What Is Billy Donovan’s Plan for the Thunder?


Let’s start this out by stating the obvious: Billy Donovan’s hiring was pre-meditated and destined to happen at some point. Between GM Sam Presti’s extensive history and friendship with Donovan and the fact that the Thunder had already hired multiple Donovan staffers to work underneath former head coach Scott Brooks, the writing on the wall had been clear for years. Presti and the team may have claimed to have done an extensive and far-reaching search but ultimately, the job was always Donovan’s for the taking.

More simply put, the Thunder have had Donovan in the plans for a very long time. Frank Underwood himself couldn’t have scripted a more seamless and calculated overthrow of a former political figure. Still, I’m not here to debate whether or not the hiring was justified. Rather, I’m going to look at where the team appears to be headed under Donovan and what exactly the “Donovan Plan” may be.

Obviously, Donovan has both offensive and defensive sets he’s fond of that may or may not fit the Thunder’s current personnel. If the team truly is all aboard with Donovan as the coach of the future (and his five-year contact seems to be a pretty big indicator of that), then it’s only reasonable to expect the team’s construction to fall in line with his overarching strategy.

Essentially, Oklahoma City was already somewhat structured as a college-type franchise. Between the heavy emphasis on an electric home court atmosphere to the stress on team and continuity, the framework has been in place ever since the franchise moved from Seattle. Donovan is going to push the team even further into “Thunder University” territory.

The question then becomes, what will that look like?

First, let’s look at the offensive side of the ball. One of the biggest critiques of the Brooks-era Thunder was the lack of structured offense. During his tenure, the Thunder rarely ran “set offenses”, mostly relying on occasional screens to set Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant free on an isolation-style scoring opportunity. As long as one of the two were in the game, the offense got points. The bench units tended to struggle but, overall, the team managed to get baskets in droves by virtue of having two of the top-five offensive threats on the planet on their team.

A good example of this is in the clip below:

Watch closely. Thabo Sefolosha never leaves the near-side corner. Kendrick Perkins never leaves the near side block. Serge Ibaka thinks about posting up but then he, too, goes and camps in the far-side corner. Durant goes and sets a screen and Westbrook blows by the remaining defender for a thunderous slam. No one actually did anything related to a basketball play aside from a rudimentary screen. It was still two points. Flashy even. But not easily replicated.

Particularly when your bench units relied heavily on guys like Eric Maynor, Derek Fisher, and D.J. Augustin as primary ball handlers.

So what does Donovan bring to the table? In a short answer, a lot of buckets.

Donovan’s offenses at Florida were described as a quick-hitting spread screen and roll. Reduced to its simplest form, the Thunder are going to be living under the “space and pace” mantra. Donovan wants players in every corner of the floor and he wants them sprinting. The look will be very similar to Rick Carlisle’s offense in Dallas or the LeBron James-era Heat.

Donovan leans heavily on ball screens and pick and roll action to force the defense into making choices. This should already feel familiar to most Thunder players with the biggest differences revolving around off-ball movement. Here’s a good breakdown of how the set plays work.

Here, you can see that Florida wastes no time initiating the play, with the screener coming to the top of the key as soon as the ball handler crosses half-court. This is different from most traditional NBA offensive sets as the screen usually won’t occur until the top of the key. Donovan’s ball screen occurs about five feet before that, as evidenced below.

The spacing here is worth noting. Florida has two wings spread to the corners in the picture above, with the primary post camped on the weak side-block. This sort of spacing will be key to any sort of Thunder success under Donovan and will definitely be a deviation from the Brooks-era crowded lanes.

The astute reader might be noticing, however, that this play looks an awful lot like the Westbrook dunk video from earlier. And thus far, that astute reader would be correct. However, Donovan is a big believer in secondary, off-ball screens. Whereas Westbrook likely converts that ball screen from above into an easy lay-in, guys like Augustin may not be able to turn that into the same scoring opportunity. Under Donovan, however, a new wrinkle presents itself.

In the play, Bradley Beal leaves the block to come to the top of the key (in the screen shot, he’s right above the NCAA logo) while the initial screener from the first pick sets a second screen on Beal’s man. This leaves Beal alone at the top of the key, which is fortunate since another Norfolk St. defender has dropped into the lane to deny the ball handler. Wanna guess how that play ends?

