How Billy Donovan Can Maximize Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Next Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 4, 2015

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Billy Donovan doesn't have much time to make a significant impact in his new gig pacing the Oklahoma City Thunder sidelines. 

With Kevin Durant's free-agency foray looming in the summer of 2016, he may as well have a one-year window. Win a title—or at least get very close to doing so—and he could help the Thunder remain together for years. Flop massively and risk sending OKC into an uncertain rebuilding era. 

Fortunately for the Thunder, Donovan isn't just any rookie head coach in the NBA

The man who formerly spent his time leading the charge in Gainesville, Florida, might never have called the shots at the professional level, but his resume is brimming over with success and high-level experience—four Final Four appearances, two championships, three SEC Coach of the Year wins and plenty more. 

Though that hasn't always translated from college ball to the pros (here's looking at you, John Calipari and Rick Pitino), there are also some success stories. Just look at what Brad Stevens is doing with the Boston Celtics right now if you need an example. 

Regardless of his experience, Donovan is a fantastic tactician, one who can certainly help maximize the talents of the best players on his roster. After years of underachieving and offensive stagnation under Scott Brooks, it's time for the new clipboard-holder to begin implementing new ideologies and reaping even more production from the seeds that Scott Brooks sowed in Oklahoma City. 

More Pick-and-Rolls

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 12: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives on a screen by a teammate against Brandon Knight #7 of the Detroit Pistons on November 12, 2012 at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan. NOTE TO USER:
Allen Einstein/Getty Images

The pick-and-roll game is often the staple of many NBA offenses. But during the last decade, Donovan's Florida Gators have become familiar with it, too.

As Randy Sherman explains for BBallBreakdown, Donovan has been one of the more notable pick-and-roll coaches in the college ranks for a while now:

 In the college game, Donovan has been regarded as one of the top "ball screen" coaches there is. His spread pick-and-roll offense has resulted in consistent top 20 rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency in kenpom’s metrics. 

The NBA is, of course, a different game and Donovan may opt to alter his system accordingly. But a successful coach such as Donovan will surely bring his successful formula as much as possible.

Screens figure to feature quite heavily into the OKC schemes, not just by opening up space for the primary ball-handler, but by throwing in nuances that didn't previously exist under Brooks. 

Both Russell Westbrook and Durant are fantastic ball-handlers, and they're some of the most dangerous players in the game to switch against. That puts an inordinate amount of pressure on opposing defenses in screening situations because they're at a blow-by risk if a bigger man ends up on Westbrook, and Durant can easily shoot over smaller players. 

So, why didn't the Thunder run more of this? 

They often used their ball-handlers in pick-and-roll sets but did nothing to make the most of their roll men. During the 2014-15 season, NBA.com's statistical database shows they scored just 0.93 points per possession on rolls, leaving them in the 24.1 percentile. Unfortunately, we don't have numbers for the 2013-14 campaign to compare, but with everyone healthy, Brooks seemed to turn to his isolation-heavy offense with more frequency. 

Running a screen that involves both Durant and Westbrook is dangerous enough, but OKC can also throw Serge Ibaka into the mix, making defenses wonder if he's going to roll or pop. And most importantly, Donovan can have the Thunder run plays that don't fizzle out after the first screen.

Or really, plays with any sort of twist. 

The action you can see above is pretty simple. The Gators are consistently stretching out the floor by placing two players in the corners and a big on the baseline. Then, a capable shooter sets a screen at the top of the key and pops out, ready to let fly or put the ball on the floor. 

Notice what happens at 0:30, though. 

This time, the screen isn't set right at the three-point arc but rather a few feet behind it. A change as simple as this one can put tons of pressure on a defense, which is forced to spread out even more while allowing the offensive players to build up a head of steam. Now, just imagine the Thunder running that with Westbrook and Durant. 

But here's the most promising play of all. 

Donovan doesn't just run a simple spread pick-and-roll here. Instead, he uses two screens in quick succession to create even more havoc in the defensive schemes, and that's magnified by the two weak-side players moving in opposite directions. One rotates to the left wing, while the other flashes under the basket, making himself open for the score. 

And the situation makes this more impressive still. 

How many times have you seen a Thunder isolation set at the end of a close game? Well, Donovan trusted his screen-heavy system when it mattered most, calling for this double-pick play with 7.5 seconds left in a one-point game, and the results validated his decision. 

Cut Out the Mid-Range Game

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 16: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots a jumper against Devin Harris #20 of the Dallas Mavericks on March 16, 2015 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Glenn James/Getty Images

"His offensive players have been more and more judicious in their shot selection, as Donovan has largely excised mid-range jumpers from most of his players' repertoires and reshaped a unit that fired quickly, while running the floor in his early days into one that hunts for layups and threes," SBNation's Andy Hutchins wrote about the former Gator, and it's another principle that will work in the Thunder's favor. 

Oklahoma City is already one of the fastest teams in the Association, finishing the 2013-14 campaign with the league's No. 9 pace and then proving it was no fluke by moving up three spots this year. However, the mid-range jumpers are more problematic. 

OKC's Middling Mid-Range Ways
% of FGs from 10-16NBA Rank% of FGs from 16-23NBA Rank
2013-1413.1No. 216.7No. 23
2014-1511.3No. 1016.5No. 17

The Thunder were trending in the right direction, but they weren't keeping up with the overall ebbs and flows of the NBA. These types of shots aren't hallmarks of the best offenses in the Association, and they won't be in years to come, as teams are increasingly relying on layups and three-point attempts—the most efficient shots in basketball. 

