OKC Thunder: Examining Billy Donovan’s Experimentation With The Rotation

May 1, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder new head coach Billy Donovan speaks to the media at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder new head coach Billy Donovan speaks to the media at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports /

No coach would say no to a team with a lot of depth. It does come with an added challenge though in figuring out the best way to take advantage of more players who can contribute.

The Oklahoma City Thunder enter this season with more depth than ever before. I mean, they have a guy on a max contract coming off the bench. Throw in the fact that it’s Billy Donovan’s first season as the head coach, and we’re seeing a different rotation than ever before in OKC.

Through four games, we’ve seen Donovan try a lot of different looks. He’s played Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka with the second units, not played a backup power forward (Nick Collison or Mitch McGary) in two games, used small lineups while playing from behind like in Orlando and lineups with two bigs to try and come back like Monday night in Houston.

ALSO ON HOOPSHABIT: 50 Greatest NBA Players of the 1970s

The only consistent thing about the rotation has been the starters.

Is Donovan playing a lot of different groups to test the waters and figure out what works best? Or is he a really situational guy, playing matchups and riding the hot hand? Later on in the season, we’ll see if he settles on a consistent rotation or continues to mix and match this much.

One of the most encouraging trends so far has been Donovan’s use of Durant at the 4. Durant is no stranger to playing the 4 but he’s done so much more frequently than ever before in these first four games. Typically, it turns OKC into a juggernaut on offense without sacrificing too much defense. It results in sets like this that just seem impossible to defend.

Small worked so well in Orlando as the Thunder came back to win a thriller in double OT. Needing to come from behind again in the final quarter last night, Donovan went bigger, using lineups with two of Ibaka, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter for a lot of the fourth. The Rockets played small the entire game so it’s not like the Thunder needed to be big to match their size.

More from Oklahoma City Thunder

When Orlando was small, Donovan talked post-game about getting quicker on defense and that’s why he used D.J. Augustin and Dion Waiters so much. The difference against the Rockets was the Thunder’s success on the offensive glass. OKC finished with 14 offensive boards and scored 21 second-chance points. It had 17 of those points in the first half, though.

Defense could have been better last night but it was probably good enough to win. The offense shot it at a high percentage and second-chance scoring was great. It was the 24 turnovers that killed the Thunder.

Turnovers can be a result of players not used to being out there together and getting to learn a new system, which they are. Russell Westbrook had seven but he more than makes up for his. The bigger issue was the five for Durant and six for Augustin.

The rotation was thrown off in the third quarter when Westbrook picked up three quick fouls and had to sit with four. Augustin was thrust into the game sooner than usual and ended up playing a bigger role than normal. He finished the night with a usage rate of 33.2, way too high–thanks a lot to his turnovers.

The difference between Westbrook and Augustin is enormous as one might expect, and that was especially the case last night. The Thunder’s offensive rating for the game was 100.3. It was 112.2 with Westbrook in and 91.8 with Augustin. The two played together for six minutes.

Augustin is a good backup point guard but there will be some nights when the Thunder can’t afford to be without Westbrook for so long.

While Donovan was forced to go with more Augustin instead of Westbrook, he was not forced to only give Anthony Morrow five minutes.

Donovan’s election to play Waiters (and Kyle Singler for that matter) more than Morrow is one of the more troubling aspects of the young season. Morrow was such a great addition last year and is one of the best shooters in the league while Waiters’ reputation is among the worst in the league and is coming off playing the worst basketball of his career last year in OKC.

More from Hoops Habit

I think Donovan sees the potential in Waiters that many have and to be fair, Waiters has played well for him so far this year. He has a team-best net rating of 18.9 and the Thunder’s defensive rating is 95.3 with him out there.

Donovan clearly sees Waiters as a much better defensive option than Morrow and while Waiters continues to shoot a respectable percentage, he might not see much drop-off, if any, on the other end.

One spot Donovan should really consider Morrow over Waiters is with the first sub of each half when Andre Roberson is replaced. Morrow with the other four starters has the Thunder outscoring opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions. Swap Waiters for Morrow and that group is being outscored by 9.0 points per 100 possessions.

Morrow with Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka is a lineup destined for greatness when it comes to spacing and shooting. That group not being a staple of every game might be a mistake.

Collison and McGary not breaking into the rotation much yet is understandable but Morrow’s absence is surprising. If this trend continues for much longer it could be some serious cause for concern.

It’s so early in the season still and all of the sample sizes are so small. Donovan is still learning what his players can do and it seems like he’s in an experimenting phase right now. The depth the Thunder possess will come in valuable over 82 games and when this team is healthy, there will always be at least one talented player as the odd man out.

Next: 25 Best Players to Play for the Oklahoma City Thunder

Winning three of the first four games is a great spot to be in for Donovan out of the gates. Another back-to-back is coming this week but this stretch of four games in five nights is the only such one OKC will have to deal with this season. The initial games of the Donovan era have already been so fascinating and that won’t change for awhile.