According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Oklahoma City Thunder and head coach Billy Donovan are parting ways. Donovan was due for a contract extension. But, the two sides felt it was best to part ways as the franchise embraced the reality that a rebuild was inevitable.
According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, and later re-affirmed by The Athletic’s Sam Amick, the Philadelphia 76ers are expected to have interest in Donovan. The two-time National Champion with the University of Florida will quickly emerge as one of the most sought-after names on the coaching market.
Every indication has pointed to Tyronn Lue as the next head coach of the Sixers, and league sources have conveyed that Lue remains in strong position for the job. But, Donovan’s surprising free agency could make a competition out of something that appeared to be a run-away for the Philly job.
With these recent developments, here are some thoughts on Billy Donovan.
Opponents Struggle In Transition
The Thunder have been in the top third of the league in defensive rating in each of the last three seasons. The Thunder were also top 10 in the NBA in transition defense in each of the last four seasons. In two of those four seasons, their transition defense gave up fewer than 11.5 fastbreak points per game. That was good for top 5 in the league in both of those seasons.
The Thunder have also shown proficiency in limiting the opposition in scoring off of turnovers. In two of the past three seasons, the Thunder have finished in the top 10 in that category.
Those rankings may not leave you particularly excited. But, the Sixers have been in the bottom third of the league in both of those categories over the same time frame. It is neither a coincidence nor a secret that the Sixers have also struggled with turnovers ever since Brett Brown’s tenure as head coach began.
The implication of fewer points allowed in transition and fewer points allowed off of turnovers is that the offense is, indeed, committing fewer turnovers. Such is the case for the Thunder. While not particularly sensational at taking care of the basketball, they finished in the top half of the league in turnovers committed per game in each of the past three seasons.
The Sixers finished top 10 in that category this past season, but it came at the expense of a much more painfully disastrous offensive product. Prior to this season, the Sixers finished in the bottom 5 in the NBA in turnovers committed per game. The turnover issues that the Thunder experienced are attributable to Russell Westbrook’s foot-on-the-gas style of play.
Adding a Secondary Ball-Handler and Shot-Creator Helped
It is telling that Oklahoma City exhibited significantly fewer turnovers immediately after adding a secondary half-court ball-handler and shot-creator in Paul George. The previous season, when Westbrook won MVP after carrying the Thunder by himself, Oklahoma City finished in the bottom 10 in the league in turnovers. They added Paul George, and the reduced pressure on Westbrook to create the entire offense improved their turnover issue enough to put them in the top half of the NBA in that category.
This past season, with a true point guard in Chris Paul, and more high-level role players around him and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Thunder committed the sixth fewest turnovers per game in the league this season.
Billy Donovan could certainly improve the Sixers with some offensive structure, thereby remedying the team’s turnover issues. Even when they do commit turnovers, Donovan has indoctrinated his program on recovering on defense and getting back in transition. There is, however, a caveat to that theoretical improvement. The Thunder rostered more athletic pieces than the Sixers currently do, which could make it harder for Donovan’s principles to have success in Philly.
It’s A Players’ League
Connecting dots, Ben Simmons has advocated for Tyronn Lue as the franchise’s next head coach. It is unknown as to how Embiid feels about the idea of Lue coaching him. But, watching film from Lue’s days in Cleveland, it would seem as though his system would favor Simmons as the more featured player. Numerous sets featured LeBron James as a passer out of the post. That role would fit Simmons quite well if Lue were to be appointed in Philly.
Joel Embiid could provide an interesting dynamic that could change who the favorite for the job is. If Embiid prefers Donovan over Lue, it could change the front office’s decision-making process. Ever since May of 2019, the Sixers have made every possible decision to show that Simmons, not Embiid, is their priority. They’ve allowed Redick to walk and chose Simmons over Butler. They then signed a $109 million insurance policy to play next to Embiid, and put comically poor-fitting pieces around their ‘crown jewel’. While Embiid has publicly expressed displeasure with the franchise’s decisions to not retain Redick or Butler, another truth is that he never privately advocated for them to be re-signed. So, while Embiid may not be against either of Tyronn Lue or Billy Donovan, he may not make it known to management if he has a preference.
Nonetheless, the coaching decision, should Embiid not be on the same page as Simmons, could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.