Over 19 seasons as head coach of the University of Florida, Billy Donovan led the Gators to four Final Fours and two national titles with fast-paced offenses that featured a heavy dose of ball movement, cutting, and screening. But the NBA has been a different story for Donovan. Hired by the Thunder in 2015, he quickly abandoned his offense for a slower-paced, isolation-heavy system that highlighted the scoring abilities of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That’s what coaches should do: adapt a system to the team’s personnel. But after Durant left for Golden State in 2016, Westbrook became Mr. Triple-Double and the Thunder maxed out as a high-40s-win team that lost in the first round, even after adding Paul George last summer. With Westbrook, George, and Steven Adams signed through at least the 2020-21 season—and high-upside youngsters like Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo showing promise—the Thunder have time to blossom into true contenders.
But Oklahoma City’s style needs to change, and Donovan knows it. The Thunder have ranked near the bottom of the league in passing metrics—from possession time to assists—during Donovan’s tenure, but he regularly says during his press conferences that he wants better movement. At Las Vegas summer league, the Thunder played at a brisker pace, which summer league head coach Mark Daigneault said was “designed to trickle up or to be experimented with” at the NBA level. Donovan reiterated his desire in an interview with The Oklahoman. “As a coach, stylistically, do I want the ball moving? Passing, cutting—I want all that,” Donovan said. “But it’s also got to make sense for our personnel. I think we have a team that can play really fast. I think we need to get up and down the floor. I want to see the ball move a little bit more.”
It would have been unfair to expect Westbrook to start moving off the ball like Steph Curry and to expect Carmelo Anthony to run and cut after pounding the ball as often as he breathed earlier in his career. And both George and Westbrook are able to develop a rhythm when the ball is in their hands; what’s best for one team might not be the best for the Thunder. But as I’ve written time and time and time again, Westbrook’s über ball dominance doesn’t lead to winning at the highest level. Historically, teams don’t flourish in the playoffs when one player is jacking up 27 shots per game, never mind when they’re doing so with paltry efficiency like Westbrook has in Oklahoma City’s past two first-round series losses against Utah and Houston.
“There’s a balance between [giving the ball to your stars] and then trying to play faster with more ball and player movement,” Donovan admitted. Since KD left, Westbrook has been the only source of playmaking. George can score, but he’s not a creator for others, and Melo, who was recently traded to Atlanta, was a black hole. The other Thunder point guards during Donovan’s three-year tenure are misfits: Raymond Felton, Cameron Payne, Norris Cole, Semaj Christon, and D.J. Augustin. The Thunder went from great (plus-5.7 net rating) to bad (minus-5.2) when Westbrook took a seat on the bench last season, and from good (plus-3.3) to horrific (minus-8.9) the season prior. On-/off-court data can be shaky, but you don’t need numbers to know Oklahoma City is better when its best player is on the court or that it helps when a star is spelled by quality backups.
Feel free to laugh at the suggestion, but maybe Dennis Schröder can help. Schröder, who was acquired last Thursday along with the Sixers’ Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot for Anthony and a 2022 first-round pick (protected 1-14, then it becomes two second-rounders), is a severely flawed point guard: He scores inefficiently, defends like a revolving door, and is in the midst of an off-court legal issue. On paper, he’s a poor fit next to Westbrook and has a game that’s eerily familiar to Reggie Jackson, who once butted heads with Westbrook before he was traded to the Pistons in 2015. Maybe Schröder will see a familiar fate in Oklahoma City. But unlike Jackson, who was traded before his big payday, Schröder has three years and $46.5 million left on his contract. And for all of Schröder’s weaknesses, he can flat-out get buckets and generate offense better than the aforementioned point guards, including Jackson.
Schröder is a lightning-quick guard who can create against a set defense, and though he was an inefficient chucker in Atlanta, situation matters. The Thunder aren’t tanking like the Hawks—they don’t want him jacking up 17.1 shots per game. Instead, the 24-year-old could be encouraged to be a passer with the Thunder. Schröder has far better passing vision than he gets credit for considering his role in Atlanta. Prior to the 2013 draft, the German was compared to Rajon Rondo not only because he’s long and lanky with a shaky jumper, but also because he’s a nifty passer with a knack for locating shooters and delivering accurate passes.
