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.”
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."