Durant, Thunder 'still figuring it out' under Billy Donovan


Durant, Thunder 'still figuring it out' under Billy Donovan

There were five head coaching vacancies in the NBA this offseason, all with a certain level of intrigue to them. The chance to coach Anthony Davis in New Orleans, an exciting young core in Orlando and a Nuggets team with the No. 7 pick in a talented draft class all had appeal with an eye toward the future.

But the rarity of a job opening for a true title contender with two of the game's biggest superstars provided a different level of appeal and expectation.

The Thunder made the decision to dismiss Scott Brooks in April after seven seasons that included an NBA Finals appearance in 2012. But Brooks had stagnated after winning the West three seasons ago, and failing to make the playoffs a year ago – albeit without Kevin Durant for 55 games –provided the tipping point for a chance at the helm.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Thus, Billy Donovan, head coach at the University of Florida for 19 seasons, accepted his first NBA head coaching job with the expectation to not only win big, but win now. With Durant's free agency looming next summer, and Russell Westbrook's coming the year after that, the Thunder's championship window could be a year or two away from closing for good. Not only do they need to win now, but they'll need to do it in a Western Conference loaded with talent.

Unfortunately for Donovan, those steep expectations meant little room for a grace period. Expectations began immediately, despite the core of those roster adjusting on the fly to a new coaching staff for the first time in seven seasons. So, too, did the criticism begin at the first sign of growing pains.

A 3-0 start that included a victory on opening night over the San Antonio Spurs has been masked by three straight defeats, the latest of which came Thursday night in a 104-98 loss to fellow first-year coach Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls. 

“A lot of people outside our locker room get caught up,” Kevin Durant said during pregame availability. “They get caught up in, ‘We want this team to be good when we want them to be good’ instead of, ‘It’s going to take some time, we’re still growing, we’re still getting acclimated with the new offense or new defense, or anything.’ There’s a reason why things aren’t going as fast as you want them to go from the outside looking in. We try not worry about that.”

[MORE: Vintage Derrick Rose performance gives Bulls victory over Thunder]

On the surface the Thunder appeared in midseason form. They entered Thursday ranked second in the NBA in offensive efficiency, Durant (29.2) and Westbrook (28.6) were ranked second and third in the NBA in points per game, with the latter leading the NBA in assists per game, and they touted the depth to match perhaps any team in the league.

But the growing pains of a new coach and system were evident. After beginning the game 8-for-10 the Thunder went quiet for long stretches, with the Bulls leading by as many as eight in the first half and 10 in the fourth quarter, meant playing from behind much of the night. And while a hot stretch from Durant in the fourth quarter helped the Thunder tie the game at 90, 92 and 94 with a little more than 3 minutes to play, their late-game execution left plenty to be desired. Whereas Derrick Rose exploded for 10 straight points in that stretch, Oklahoma City went 2-for-7 down the stretch as the Bulls closed the game on a 10-4 run.

"We’re still figuring it out. We’ve got a new coach, we’ve got new plays. And it’s still early in the season," said Serge Ibaka, who scored 17 points in the loss. "We’re still figuring out how we’re going to play. It’s not easy. We know it’s going to be tough but we’re going to be there."

Much like the Bulls still learning the nuances of Hoiberg's offensive approach, the Thunder are in the early stages of doing the same with Donovan. It's made even more difficult in that they're doing so playing with Durant after he appeared in just 27 games a season ago. Acclimating to a player averaging more than 19 shots per game is no easy task. But the same reason expectations are high are the same reason Donovan sees the process taking shape quicker than expected.

Donovan, who won two championships - with Joakim Noah - while at Florida, said before Thursday's game that his core has shown the same eagerness to grow as the 18- and 19-year-old players he coached in Gainesville. That should expedite the process of growing as a team, even if they aren't setting any timelines for themselves.

"There is obviously a lot more wealth of experience in terms of minutes played, games played, years played that they’re probably a lot more further along in their understanding of the game than a kid coming out of high school at 18," Donovan said.

"But they still want to grow and develop and get better as a player, and they’re looking through direction through film, or talking or seeing things to help them develop and grow and get better."

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment


Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie


Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”