Schröder pushes the pace in the play above, as Donovan says he wants his team to do, then tosses a heat-seeking missile to Kyle Korver on the opposite end of the court. The Thunder don’t have a shooter on the same level as Korver, but George and Alex Abrines could be options for Schröder dishes; or, instead of a shooter firing a 3, it might be Westbrook catching the ball and then rumbling down the lane against an unset defense for an explosive dunk.
The Rondo comparisons were popular for Schröder because of stylish but effective passes like the one above. Schröder likes to take risks, and sometimes it works. But he can also do the simple stuff like hit the roll man or kick it out to spot-up shooters. He can pass. It’s part of the reason he was drafted 17th overall despite being an extremely raw international prospect. Maybe Oklahoma City can bring that skill back to keep the team afloat while Westbrook is off the floor.
But Westbrook will average around 35 minutes, which means he’ll share the floor plenty with Schröder. This is where the relationship will be made or broken. If Westbrook and Schröder coexist, Donovan will be able to install more pace and ball-movement concepts featuring multiple ball handlers running the show, rather than relying on just Westbrook as the frontman.
If Schröder initiates offensive sets, it frees Westbrook to be used as a screener either on the ball in a 1-2 pick-and-roll to target a mismatch or off the ball as part of a more extravagant action. It’s not like taking the ball out of Westbrook’s hands at the start of a possession means he’ll shoot it any less. It just would change the quality of the shots. The goal should be fewer contested midrange pull-ups and more layups off of cuts, spot-up chances leading to drives, and catch-and-shoot 3s.
It’s not as though Westbrook never cut in past seasons:
Or never unleashed ferocious dunks against a rotation defense:
You also have to credit Westbrook for developing into a solid spot-up shooter. Over the past four seasons including the playoffs, Westbrook shot 35.1 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, per NBA.com/Stats. Schröder could be good enough of a creator to warrant taking the ball away from Westbrook in order to maximize his best skills without the rock, and in late-clock or end-of-game situations, the Thunder can revert to Westbrook isolations, like most teams do when the game calls for it.
Their fit won’t be without issue. Schröder will need to start trying again on defense, like he did earlier in his career. And offensively, Westbrook will still control the ball a ton, and including playoffs, Schröder is a 34.7 percent spot-up 3-point shooter over his career, per NBA.com/Stats, and shot only 28 percent on those shots last season. Defenses can comfortably sag off of him unless he returns to his quality shooting numbers from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. And there are no guarantees Schröder even accepts a complementary role coming off the bench after starting and binge-shooting in Atlanta. But such an approach should’ve left a sour taste for both Schröder and Westbrook, as putting up shot after shot has led to relatively underwhelming results. Both need to sacrifice to change the Thunder’s trajectory next season.
It hasn’t worked yet in Oklahoma City for any of Westbrook’s quality backcourt partners. James Harden was dealt for financial reasons. Jackson got dumped because they clashed. Then Victor Oladipo was traded as part of the George deal following an underwhelming season. All of them performed better after being traded. Now it’s Schröder’s turn. But Westbrook also needs to adapt. The former MVP can’t stand around with his hands on his knees when he doesn’t have the ball. He needs to screen and cut; last season, he logged only 11 screen assists in 80 games (compared to 36 over 51 games for Curry or 29 over 60 games for Kyrie Irving). Westbrook has been self-reliant to an extreme level compared to his superstar peers. Only 20.3 percent of Westbrook’s made field goals were assisted last season, compared to 51.6 percent for Curry and 34.6 percent for Irving. Life can be easier and more successful for Westbrook if he sacrifices.
If Westbrook is open to playing differently, it’ll free Donovan to coach more like he did at Florida, with creative half-court sets or actions that put Westbrook into dynamic roles as a screener or a low-post playmaker. The Thunder certainly have the personnel to be a contender with a pair of two-way stars in George and Adams, versatile defenders in Jerami Grant and Andre Roberson, wild-card big men like Nerlens Noel and Patrick Patterson, a host of young players, and now a worthy secondary playmaker in Schröder. Sam Presti has constructed a really good (and really expensive) team. But the last thing the Thunder can do is stay stagnant—both literally and philosophically—or it’ll lead to the same premature demise in April, and a possible change at head coach.
Scott Brooks ran into the same problems that Donovan is struggling with now as Thunder head coach for seven years before he was let go after the 2014-15 season. Donovan showed an openness to change when he took the job three years ago by dumping his motion-based offense for an iso-heavy system centered on Westbrook, the common denominator throughout this decade. It doesn’t work. Now it’s on Westbrook to return the favor by trying something new.