nearly 10 assists per game.  Durant also took pressure off of Russell Westbrook and covered up for Ibaka’s refusal to do anything but shoot 3’s from the corner.

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56 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists a game are difficult to replace in one off-season (assuming the GM would actually try to help the coach out).  While Waiters and Foye don’t account for a huge amount of those statistics they were nonetheless legitimate offensive threats.   Looking forward, the saddest part is that Sam Presti has done nothing to replace the production that was lost.

Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

From his time at Florida through last season with the Thunder, Coach Donovan has been surrounded with talent.  However, this season his Thunder have one star, multiple role players and a lack of offense on the bench.  

Work With What You Got

The talent and production the Thunder lost last year has been thoroughly documented.  Yet, the games continue and Billy D has a job to do.  Any team that has Westbrook averaging a Triple-Double is going to be a successful team.  Donovan has rightly hitched his wagon to the Triple Double Train and done his best to avoid catastrophic crashes.

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Unfortunately for Billy Donovan and the Thunder, Russ can’t play every minute or every position.  The remaining offensive talent has been injured (Payne and Oladipo) and the second best player isn’t a dynamic weapon on offense (Steven Adams).  Pure athletic ability can carry a team a long way when there are multiple players with such talent.  For Donovan, coaching ability and strategy has had to replace the athletic potential of a “Big 3”.

Donovan has rightly hitched his wagon to the Triple Double Train and done his best to avoid catastrophic crashes.

Defending Billy Donovan

Florida fans will remember the hallmark of a Billy Donovan coached team is a stout defensive scheme. This years Thunder team plays sound defense much like those National Champion Florida teams. Ranked 7th in Defensive Efficiency, OKC has basically the same rating (1.021) as last years team. Players like Adams, Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson have flourished on the defensive side of the ball in Donovan’s system.

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Consequently, while Westbrook is driving the offense, the team is solidifying the defense. Alongside of defense, rebounding is always an understated, but important factor to winning in the NBA.  Considering what the team lost, they are still a top-10 Offensive Rebounding team, and a top-6 Defensive Rebounding team.

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    Putting Defensive and Rebounding stats together shows a very well coached team.  Donovan knows this team will not “out-talent” many teams and that defensive efficiency allows Westbrook more possessions to dominate.

    On The Offensive

    Minus Westbrook, this year’s Thunder team isn’t anywhere near the efficient machine it was last year.  Both teams sported four players scoring in double digits but that’s where the similarities end.  Last year’s team had two additional players averaging close to double digits.  Furthermore, both Durant and Westbrook averaged more than 23 points per game with Durant providing 28 points per game.

    Most of the players who left had been together for most of their careers.  Team chemistry is a major intangible factor that affects all teams.  The departure of Durant, Ibaka and Waiters not only affected the team statistically; it shook the foundation of a Championship caliber team.  While it appears the current team does get along, this is the first time this version of Team Westbrook has been together.

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    The names on the back of Thunder jerseys directly impact the quality of the product on the floor.  Unfortunately, the only name that has provided any real offensive support is currently injured (Victor Oladipo).

    Names like Sabonis and Grant impacted the NBA greatly during the 1990’s.  Yet, these same last names don’t have near the impact for the Thunder in 2016.

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    Donovan lost talent and experience this offseason but has still put a winning team on the floor in the landmine that is the Western Conference.

    The lost talent and experience has been replaced with inexperience and unproven assets that equate to nothing but trade bait in the future.  However, in the present Donovan has dealt with this team’s shortcomings masterfully and thus deserves to be the 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year.

    Names like Sabonis and Grant impacted the NBA greatly during the 1990’s. Yet, these same last names don’t have near the impact for the Thunder in 2016.

    Next: Donovan Has Some Tough Competition

    Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

    Some coaches like Steve Kerr have been handed talent filled teams on a silver platter.  Others like Dwayne Casey have had to shape young teams into contenders.  Whatever the case, Billy Donovan won’t have an easy time winning NBA Coach of the Year.

    Overall records, winning percentage and Playoff standing will always affect the voting for Coach of the Year.  Consequently, from a blind statistical viewpoint, someone like Mike D’Antoni would be front-runner for Coach of the Year.  Other voters may look at a team like the Knicks who are climbing out of basement or the Cavaliers who are purely dominant when finding their Coach of the Year.

    Rarely will a Coach get positive attention for less wins, worst stats and a lower Playoff seeding than the year before.  However, Billy Donovan deserves all the votes he can get for just keeping the Thunder afloat thus far this season.

    No coach has dealt with the loss of talent quite like Billy Donovan.  Other coaches have lost talent to free agency, trades and retirement.  Yet, the amount of talent lost, juxtaposed with the success still gained by Donovan is unmatched and impressive.

    By the end of the year, the Thunder won’t have as many wins as the Warriors, Cavaliers or Rockets.

    Even so, the job that Billy D has done to get this team competitively dangerous is quite remarkable.

    The other coaches in the running for Coach of the Year have plenty of talent and plenty of help from their General Manager.  For Billy Donovan, this trying year probably won’t go past the First Round of the Playoffs.

    Even so, the season should end with him being named 2016-17 NBA Coach of the Year.


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