For Oklahoma City to live up to its full offensive potential, it has to cut these poor shot selections out of the arsenal, even if that means limiting the indelible Westbrook Experience. 

The dynamic point guard was undoubtedly one of the most exciting players in the league due largely to his insane athleticism and propensity for doing the unexpected. But even with the 11 triple-doubles and gaudy offensive statistics, he wasn't nearly as valuable as he could have been.

In fact, my FATS model (based on historical comparison and explained in full here) shows that OKC only jumped from playing like a 34.4-win team to a 43.4-win squad when he was on the court, and that's hardly indicative of an MVP-worthy campaign. Kevin Durant (18.5), Serge Ibaka (17.6) and Anthony Morrow (9.7) actually all had bigger on/off differentials for the Thunder. 

Why is that? Because Westbrook's shot selection was still putrid at times. This happened far too often: 

Credit: NBA.com's video archives.

That is not a good shot, even if it falls through the twine for two points (it didn't in this case). 

You simply don't want to be taking pull-up jumpers from mid-range zones in transition. They're fun when they drop, but they don't very often. And there are almost always going to be better shots available in those situations. It's simply a great example of commandeering an offense, and Donovan can't allow that to happen. 

"Then there’s freshman point guard Kasey Hill, a blur of talent with NBA passing skills and playground shot selection," Matt Hayes wrote for SportingNews.com during the 2014 NCAA tournament, when Donovan's senior-laden Florida squad owned a No. 1 seed. "There's a reason the staff believes Hill will shoot better in the coming years; that he'll become a more consistent scorer while being an elite distributor."

OKC's new head coach doesn't have the luxury of time in his new destination, but he should quickly create a similar reputation just by employing discipline and holding his players accountable for their poor decisions.

Kasey Hill admittedly didn't improve during his sophomore season (far more offensive responsibility on a much younger team didn't exactly do wonders for him), but Donovan consistently managed to get his players into better scoring positions throughout his Florida tenure. 

As dangerous as Westbrook was while given free rein, imagine what he could do with a little tweaking. 


Better Rotations

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 9:  The Oklahoma City Thunder's bench celebrates against the Utah Jazz at the Chesapeake Energy Arena  on January 9, 2015 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Tactically, there's more that Donovan can do. He can run plenty of nuanced offensive sets, implement the Florida defensive schemes that rely so heavily on perimeter traps and turn control over to Durant in the right situations. 

As SportingNews.com's Adi Joseph explains, he's always been a bit of a coaching chameleon: 

Notice how there’s no single coaching philosophy attached to Donovan, the way the "pack-line" defense gets attached to Virginia’s Tony Bennett or high-paced transition game is associated with North Carolina's Roy Williams? Part of that is because Donovan adjusts his style to his personnel. The defense always is good, and the results usually are, too. But he doesn't try to make players fit him. He fits the players.

That's perhaps the best news of all. 

The biggest knock on Brooks over the past few years shouldn't be his stagnant offensive schemes and heavy reliance on his players' ability to perform in situations that mirrored what they'd do in pickup games. It should be his complete aversion to rotation adjustments. 

That was never more readily apparent than during the 2014 playoffs, when he was utterly outmatched by Gregg Popovich. To be fair, the San Antonio Spurs head coach routinely puts on coaching clinics against just about everyone, but there was a world of difference between the two sidelines during the series that pitted the Thunder against the eventual champions. 

Brooks never used the right bench players, he made small adjustments after it was more than a quarter too late and he ran his stars to death. Even though Westbrook and Durant were playing inordinately heavy minutes during that San Antonio series, they were either left in the game or substituted in despite huge deficits they couldn't possibly overcome in the remaining time. 

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 21:  Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat and Shane Battier #31 of the Miami Heat guard Kendrick Perkins #5 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of the 2012 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder at American A
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

And how about two year earlier, when Kendrick Perkins just kept playing against the Miami Heat despite the obvious indicators that he wasn't exactly an asset? Here's Grantland's Zach Lowe

There are members of the Miami Heat who will whisper to you, in honest moments, that they literally could not believe their good luck that Scott Brooks just kept rolling out Kendrick Perkins during the 2012 Finals. When they realized the Thunder would not change — that Perkins would start in big lineups that couldn't scamper with Miami’s small-ball groups — the Heat knew they had a ring in the bag.

There's little indication Donovan will be any better. Then again, there also aren't any signs he'll be worse than Brooks or even on par with the former head coach's limited skills in this department. 

Huge rotation adjustments aren't crucial at the collegiate level, where talent often trumps everything else. The games are only 40 minutes long, the seasons are shorter and there's more space between outings, all of which lead to less fatigue from the stars and thus less of a need for tactical changes. 

But it's different in the NBA, and this will be the most important part of Donovan's transition. He has to utilize the bench correctly to keep Durant and Westbrook fresh for the inevitable playoff run. On top of that, he has to use the aforementioned standouts properly for the very same reason. Relying too heavily on the stars can be detrimental. 

Donovan doesn't have much time to figure all of this out. Take too long, and he runs the risk of losing the franchise centerpiece and plunging into a rebuilding tailspin. 

But after years of watching other marquee college basketball programs do less with more blue-chip talent, he has to be excited at the thought of working with more star power than virtually any other team in the NBA. 

Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.