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Q&A with new Thunder coach Billy Donovan

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. -- After a season of remarkable injury issues that saw Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka miss a combined 88 games -- and resulted in only 45 wins for the Oklahoma City Thunder with no ticket to the postseason -- the organization made the somewhat surprising decision to fire head coach Scott Brooks.

Brooks had overseen the Thunder's rise from a group that won only 23 games during his interim season as coach, to one that secured an NBA Finals berth in 2012 and has become a perennial contender in the Western Conference.

But with the organization transitioning to a new phase as Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka enter their prime years -- and approach free agency -- the Thunder tabbed ultra successful college coach Billy Donovan as Brooks' successor to build on what's already a strong foundation.

Donovan has been on the job two months, and has been busy acclimating himself to a new schedule and different time management challenges. Donovan is in Orlando with the team as it competes in the NBA summer league, and took some time to chat with ESPN.com about Durant's future, applying his philosophies to the NBA, and the challenges ahead in coaching a win-now team.

When the Thunder coaching position opened, Thunder GM Sam Presti acted as if there was going to be some kind of wide canvassing coaching search -- he used the phrase "cast a wide net" -- but it's pretty obvious he already had his guy in mind. Did you actually interview for the job, or were you recruited?

"No, I don't think it was that way at all. I think when Sam had called and we had spoken, there was some interest. I think Sam wanted to find out more about me, certainly I wanted to find out more and more about the Thunder.

But it was one of those things -- I think there was enough of an interest, I think Sam said we have a serious interest in wanting to sit down and talk, but in doing that I think Sam wanted me to have a real clear perspective of what the organization stood for, what it represented, what it was about -- and I didn't know any of those things. And I wanted to know those things, because I wanted to be in a situation where I felt like, being at a place for 19 years that I love, an athletic director that hired me was still there, and so many people that had been with me for 19 years at Florida -- I knew how well aligned I was with the University of Florida and its administration. And that was really important to me, and I think even going back to seeing Rick Pitino's relationship with [former Kentucky AD] C.M. Newton, I've just always felt like when you work with people you want to have that shared, same vision.

So I think sitting down with Sam, it was kind of like, 'Here's our vision, this is what we see, this is what we represent,' and then kind of how I felt about those things, and we met for about a day and a half on a lot of those things, and it was really insightful. It was really educational in terms of what the core values are, what the organization stands for, and I think going through that process made me feel better and better that it could be a fit -- and I think maybe Sam felt the same way that going through this with me, he felt this is going to be a fit. And after that day and a half we both felt really good about it, but it never started out in the beginning anything more than just, 'Hey, interested, this is serious.' Because I wouldn't want to sit down with somebody unless I had a sincere interest, so there needed to be interest on my part, too, and there was the matter of, 'OK, is this a good fit for the both of us?' and after going through I really felt that it was."

You talked a little yesterday about adjusting with new time management in this job as opposed to college. What's that include? Are you just watching hours and hours of NBA game tapes?

"I think there's a lot of things, and that's certainly something you want to do, but I think building relationships, getting to know the players -- you've got guys that have been in the organization for a long time that really have built a lot of special things in Oklahoma City. So getting a chance to know those guys. Putting together a staff, and getting a staff where we're all aligned. You know this is the first time we're all working together, so we're learning each other. I think sitting down and talking philosophically, basketball-wise, talking about how I see the game, how they see the game.

Certainly there's a lot of experience on the staff, and that's been really enjoyable to me that we've been able to pick each other's brains on a lot of things. Trying to create an identity of how we want to play based on our personnel. Watching film, trying to put things in offensively and defensively where we're helping the players play to their strengths. So there's been a lot that's gone into all that stuff, and then getting prepared for summer league and being here for a week. Once the summer league finishes, July and August will give me a lot of time to even dig deeper into more and more film on the team."

What about the Thunder? Have you watched a lot of their tape from last season?

"I have. I have. The one thing that I respect about the organization a lot is there's a lot of people that play really, really important roles -- from the medical team to obviously the support staff in the building, to Sam, to the front office -- and I think what you want to do is integrate. So I had to take some time to get to know a lot of different people. Their jobs and what they do, and then how we can all work together. There was a lot of feeling out. The medical team wants to know, OK, practices and certain things to regulate minutes and guys' health and those kind of things, and how I go about practice and what we normally do in practice.

