During an early morning interview in February 2006, Billy Donovan leaned forward in his office chair as he pondered his future. He drank a Diet Coke, made his typical steel-grip eye contact and said that he’d like to coach in the NBA one day. Before he did that, he said he would like to become an NBA assistant for a year to learn the nuances and rhythms of the pro game.
That season Donovan led Florida to its first of back-to-back national titles. He's since taken the Gators to four straight Elite Eights and another Final Four, making the idea of an NBA apprenticeship far-fetched. But that conversation still offers a window into the pragmatic way that Donovan makes decisions.
By the end of this week, we’ll learn the answer to the biggest decision of Donovan’s career—whether or not he’ll take the head coaching job with the Oklahoma City Thunder. On Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that Donovan is engaged in talks with Oklahoma City. Yahoo! Sports reported on Wednesday that it could take $6 million to lure Donovan there.
This will be an agonizing decision for Donovan. In 19 seasons at Florida, he’s won two national titles, reached four Final Fours and forged deep relationships both around campus and in the community.
But the reality is that the 49-year-old Donovan should go. He’s had flirtations with the NBA before and may never have a situation this appealing again.
The bottom line is that Donovan will be able to coach two of the five best players in the world: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That leads to the most important basketball fact in this decision for Donovan—he has an exponentially better chance to win an NBA title in Oklahoma City in the next two years than he does to win an NCAA title at Florida.
There are some intangibles that could keep Donovan in Gainesville. His family is deeply tied there after nearly two decades. He has a strong relationship with athletic director Jeremy Foley, who has consistently kept him among the highest paid coaches in college basketball. (Donovan’s current contract puts him in the neighborhood of $4 million per year through 2020, about as strong of job security as you can find anywhere in America.) Those factors won out last time, as Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic job in 2007 before reversing course and heading back to Gainesville.
This time feels different. Donovan hasn’t put out any word to quell speculation since his name first emerged for the Thunder job a week ago. He’ll likely never find a better situation to win immediately, as the Thunder those two stars and a solid surrounding cast of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter. Donovan also has a solid relationship with the front office and is close enough to Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti that he’s sent two of his staff members to Oklahoma City, D League coach Mark Daigneault and basketball information analyst Oliver Winterbone.
If Donovan doesn’t leave Florida now, it’s difficult to imagine when he would. He turned down interest from both the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers last year. He’s turned down overtures from SEC rival Kentucky in the past. Oklahoma City is the most obvious destination.
The drawback would be the fates of Durant and Westbrook in free agency, as Durant has one season left on his deal and Westbrook has two. The Wizards loom as anxious suitors for Durant and the Lakers for Westbrook. But the worst-case scenario for Donovan would be getting fired after a few seasons and having his choice of whatever plum college job is open at the time. If he did fail in the NBA, he’d return to an elite program and immediately begin winning again.
But that’s unlikely, as Donovan would put together a staff that compensates for his obvious weakness—lack of NBA experience. He’d certainly lean on close friend Brad Stevens, who seamlessly transitioned from Butler to the Boston Celtics the past two years.
If he goes, Donovan would leave behind a roster that’s solid but unspectacular. Florida could conceivably sneak into the NCAA tournament next year. But the Gators have been dented by the grim realities of modern recruiting, something Donovan has become frustrated with the past few years.
College recruiting has evolved into a thankless churn, with bizarre decisions like Florida junior guard Michael Frazier leaving to play professionally despite having virtually no chance ever to play in the NBA. Donovan dealt with sophomore forward Chris Walker’s off-court drama for two years, taking every chance to temper the expectations that Walker had NBA draft lottery talent. Walker averaged 4.7 points per game last year and declared for the draft this spring when his production indicated he’d have been better off transferring to Florida Atlantic.
As for the Florida program if Donovan departs, there’s a fascinating question of whether or not it should be considered one of the elite jobs in college basketball. Donovan showed that the Gators can consistently compete for Final Four berths, the most obvious hallmark of an elite program. But Florida has an aging practice facility and an arena in desperate need of an overhaul. (That overhaul, which Foley has been quoted saying there’s $60 million earmarked for, has been delayed for a year.)
Expect Dayton’s Archie Miller to be Foley’s top target, followed by Xavier’s Chris Mack, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Louisiana Tech’s Michael White. There’s some sentiment that Foley will consider assistant coaches Anthony Grant or John Pelphrey, but that’s unlikely considering the scope of how Foley views the Florida job. Florida has shown that it can pay and play with the best in college basketball. But the question a hot coach would have to ask is whether he wants to attempt to replicate the magic that Donovan conjured in Gainesville, especially in an SEC that appears a lot more difficult than two seasons ago.
But for that to happen, Donovan would have to make a decision he’s been so reluctant to make in the past. So much has changed since that day in 2006 when Donovan revealed his plan to learn the NBA as an assistant before taking over as a head coach. The only thing that hasn’t is Donovan’s affinity for Gainesville and aversion to change. Those appear to be the final barriers for a move that’s starting to feel as inevitable as it is obvious.