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How did the Thunder change in Billy Donovan's first season?

Oklahoma City has made subtle changes under Billy Donovan. Now it's time to see if those changes lead to postseason success. John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

With a full regular season down, 82 games played, there is finally enough of a sample size to answer the popular preseason question: How will the Oklahoma City Thunder be different under Billy Donovan?

The answer is still kind of complicated.

Donovan didn't come into his first season claiming big changes. He didn't alter the starting five. He didn't overhaul the offensive system. He didn't completely switch defensive coverages. It was more subtle tweaking, with a vision for it to take shape over the entire season. Watch a Thunder game from November and compare it to the last month. It does look pretty different now.

But "look" is hard to quantify as something tangible. So the facts are this:

  • The Thunder went 55-27, finishing third in the West. They played 10 games without Kevin Durant (going 3-7 in those games), and two without Russell Westbrook (0-2 in those). Donovan is the third first-year coach to win at least 55 games in his first season in the past 15 years (Steve Kerr and Tom Thibodeau).

  • The Thunder rolled offensively. They averaged 109.1 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com/stats, second in the league only to the Warriors' 112.3 per 100. And again: They played 10 games without Durant.

  • The defense was inconsistent throughout the season. They allowed 103.0 points per 100, ranking 12th in the league. That was one of the main changes Donovan made this season, adjusting the pick-and-roll scheme. The Thunder in the past were more of a blitzing, trapping, hedging team, but this season they worked on guards getting over screens more and trailing the ball as the big sagged back some. The results were mixed.

  • They turned the ball over. A lot. They finished 28th in the league in turnover ratio (number of turnovers per 100 possessions) with 15.9. That was really the heart of their main issues. For example: They rank fourth in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions in the halfcourt. One of the biggest reasons they have seen a defensive drop is because of the turnovers, and within that, questionable shot selection that leaves the floor unbalanced in transition.

  • The Thunder didn't move the ball more under Donovan, at least not in terms of a raw number. They actually ranked dead last in the league in passes per game (264.0), according to SportVU. By more than 10 passes a game.

  • They did, however, assist it more. They averaged 23.0 this season, up from 20.5 last season, and the most in the Thunder era.

  • They generated more corner 3s than they ever have. This season, 8.2 percent of their shots are corner 3s (fifth most in the NBA). The most they ever averaged under Scott Brooks was 6.8 percent (2013-14). No Thunder team has ever been in the top 10 in corner 3s.

  • They scored more in the deep paint than ever before, with 30.2 percent of their shots coming from there (sixth in the league). The previous high was last season (28.6 percent).

  • They improved drastically at limiting opposing 3s. This season 26.1 percent of their shots allowed were 3s, ranking 11th in the league. Their ranks the past three seasons: 23rd, 26th and 22nd. And keep this in mind: Teams are trying to shoot more 3s now than ever.

  • They improved a little at not giving up free throws. They ranked 15th in opposing free throws (24.3 per 100), up from 21st (25.3) a season ago and 22nd (26.3) two seasons ago.

  • They gave up way too many shots at the rim (34.1 percent of their shots allowed were within six feet, 26th in the league). They still defended the paint pretty well (eighth in defensive field goal percentage inside six feet), but in allowing deep shots, they weren't good. Part of that, again, was because of their turnovers, which allowed for transition opportunities for opponents.

  • Their starting five was the best in the league. They outscored opponents by 258 points this season, almost a hundred more points than the next best lineup in the league.

  • They did lead the league in leads lost going into the fourth quarter with 14. That stat can be misleading, though. They were 41-5 when leading by five or more; 36-3 when up six or more; and 30-1 when up 10 or more entering the fourth.

  • Donovan called a lot fewer plays. He put the team in "concepts" and less in specific plays. Under Brooks, the Thunder were often recycling the same six or seven sets. They still use a lot of them now, but with less frequency.

  • The Thunder stopped getting technical fouls all the time. They were called for 35 this season (not counting delay of game/defensive three seconds), down from 49 last season and 56 the season before that. They didn't have any player in the top 10 in technicals for the first time since 2009-10. Westbrook led the league with 17 last season; he had seven this season. That might seem insignificant, but it's a good number to illustrate some growth in maturity in the team.

  • Westbrook and Durant were the most efficient they've ever been. They rank second and third in PER in the league. They scored the same they always have, but did it on less. Per 36 minutes, Westbrook took his fewest shot attempts since 2010-11 and averaged a career-high 10.4 assists per game. Durant had his second highest effective field goal percentage of his career.

So, what does it mean? Winning 55 games is pretty good, but it's still not up to previous standards of 59 and 60 that they had done in 2013-14 and 2012-13. The Thunder went through some growing pains early in the season (starting 7-6), dealt with some injuries (again), blew leads late in games (lost 8 of 12 after the All-Star break), and rested players down the stretch.

The Thunder hope some of the more positives things translate in the present to postseason success. But the long-term outlook is that in Donovan's first season, the team made gains and feels refreshed. Why is that important? Because Durant will be a free agent this summer. Their average age is also just 25.8 years old. They had eight players under the age of 28 play more than 900 minutes this season, which only trails Philadelphia and Portland. They made progress in a lot of areas, and with a young roster and a better idea of what worked and didn't under Donovan, they could build on that next season. Assuming that one guy is back.

But first of all, let's see how it works in the playoffs.