And dealing with the people that handle travel, shootarounds, and what time will we practice. What happens if you don't sit down and cover that stuff early, when it comes upon you, you're dealing with it for the first time, and that's not a good thing."

"The one thing that I don't want to with Kevin and/or Russell, is they've got to play to their identity and who they are, and trying to create an environment for them to go out and be who they are." Billy Donovan

While you're trying to run a practice and prepare for the Mavericks or whoever.

"Exactly. So I've had a lot of meetings like that, which have been really, really helpful so we can help everybody integrate and get on the same page that we all have an idea of roles, responsibilities and what we're doing."

Is there anything you've seen on film where you've said, "Yeah, we're definitely going to do that differently"?

"I think that everything that they did last year -- I think the thing you have to look at with last year's team which was very, very difficult, and Scott did an incredible job there -- they certainly went through a lot of injuries last year. And I don't know if they were ever able to create and carve out an identity for themselves. Because they start off the season with all these injuries, then Kevin was out, then he was back, then Russell got hurt, then he came back, then Serge is out. All these ups and downs and ebbs and flows, and the roster is changing so much.

So I think what I'd like to be able to do -- one thing is terminology. You want to make sure some of the terminology stays the same because the guys have been familiar with that for a long period of time. The other thing is there's things you want to look at offensively and defensively that guys are comfortable with, that you know you're still going to have to do and utilize that terminology. Adding things that I believe in as a coach that hopefully will help these guys. How I see the game and sharing that vision with the staff, sharing it with the players. Getting them to see how we need to play, for those guys to be at their best. How can I help them play to the best of their ability? How can I make the game easier for Kevin and for Russell and some of those guys, and what can we do offensively and defensively to help each other? You're always thinking about those things on a regular basis."

I noticed you're still using the same defensive calls -- "push" and "weak" -- here at summer league. I talked with Nick Collison a few years ago about that, and he was saying how keeping it simple is such a positive thing because there's not much time to think on defense.

"I think the simplicity part of terminology is important. Nick's been in OKC a long time and you start bringing up a whole different level of terminology that he has to learn, now he's thinking and trying to play and what works. So some of the stuff I think I can adjust to. The terminology, I need to adjust to it. To me, it's just a word and I know what the word means, I'll adjust to the word. But sometimes when you change the whole entire terminology for a team, it can take a long time for them to get to understand that. And the other thing, too, is our staff all being on the same page terminology-wise -- that we're all speaking the same language. I think that's really important."

I think about something Brad Stevens said in an interview with Zach Lowe, where he said how he changed his philosophy when he took over the Celtics, going from a hard show/blitz guy on screen-and-roll to a dropback guy, because assistant Ron Adams suggested it.

"There's certain adjustments. I've always watched the NBA game, thinking about the game all the time; there's a lot of nuances that I think most of the changes in the game start in the NBA level and they trickle down. I've always spent time talking to a lot of NBA coaches, and I've always said this: There's certain things that work in the NBA that don't work in college. And there's certain things in college that don't work in the NBA.

So there's going to be certain things that I have, that have been a staple for me at Florida, but it may not be the best thing here, or it may not work here. And those are the things that I think you have to identify when you're watching tape, what you're seeing go on here at summer league that you say, 'You know what, as much as I believed in that in college, this is not something that is probably going to be a very good carryover. And there are a lot of things that can carry over, but there are those things that aren't going to carry over, and to Brad's point -- you can't jump out there and just hard show like you do in college a lot of times. We played the pick-and-roll two different ways in college. We'd push on the sidelines as much as we could and we got up to the level of the screen, but against some personnel in the pick-and-roll, you can't always do that.

So you've got to go on personnel. Sometimes you've got to drop back, sometimes you've got to get to the level of the screen, sometimes you've got to push it. So you've got to be able to do multiple things, and we didn't necessarily have a lot of multiple things in college. We didn't have to pick one way, we had multiple ways. But I think in the NBA, so much of what you're dealing with is who's in the pick-and-roll, who's the personnel in the pick-and-roll -- those kind of things."

I think you have already been asked this three or four times, and I'm sure you're prepared to answer it three or four hundred times, but how excited are you to handle the circus of this season with KD? You've already got enough on your plate adjusting to the NBA, and then you've got to deal with that.

