It was to take a very, very good team and improve it to great. And then let the rest just take care of itself.
A quarter of the way into his first season, how's that going?
Ehhh ... well.
The Thunder sit at 13-8, which is somehow still good enough for third in the West, but the gap has widened between them and the class of the league, and not just in the standings where they're already nine games behind the Golden State Warriors.
The Thunder have had two main issues thus far: 1) Durant missed time again, with the Thunder going 3-3 in the six games he sat rehabbing a pulled hamstring, and 2) there has been inconsistency on their bench, inconsistency on the defensive end, inconsistency in close games and just, well, inconsistency in general.
They've mainly just lost close games, which can be a glass-half-full kind of thing. But the Thunder, a team that possesses not one but two of the most absurdly clutch-time players in the league, shouldn't be just 4-6 in two-possession games. In games Durant has played, they're 3-5. That makes about as much sense as Steven Adams' mustache.
Maybe, though, just maybe, things have finally started to come together for the Thunder. That's been the company line since training camp -- patience -- with the team working in some systematic tweaks under a new coaching staff as well as having a reworked roster. And in response to two tight losses in Atlanta and Miami, the Thunder avoided sheer disaster in making up a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes to save themselves against the Sacramento Kings. Then they followed that up with their best, most complete game of the season, flexing their firepower with a 125-88 win in Memphis.
It seems like it could be the touchstone moment, the turning point to the season. Durant called the Thunder's play on Tuesday "beautiful," with the team working the ball all over the floor with even shot distribution and rarely seen movement and passing. That's how it's supposed to look. The critical element, though: consistency.
"A lot of these things we talk about sometimes are very fleeting," Donovan said. "You've got to be able to have a strong conviction and commitment, and you've got to be intentional about it. Because if you're not intentional about it, you lose it very quickly. So you've got to go into games intentional about moving the ball, sharing the ball, doing those kind of things."
Still a notch below
The Thunder are second in offensive efficiency, scoring 107.4 points per 100 possessions. After being middle of the pack for November, they've climbed to 10th in defensive efficiency, allowing 99.9 per 100. They've been pretty good. But they aren't presently in the same class as the Warriors or San Antonio Spurs, which is where they're clearly supposed to be.
Before the game against Memphis, Durant said this when asked if this has been the most frustrated in the team finding a consistent level of play.
"Hell no," he told reporters. "Man, we won 43 games in two years the first two years. We were looked at as the doormat of the league. I remember an article came out that said we were the worst team to ever play. So no, nothing ever compares to that. We're 12-8. We can turn this thing around. The glass is half full in my opinion. We're not, like, panicking at all. Every single day we're looking forward to getting better, knowing that we can improve. I went through the two worst seasons of my career already, so this is nothing compared at all."
Donovan has spent a lot of the first 21 games working through different lineup combinations and rotations, but against Memphis he might have found the Thunder's most lethal fixture. The Thunder always have played "small" with the 6-foot-11 Durant guarding power forwards, but typically late in the game when a matchup dictated it. Donovan went to it in the second quarter, and that group hit eight consecutive shots, all at the rim or open from 3. The spread floor allowed Russell Westbrook to plow downhill and hit a rolling Serge Ibaka or kick to shooters like Durant or Anthony Morrow.
There has been plenty of trial and error for Donovan, though. He's tried a multitude of lineups, trying to keep the entire 15-man roster engaged. There are still some awkward moments, such as when Donovan called out a play to run against the Kings, which Westbrook ignored to feed the ball to Durant, who had a mismatch with a smaller guard on him. Donovan was still yelling out the play call as Durant elevated into a pure 15-footer. On his way back up the floor, Durant looked at Donovan and just grinned.
"You've got to be able to have a strong conviction and commitment, and you've got to be intentional about it. Because if you're not intentional about it, you lose it very quickly. So you've got to go into games intentional about moving the ball, sharing the ball, doing those kind of things." Billy Donovan
But Durant is listening to his new coach, repeating his talking points and working to embrace his philosophies. Durant is committed to setting an unselfish example, making extra passes when they don't make any sense, like against the Grizzlies when he turned down a wide open catch-and-shoot wing 3 to try to swing the ball to Andre Roberson in the corner.
More important, though, so is Westbrook, it seems. Westbrook routinely will solicit Donovan in-game, often sprinting over to the bench and putting an arm around his coach's shoulder during a dead ball. Following a recent Thunder practice, Donovan and Westbrook stood alone on the practice floor, engaged in an extended discussion. Donovan was doing most of the talking, Westbrook the listening. That hasn't been a standard sight in OKC the past seven years.
The strong-headed point guard isn't the easiest player to coach, and it often feels like Donovan is maybe a little too quick to praise Westbrook's intelligence, playmaking or leadership after every practice and game, but these are still fresh relationships, and all parties involved appear intent on developing them.
Everyone knows the high stakes on this season for the Thunder, and while they should be permitted some time to nail down an identity, that grace period is just about up. As the schedule nears Christmas, and then the All-Star break, .600 basketball isn't close to good enough for the Thunder.
The Thunder are willing to work through some pain, because their thinking is it's better to win four straight in June than 23 straight in November and December. They're searching for a standard of performance, an identity and a better brand of basketball to stand behind. They've got the players. They've got the talent. But it's time to start showing it.