In case you can’t tell, three major things have happened here. First, Beal is sitting squarely in circle one. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking but I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “Holy crap, this is the most open I’ve ever been.” It should come as zero surprise that he drills the three. Second, the weak-side wing in circle two is ALSO WIDE FREAKING OPEN. But why? Look no further than circle three. The defense was so paranoid about the roll action coming off the screen, that it sucked three discombobulated defenders into the post (two of which switched onto him during his two earlier screens).

Will this same thing work with the Thunder? Absolutely.

Picture the bench unit. D.J. Augustin gets an early screen set by Steven Adams and drives to the hole. Someone like Marc Gasol hedges down to defend the drive. On the weak side of the play, Anthony Morrow runs to the top of the key and Adams picks off the trailing Tony Allen. Augustin kicks out to Morrow. Morrow drills a three. Sam Presti nods knowingly at the media, who goes on to write about his brilliant coaching hire. End scene.

Perhaps this is a shade dramatic. Nonetheless, asking the Thunder’s ridiculously-athletic, rangy team to run more and keep the floor spread seems like a recipe for absolute basketball domination. Furthermore, the Thunder already have the personnel in place to make this work. Experts have been begging for the Thunder to run more small-ball type units for years and Donovan’s offense is without a doubt going to call for that. If the 2012 Miami Heat were any indication, this offensive flow is absolutely lethal when run expertly…

That is, assuming you can stop someone from scoring on the other end.

Oklahoma City had a major lapse defensively in 2015. Granted, injuries played a huge role but even then, it’s hard to justify slipping some twenty spots purely because of Ibaka’s absence.

So what does Donovan bring to the table on the defensive end?

That’s a little harder to read than his offensive tendencies. Donovan was really good about making his defense fit whatever his personnel dictated. His two national title teams in the mid-2000s ran a large amount of man-press. Given their extreme athleticism (Corey Brewer and Taurean Green on the wings) and ridiculous rim protection (Joakim Noah and Al Horford), they didn’t have to rely as much on set defenses as teams were lucky to get any sort of good look with those sort of athletes on the floor.

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A better look at what Donovan may choose to implement could come from his 2011 basketball team. His best player, Chandler Parsons, was used in the same capacity that Durant likely will be and he made the rest of the defense a swarming mob around him. The team mixed in a ton of presses and traps to make use of their athleticism and speed but was also prone to the occasional 1-3-1 zone look.

Obviously, the man-press will be nothing new to the Thunder. With Ibaka as perhaps the league’s greatest rim protector, the team loves to go aggressive man-on-man, trusting that when someone doesn’t move “along the rope” that Serge will be there to dissuade any player trying to exploit the temporary lapse. What would be new, however, would be the advent of the 1-3-1.

(Note: if you speak Spanish, the video below will be even more helpful)

This set might be especially devastating if the Thunder choose to implement it. Ibaka would obviously be the “1” closest to the basket. Florida relied heavily on solid rim protection out of this set and Donovan would relish the opportunity to cut Air Congo loose on this.

Durant would likely occupy the middle of the “3” using his length to cover the vacancies that a secondary post usually covers. As the video alludes to, the zone moves “along a string” to follow the ball. This means that it pulls away from the weak side, pending where the ball is located. Having a guy like Durant who can cover huge lengths of the floor purely because of his Gumby-like arms and legs ensures that the defense is never truly out of position.

Westbrook likely mans the top of the formation and gets to do what he does best defensively: be a maniac. He’s asked to absolutely badger the primary ball handler, yo-yo-ing in-and-out of the zone, wreaking havoc on lesser mortals. The rest of the formation can be fluid, with guys like Dion Waiters, Morrow, and Kyle Singler being equally interchangeable on the perimeter.

Or maybe none of this defensive-break down matters. Donovan has historically been very fluid with his defense, letting his personnel and match-ups dictate how he operates. I fully expect to not have a sense of the Thunder’s identity on this side of the ball until a few games into the season.

The only thing we can be sure of is that regardless of what Donovan trots out, it will definitely be to the Thunder’s benefit.

He had nothing but success at Florida and most of that was due to his uncanny ability to make his system work for the players he has, not the other way around. He’s not out to revolutionize the game or create some ground-breaking game plan.

He’s out to win.

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