"For me, it's not me dealing with it. The one thing I've felt like is, Kevin is a great guy. I've really enjoyed getting to know him and work with him and be around him, and even talk basketball with him. All I want to be able to do -- and I've said this since the very first day of the press conference -- is bring value to the organization, bring value to the team, and try and help as much as I can. How do I day-by-day help Kevin, help Russell, help the rest of the guys inside of what they're trying to do to become better players, our team to become better. All I'm doing is focusing on the right here and now, and what our team needs to do.

I'm excited about the group we have, and I think Kevin's moving closer and closer to becoming healthy. I'm hopeful that he'll be able to start running soon and be able to do the things he enjoys doing and getting cleared hopefully soon. But more than anything, I'm just focusing on this year's team and what we have in front of us. Those things I think you're talking about are down the road that really don't have any impact right now in terms of, there's nothing I can do about that. The only thing I can do right now is do the best job I can coaching Kevin."

A lot of people have said, "No way Billy finally makes the jump to the NBA if he wasn't sure KD was staying." Did you get any kind of assurance about his future?

"I have never, and will not talk to Kevin about that. I don't want to. That's his personal situation. I came in here because of the shared vision I felt with the organization and the core values and what it represents. I felt very, very strongly in being aligned with that. Certainly Kevin, for what he's done for the organization, for the time he's been there has been incredible. Same thing with Russell, and Serge, and Nick. There's a lot of guys that have been there for a long period of time that have really done a lot for the organization, and without question Kevin has done an enormous amount for the organization.

But I think when you're making a decision like I had to make, my conversations during the whole process really was only with Sam, then meeting Mr. Bennett the second day to talk with him as well, so I did not get the chance to really sit down and talk with Kevin at all about any of that stuff."

Something Sam has complimented you a lot on is you're a forward thinker that can evolve in front of the trends. Small ball was big last season. So you tell me: What's the next trend gonna be?

"Give a lot of these teams credit that they're able to make those kinds of adjustments, playing small. I think from a trend standpoint in the NBA, in the Finals you had someone like Draymond Green playing the center spot, which was a little different and unique. But then there was a series there where Memphis was playing big and Memphis' lineup was causing problems."

"I think Kevin's moving closer and closer to becoming healthy. I'm hopeful that he'll be able to start running soon and be able to do the things he enjoys doing and getting cleared hopefully soon." Billy Donovan

Do you think people overreacted to the idea the big man is dead in today's NBA?

"Certainly there's not as many post-ups as there used to be years ago in the NBA, but I don't think that necessarily the big man is out of the game. I still think you're going to see teams go inside. Listen, I think one of the things to look at is the NBA draft, right? Look at it early, they're all taking bigs! So there's value and premium on big men, but certainly there are certain situations where you can play a little bit small, and Kevin's done that in his career. Kevin's played the 2, he's played the 3, he's played the 4. They've moved him at the 4 and played smaller, moved Serge to the 5. I think you've got to be able to have flexibility inside your roster to be able to do those things sometimes.

Something that really stuck out to me about the last two champions -- the Spurs two years ago and the Warriors last year -- is both had so many two-way players. Neither one rarely had a lineup that didn't feature five live offensive players. That's something George Karl talked about recently, that the big thing in the NBA is having as much passing on the floor as possible. Where does this Thunder roster stand with those ideas?

"Well, yeah, because I think what happens is when you go small, the thing people are maybe not looking at -- when they see going small they're looking at a guy that has a quickness advantage -- where really what it is, to me, the greatest thing of Draymond Green is his passing ability. That's the thing. And what happens is when the ball hits a big man, a lot of times you're having to cover pick-and-rolls a certain way, you throw it back to a handling, passing forward like Draymond Green; he can make plays.

Have you thought much about your rotations? Or starting five?

"I haven't really had much of a chance to do much with that right now, in terms of getting into that. I think as we get closer to September I'll have a little bit more of a chance to talk with the guys. Certainly Russell, and Kevin and Serge ... "

Kevin is going to start, I assume?

"I would think so. [Laughs.] Just rotations, though. How many minutes does Kevin like to play before he likes to come out? What kind of rhythm does he like to get into? Same thing with Russell. What's his rhythm of playing? How does that work out? The other thing, too, on certain nights based on who you're playing, maybe they come out a little bit earlier. Maybe they stay in a little bit longer. I think getting a chance to sit down with them as we move closer to training camp to talk about those things will be important."

You're an analytics guy. But where do you really apply them? Are you using Synergy to dictate how many pick-and-rolls you want to run when Westbrook is paired with Ibaka? Or lineup data to dictate decisions?

