Photo by Coby Van Loan | OKC Thunder

Coach's Approach - Billy Donovan and the Thunder’s Plan to Get Back to Action

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter & Digital Editor |

HOT AND BALMY summer days, dodging raindrops during the daily afternoon thunderstorms and soaking in the cool relief of the air conditioning inside the gyms at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex inside Walt Disney World Resort are all old hat to Billy Donovan. Every summer when he coached at the University of Florida, Donovan attended a national AAU tournament in the same gyms where he’s now coaching an NBA squad.

While the backdrop is recognizable, pretty much everything else in the bubble in Orlando is unfamiliar territory for Donovan and the other 21 head coaches trying to get their team ready for the re-start. After a four-month layoff that pressed pause on a season wherein the Thunder continued to elevate its level of play, Donovan asked himself perhaps the most important question when trying to figure out how to begin getting his guys back in basketball rhythm:

“How do we collaborate with medical to build these guys up in a fashion that's helpful and safe, giving them the work that they need?”

Fortunately, the players conditioning was in great shape because of the diligence they all showed during the hiatus with weightlifting, cardio training and other aerobic exercise that could be done at home. Then, once the team re-assembled in OKC for a week before trekking down to Orlando, the players were able to start shooting, dribbling and going through more formal workouts.

Once the team got to Orlando, Donovan’s plan has resembled the way it looked to start training camp back in October with this same group – a ton of getting up and down, scrimmaging and competing.

“It’s pretty similar, just trying to get our style of play back in order,” said guard Terrance Ferguson.

To get the endurance back, Donovan had the Thunder practice for six consecutive days right off the bat and most of those practices included gameplay to help the guys re-develop some timing with one another. Doing that allows for the players to get back into basketball shape, meaning not just running and jumping, but all of the stopping and starting, bumping and dribbling, screening and boxing out that can drain someone physically.

The Thunder also was able to simulate, with practice, the way that its schedule during the eight seeding games will line up. The team had a practice at 6 p.m. ET last Wednesday, a day off on Thursday and then a 9 a.m. practice on Friday. While it won’t be playing quite that early in the re-start, the Thunder does have much earlier tip offs than normal, and the games will be spread out all over the course of the day unlike the typical 7 p.m. tip-offs.

“Those situations are good for our group because I do think it builds up some resiliency and some stamina,” Donovan said.

Off the court, Donovan has stuck to his routine the best he can – studying film, relying on the Thunder’s analytics staff and his assistant coaches and keeping meticulous notes by hand instead of on a laptop.

“I sink ships when I type,” Donovan quipped, showing his one finger at a time typing approach.

He’s had the Thunder coaches and front office personnel assess how the team performed against the top 10 offenses and top 10 defenses in the NBA to try and understand big picture trends of things the team can address before its first game on August 1. From there, the coaches can get into the nitty gritty of each individual opponent.

While all of those strategies seem like great ideas in principle, it’s impossible to know what the exact correct approach would have been to bring into the re-start. As everyone is learning and navigating the bubble together, Donovan and the players will be ready to make adjustments to their schedule and routine.

“I'm sure after this is over with there'll be plenty of things I'm sure I will look back upon as a coach and I'm sure the players look back upon as players and say ‘okay, maybe you could have done this differently, we could have done that better’,” Donovan said.

One thing that will definitely not be lacking is the Thunder’s approach to maintaining the incredible chemistry that existed in the locker room. Even though they’re being safe and socially distanced inside of the bubble, Donovan has made time to keep connections strong by golfing with Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, while players have gone fishing and played cornhole together.

“The biggest thing that I think is important in this kind of situation with the unknown is can you stay connected? Can you stay upbeat? Can you lift each other up? Can you support each other? And when we're in between the lines can we get better as a team? Those are the things that I think we have control over,” Donovan said.

If it seems like Donovan has as many questions as answers at this point in the proceedings, you’re not wrong. Same goes for every single head coach in Orlando right now, as they all try to figure out the best course of action for their specific guys looks like. Fortunately, the Thunder’s blueprint from the season is a pretty good one – the team had the third best record in the league after Thanksgiving. Now it’s about rebuilding the muscle memory to get that mojo back.

“We know what it looks like we know what it should feel like, and the more they're out there playing those things will start to come back and the timing will start to come back,” Donovan said.

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