Billy Donovan is a quality coach. Nearly impossible to think otherwise.
His career and national championships at Florida prove it. His first-season success with the Thunder also speaks to Donovan’s abilities as he helped lead the Thunder past the Spurs and nearly past Golden State in the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago.
The Thunder’s record this season, an underwhelming 8-11, doesn’t mean Donovan can’t coach, or has suddenly forgotten what’s made him a good coach. But it does mean something isn’t working.
And this is a bad season to not have everything working in Oklahoma City. The opportunity for long-term success is wrapped up in short-term results. How? Well, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George likely aren’t going to be tempted to stay around town if this first-year experiment playing alongside Russell Westbrook doesn’t work out. Failure, or something short of obvious, rampant success, probably means Westbrook will be back in the same position he was a season ago – a leader of a directionless team that is void of championship potential because George and Anthony will be gone. That’s why change is necessary.
So, back to Donovan. With a window that is closing rapidly, there’s no team to see if the Thunder will be able to fiddle around and see if things right themselves, because from what we’ve seen so far, there’s no reason to think the OKC stars will start buying what Donovan is selling. The Thunder need to start winning. Not now, but starting about two weeks ago. They are already seven games behind first-place Houston.
Perhaps if this was a team of younger players Donovan should be awarded and deserve more time. Perhaps if there was a different dynamic or make-up of personalties then it would make sense to be more patient, but here we are. The unique situation with the roster doesn’t make this all Donovan’s fault. General manager Sam Presti shaped together a lineup full of opening night pizazz but full of potential issues – the main one being that two superstars, who have always been team leaders, would be forced to change their basketball mentality and no longer be the center of attention, much less the center of the offense.
But that’s all context and background. Staring Donovan in the face is something more obvious. He has a team that has no identity, rarely inspired and is wildly inconsistent. Maddening to watch. Meanwhile, it appears – and there’s no science or absolute truth to this statement – the players don’t really care all that much. That’s on Donovan to make right.
When any or all of the above is happening, it falls back on the coach. It means players aren’t listening or the coach isn’t getting through to them. Either or both means you have real issues, and unless you have the comfort of time, it’s never too early to make a change.
The Thunder don’t have a young team. They don’t have time, either. The fact that this season is only in the beginning stages is not a something that even applies here, due to the high probability this roster isn’t in place a year from now.
About the only thing consistent is the way OKC has been losing games, showing up early and fading late, which is a sign that whatever Donovan is telling George, Westbrook and Anthony, isn’t sticking, or they aren’t trusting him, or they are falling back on old habits. Likely, it’s a combination. After all, a new coach is always going to have a hard time getting veteran players to believe, but a new coach is going to have an even harder time getting players, who have a history of playing on teams which are built around them, to believe success needs to come in a different form.
A win against Golden State only goes to the point that it takes a seismic event to create any urgency. And when everything settles and that urgency was gone, the Thunder let another double-digit lead slip against Detroit and lost. A game after losing to Detroit at home, the Thunder went to Dallas and collectively looked like they didn’t care. It manifested in a loss to one of the league’s worst teams. That falls back on the c
If the Thunder are losing games in relatively the same manner and don’t look like they care, it doesn’t mean Donovan is a bad guy or a bad coach. And it doesn’t mean Presti should take comfort in the calendar. It means a new voice, any voice, a voice that’s different, is a logical step to take. Worth the risk, too, because the reward is so significant. It could pay off in wins, yes, but even more it means stability.
It’s not too soon to make a change, but it may be too late.