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. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

Wendell Carter Jr. gets early 'learning experience' against Embiid, Sixers

PHILADELPHIA – Picture yourself at 19 years old.

Maybe you were in college. Maybe you hit the job market early.

What you likely weren’t doing was guarding one the NBA’s best centers in your first professional game.

That was the task charged to Wendell Carter Jr. in the Bulls’ 127-108 loss to the 76ers in the season opener at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday.

Carter Jr. was the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft after just one season at Duke. He earned the start in his NBA debut after an impressive preseason, but nothing could’ve prepared him for going up against Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” Carter Jr. said when asked if Embiid was as impressive as he thought he’d be. “He’s a phenomenal player. He’s one of, or the best, big man in the league. Very skilled, very poised. He knows his spots on the court.

“I didn’t go out there with my best effort. It’s just a learning experience for me.”

Carter Jr. had eight points, three rebounds, three assists and a block in 20 minutes. He also picked up four fouls, which the rookie attributed to the physicality and craftiness of Embiid.

But he did flash the impressive and varied skill set that made him a high pick and such a coveted prospect. He was also able to garner the praise of the Bulls’ veterans.

“Even though Wendell got in foul trouble he was still playing (Embiid) solid,” Zach LaVine, who scored a team-high 30 points, said. “That’s a tough first game right there. But he didn’t lack for confidence. Made him take some tough shots, but he’s going to make them. He’s that type of player.”

To his credit, Carter Jr. was candid about his performance. He admitted that his emotions ran the gamut from nervous to excited to happy.

In a season that will have its ups and downs as the young Bulls develop and learn, there will likely be more games like this against other elite NBA competition. It’ll be how Carter Jr. responds that will define his career.

“It’s the first game so I don’t want to put too much on myself,” Carter Jr. said. “It would be different if it was like the 50th game or 60th game. It’s the first game. We’re just going to move on from it. We’ve got our home opener on Saturday (vs. the Pistons). That’s where my mind is right now.”

See, he’s learning already.

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

Could Ryan Arcidiacono be in line for more minutes?

The Bulls backup point guard situation will be in dire straits all season, with no established veteran behind Kris Dunn. And although the front office has seemingly committed to Cameron Payne as the backup PG (for at least this season), Ryan Arcidiacono showed enough in the season opener to justify giving him meaningful plying time in the rotation. 

Here are the stat lines of Arcidiacono and Cameron Payne from the season opener in Philadelphia:

Arcidiacono: 8 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line

Payne:           0 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 0-for-1 from the 3-point line

With so many capable ball handlers and score-first players on the Bulls, point and assist totals aren’t as important as the rebounds and 3-point attempts. To provide the necessary space needed for driving lanes, there has to be openings in the defense caused by defenders sticking close to player they believe are a threat to shoot.

And that is where the problem lies with Payne.

Ryan Arcidiacono—while by no means a dominant scorer—showed a willingness to attack off of the pick-and-roll, even showing off an impressive ball-fake:

Payne, despite coming into the league with the reputation of a scorer, has yet to be aggressive enough to make teams think twice about leaving him wide-open on the perimeter. And he is not one to attack the basket with purpose, averaging less than half a free throw per game for his career. Payne's general lack of aggressiveness when on the floor is often times made worse by his occasional poor post entry passes that seem predetermined:

Even if the above play was designed to get the ball to LaVine in the mid-post, Payne chooses a terrible time to make the pass. When he starts the motion to give the ball to LaVine, Ben Simmons is positioned in front of LaVine to force a tougher pass, as rookie Landry Shamet gambles over the backside to get the steal.

Had Payne chose to swing the ball around the perimeter, or give it to Bobby Ports and then get it back, he could have created an opening for the LaVine pass.

Obviously, the Bulls 19-point loss can’t be blamed on solely on Payne, the terrible defense was a group effort, as was the sometimes questionable shot selection. But with the defense already appearing to be perhaps one of the league's worst units, Fred Hoiberg would be wise to put Arcidiacono in more.

Hoiberg is in a crucial year where he needs to show that he can be the head coach of this team when they finally become competitive.

And for Hoiberg to show that type of growth as a coach, he needs to set the tone that minutes are earned not given, something he has already started with his moving of Jabari Parker to the bench. Payne only received 22 minutes, compared to 28 minutes for Arcidiacono, and it is tough to see that changing if things continue on like they did on Thursday night.