Brady Trantham

On Billy Donovan’s coaching challenge going into Orlando

On Billy Donovan’s coaching challenge going into Orlando

ORLANDO — 138 days will separate the last time the Oklahoma City Thunder played a game until their first scrimmage in the Orlando bubble on July 24. 

The unprecedented stoppage of play is a disadvantage shared by all participating 22 teams. Some teams will have to regain a strong rhythm that’s now lost — OKC included. Other teams may have to scrap everything and start from scratch. 

At some point — if everything goes according to plan and IG models don’t breach the gates of the bubble — the talent light bulb will flick on. The Los Angeles’ and the Milwaukees of the world will rise to the top. When will that happen is for us to find out.

Until that time, everyone must get back to normal as quickly as possible. For a team like the Thunder, ‘normal’ means finding the same momentum that won eight of their previous 10 games or 12 of their previous 13 road games. 

Is that even possible. Sure, it’s possible. Is it fair to expect? That is the challenge for Billy Donovan.

“I think the important thing is to let our guys know that the last 64 games weren’t a waste,” Donovan said on July 8. “We’ve got to focus on the 2019-20 season. There was a lot of great work done in those games.”

It is tricky. When the season was suspended on March 11, Oklahoma City was one of the hottest teams in the league. The rotations were working with great success despite some injuries here and there. So how exactly is Donovan supposed to turn the Bubble Thunder into the pre-Bubble Thunder?

Short answer: He can’t right away. But that’s to be expected.

“The timing and execution during the first three days of practice haven’t been very good,” Donovan said Sunday evening. “We have to somewhat start over.”

Last September during training camp, Donovan would often express the importance of his team playing full 5-5 scrimmages. In prior years where the foundation of the team centered around Russell Westbrook, Donovan valued more focused drills and techniques.

The 2019-20 Thunder was, for the most part, a brand new collection of players. Many of whom had either not played with each other or played under Donovan. 

As the Thunder transitioned from training camp into preseason back in October, any thoughts of OKC fighting for a top-four seed in the West were outlandish. These players needed time and game play under their collective belt.

“Back in training camp, I said with this new team we will have to play more together,” Donovan added. “We have to play a lot now in order to get better.”

The Thunder do have two advantages in this. 

One is the pragmatic fact that the 138 days in between play is shorter than a typical Billy Donovan-coached offseason. Going back to Westbrook’s MVP season that ended in a first round, the average time from the last game played to the first preseason game the following season is 163 days. 

While a season stoppage thanks to a novel virus is unique, the time between games isn’t.

Donovan even mentioned how the structure in Orlando is a little more advantageous for coaches. During normal times, practices take place in the morning with prep-time for coaches taking place separately from each other the night before. In Orlando, OKC has practiced in the late-afternoon or early evenings — allowing Donovan and his staff more time to fine tune their drills and identify what to focus on. All this to help speed along the Thunder’s return to muscle memory.

The other advantage could buy Oklahoma City some time before the inevitable talent light bulb hits for the elite squads. Chemistry.

This Thunder team has remained close during the hiatus. That should come as no surprise. Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the rest of the squad built a strong bond together as the season progressed. 

Their chemistry turned into success. After starting 5-10 — with limited game play under their belt as Donovan would say — the Thunder would go 35-14, tied for the second-best record in the West with the LA Clippers behind the Lakers. 

It will take time for execution and timing, but with the Thunder’s built-in chemistry from the first 64 games, they may be able to find the spark more quickly.

They also have the potential luxury of added health for guys like Darius Bazley and Danilo Gallinari who were dealing with nagging injuries. Paul, who turned 35 during the hiatus, has had time to recover. Andre Roberson may even emerge as a factor. He’s participated in the first three days of practice.

“Roberson is a guy who could help us,” Donovan said. “He’s an interesting player who I understand having coached him before. Lu Dort has had some time and he’s older. Bazley has had some time and he’s older. Someone new could emerge for us.”

Donovan has the luxury of coaching a team with strong cohesion as well as players who understand their roles and team hierarchy. Those were things OKC had to find during their 5-10 stretch to start the year. All that must be done now is find the muscle memory through practices. The scrimmages will be great for a team like the Thunder. 

“There’s a little more excitement,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on Sunday in reference to coming into Orlando compared to going into a normal training camp after a normal offseason. “Us getting back is a miracle. I love playing and learning with these guys.”

Once the Thunder light bulb comes on, they could be a tough out for anyone — until the talent light bulb come on for the elites.

Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12. Brady is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma class of 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports

Brady Trantham

Brady has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder since 2016. University of Oklahoma alum class of 2014. He has worked for the Franchise since April 2018. Brady co-hosts the OKC-82 Podcast and the Inside OU podcast, part of the Franchise Podcast Network. He also hosts the Locked On Thunder Podcast, part of the Locked On Podcast Network. You can hear Brady on Saturdays after football season from 10am-12 on the Franchise Thunder Insider's Show with Jerry Ramsey, Jon Hamm and Madysson Morris.

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