"I think it's a big part of what we do here in OKC. I think it really is. But I think the one thing about it is, to me the analytics part is a combination of the numbers and also a combination of coaching in your gut and those kind of things. I think what it does -- the analytics -- is as a coach it allows you to look at some information there where you can maybe look and make some decisions, or have things make a little more sense, or things can be a little bit clearer. I think it's a great tool, but I also think at the same point, too, if you're just living and going by the numbers, you're losing perspective and sight that we're dealing with human beings, too. And you can't lose sight of that.

Sometimes in a coaching situation, you end up making an instinctive gut call at the spur of the moment of what you feel is the best thing at that time, but I'm a big believer of the analytics. I know our organization is, they do a great job with it. I think it's an incredible tool. It's a piece to give information to continue to make decisions. I think it's a great way to track your team. How's your team doing defensively, in the pick-and-roll coverage, how efficient are you on offense, where are your shots coming from, how efficient are certain players in particular places on the floor? What players feel more comfortable shooting in certain areas on the floor? What happens early in the clock? Mid-clock? Late clock? There's so much you can look at that it can be informative and helpful."

Like open long 2s versus contested 3s. Are you going to tell Kevin Durant to turn down that open look to try and find a contested one? There can be some overreaction to the math, right?

"Exactly. It's not, 'We're never going to do this because the numbers say that.' If you look at Kevin, Kevin clearly since he's been in the league has been one of the best, if not the best 2-point shot-maker in the league. So sometimes his numbers prove out for him, that's a pretty good shot for him. The one thing that I don't want to with Kevin and/or Russell, is they've got to play to their identity and who they are, and trying to create an environment for them to go out and be who they are is very important to me."

Durant played a ton of minutes his first seven seasons, actually leading the league most years. Last season, obviously, a stress injury in his foot. Do you plan on trying to trim down his minutes at all?

"We were not as elaborate [at Florida] as they are in OKC -- we didn't have those kind of resources -- but I really relied a lot on my trainer and my strength coach as it related to practice, the amount of time in practice, games, those kind of things with particular players that logged a lot of minutes. Those decisions for Kevin -- the medical staff will be heavily involved and looking at and evaluating minutes, loads, practice, all those kinds of things to make sure we're putting him in a situation that when he's playing in games, he can play to his best. That will probably be a collaborative effort to look at that."

Where do you fall on the sport science aspect of basketball? Scott Brooks used to always just say, "They're young, they can handle it," when talking about minutes, but then you have Gregg Popovich who goes to the other extreme in managing workload and minutes.

"For us as coaches, a lot of times, we're not doctors and sometimes we don't have the data or the information or the expertise on our own to make those kinds of decisions. The one thing I really feel great about here is the staff and the team Sam has set up medically; with Donnie Strack and all those guys there, it's going to be a collaborative effort. They're going to be able to monitor Kevin's minutes, see where he's at, and I think that that's good because we're always going to make decisions in what's best for the welfare of the player and the athlete's well-being physically. If Kevin's logged a lot of minutes and he's not feeling great, he may have to rest in practice. Those are decisions I think I would rely on the medical team to make, and I trust those guys in that area."

You're one of the most decorated coaches in the game. But everyone is calling you a rookie head coach. Does that bother you?

"Listen, I think being in college for over 20 years and being a coach, I'm stepping into it. I'm in a different venue so to speak, going to the NBA. I'll be the first one to tell you. I do watch a lot of NBA games, I go to playoff games watching former Gators play. I've been in NBA practices. The NBA game is a different game, and that's one of the things that intrigued me is it's learning and growing in a different way, in a different area and a different game. The idea that it is basketball, that you're still dealing with people, but it is a little bit different, so for me, this is in a lot of ways you're starting over.

But obviously, scouting report, the game, film sessions, on the floor, coaching, teaching -- I've been doing that for a long, long time. But there are different things that go on as [it] relates. There are 82 games. The playoffs are two months. The preseason. The season's a lot longer. Back-to-backs. Four games in six nights. There will be a lot of things that will be a bit different. So when someone uses the word 'rookie coach' for me, yeah, I'm stepping into an area and a place in basketball that I haven't been before as a coach. I'm excited -- one with the staff, two with the organization and the people around me, and three, with the opportunity to really, really hopefully grow and bring value to the organization as best I can."