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."

Wendell Carter Jr. is now 6 feet, 9 inches---and other Bulls' height adjustments

USA Today

Wendell Carter Jr. is now 6 feet, 9 inches---and other Bulls' height adjustments

With player heights long a topic of question and debate, the NBA informed teams that all players must be measured by a team physician this training camp.

It’s all part of the league’s push towards transparency, which includes detailed reports on officiating and other initiatives.

So who grew and who shrank among the Bulls?

Wendell Carter Jr. dropped from 6 feet, 10 inches to 6-foot-9, which will do nothing to change the narrative that he's an undersized big man. Kris Dunn moved from 6-4 to 6-3. Daniel Gafford isn’t 6-11, as first advertised when drafted, but 6-10. And Denzel Valentine is no longer 6-6 but 6-4.

The Bulls even pushed down Coby White’s flamboyant hairstyle and discovered he’s 6-4, not 6-5.

As for those who grew, well, Zach LaVine’s All-Star candidacy now features him as a 6-6 guard, not 6-5. New big man Luke Kornet is really big; he’s 7-2, not 7-1. And Shaq Harrison somehow grew from 6-4 to 6-7.

That’s the official Bulls’ roster. 

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Insider K.C. Johnson calls Bulls the 'sexy pick' to make the postseason but tempers expectations

Insider K.C. Johnson calls Bulls the 'sexy pick' to make the postseason but tempers expectations

On the 2019 NBA Preview Show, NBC Sports Chicago Bulls insider K.C. Johnson broke down what it would truly take for the Bulls to make the jump into playoff contention following a particularly tough 22-win season. 

Johnson, like most of the national NBA landscape, is optimistic about the prospects of the 2019-20 Bulls. He stated that it is "widely accepted that they had a pretty strong offseason," but cautioned us against simply penciling in the Bulls for a playoff spot this season. 

Despite the additions of savvy veterans like Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, the Bulls still enter the 2019-20 NBA regular season as the second-youngest team in the NBA, as good of a reason as any to temper expectations.

That being said, the Bulls, from a simple talent standpoint, are much better than last year's squad that featured a ton of injuries and many Windy City Bulls/NBA G League call-ups. 

With a new coaching staff around head coach Jim Boylen and a new offensive philosophy, things will be very different in Chicago this season.

But as Johnson stated in Tuesday's 2019 NBA Preview Show, for the Bulls to achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the postseason, "basically, all of those [free agent] additions need to hit.

"You need to see Tomas Satoransky prove that he can be a full-time starter at that point guard position, you need to see Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen take a step towards stardom, you need to see Otto Porter Jr. stay healthy enough to contribute at that small forward position and you need to see Wendell Carter Jr. hit the two-way potential that the organization believes he has... and Coby White... needs to bring you something off the bench."

If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is and it appropriately represents the amount of work needed to make the leap from 22-wins to a playoff spot. 

What the Bulls have working on their side as of now is that everything we have seen and heard from the team throughout preseason has indicated that there is good shot that every one of the things K.C. Johnson named happens. 

Carter was limited to just 44 games due to injury last season and while he has looked rusty in the preseason, he has also had some explosive finishes and shown his trademark appetite for help defense and blocked shots. Carter blocked 2.0 shots per game over two preseason games but was abysmal in terms of his offensive efficiency (26.7% from the field), something to keep an eye on throughout the first week of regular-season games. 

Boylen recently made comments about managing Porter's workload, so clearly keeping Porter healthy amid the backdrop of the Bulls questionable wing depth is already something the organization has discussed and seems to have a concrete plan for. 

Satoransky has shown that he can comfortably handle the starting duties at the one as Johnson suggested, averaging 7.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game while being lights-out from 3-point range (80% on 1.2 attempts per game). And while Sato represents the steady hand, Coby White represents the true "boom-or-bust" option in the backcourt, capable of going off for 25+ points or fading into the background while playing more of an off-ball role. 

The factor that Johnson mentioned that will have the greatest impact on the 2019-20 Bulls season is if Markkanen and LaVine can take a step towards superstardom.

LaVine looks clearly poised to do so, finishing the preseason third in the league in scoring at 23.2 points per game on 59.3/56.0/ 83.3 shooting splits. Markkanen, on the other hand, struggled to find his shot and despite being one of the top-three scoring options on the team, struggled to get his scoring average just over 11.0 points per game (11.2). 

It is only preseason action, so all results are to be taken with a grain of salt. But as we gear up for the start of the Bulls games that count on Wednesday, it is clear that the national outlook on the Bulls is much rosier than it has been in the past.

Johnson stated that the Bulls are indeed shaping up as a "sexy pick" to make the playoffs and that alone is a monumental step in the right direction as the franchise looks to put last season's disappointment further in the rearview mirror. 

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