Billy Donovan fits the Thunder's mold, but will he fare better than Scott Brooks?
The Oklahoma City Thunder wouldn’t have fired a coach like Scott Brooks without a clear alternative in mind, and it is now clear that Florida coach Billy Donovan was the alternative in question. Donovan’s signing with the Thunder was officially announced by the team and clarified as a five-year agreement by Adrian Wojnarowski and Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports.
Donovan is a selection very much of the Thunder school—a winning coach and culture-builder who should have the respect of the locker room. The tradition he built at Florida is adjacent to Oklahoma City’s operational style under Brooks. Thunder GM Sam Presti refers to his team as a "program." In Donovan he’ll bring in a man who, through both recruiting and coaching, built a fine program in Gainesville all his own.
"We wanted to identify a person with the traits associated with high achieving leaders in their respective fields: a continuous learning mentality, the ability to adapt, evolve and innovate, intrinsically motivated, humility, and great tactical competence," Presti said. "While we created a comprehensive analysis regarding the qualities we were looking for, it became quite evident that Billy was the ideal fit for the Thunder as we look to transition our team to the future."
There are and should be questions about how Donovan will adjust to the NBA. The game is hardly the same; apart from clear rule differences, pro-style basketball has an entirely different flow to it than even what high-level coaches like Donovan are used to. Expect to hear Rick Pitino’s name plenty on two distinct threads that the Thunder hope don’t become one: As a clear and direct influence on Donovan’s coaching and as the go-to example for a revered college coach’s failure to make the pro transition.
Donovan, to his benefit, will have significantly better talent at his disposal than Pitino ever did. Last Pitino took over an NBA team it was headlined by Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, and Walter McCarty. Donovan’s team, assuming good health, will feature 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, 2015 MVP candidate Russell Westbrook, and perennial All-NBA defender Serge Ibaka. There will be no immediate rebuild; Donovan assumes leadership of a team with every expectation to contend and a need to sell its stars on a vision as quickly as possible.
The difference is that, fair or unfair, we’ll know the result of the Thunder’s gambit rather quickly. For Donovan to come in so close to Durant’s free agency is a pointed move—perhaps a desperate one. Clearly it was in the estimation of the Thunder’s front office that Brooks would not give OKC a chance to perform at its highest levels and compete for a title in 2015-16. Expecting Donovan to do better is a substantial vote of confidence crunched by time. He will have a little more than eight months from the time players report for training camp to sell Durant (and, by extension, Westbrook) on the direction of the Thunder. From there, Oklahoma City encounters the ultimate doomsday scenario of the NBA free market: A booming salary cap under which literally every team in the league will be in a position to make a run at Durant.
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With that possibility looming, it should be fascinating to see just how much Donovan veers from what OKC finds familiar. He was hired as a replacement for a coach who had done well, after all—suggesting that the Thunder see room to improve somewhere in the difference between Donovan and Brooks. The trouble is the timeline. If Donovan had years to install his own systems and bring the Thunder up to speed (as is so often necessary for a team to really hit its stride), he would be afforded much more creative agency. As it stands, however, he’ll have to introduce whatever new concepts he can, play a single season free of major injuries, and be fully expected to contend for a title right away.
It’s understandable to wonder, then, if Brooks’ firing came too late. There is no indication that the Thunder’s coaching change had much at all to do with the team’s play this season. Oklahoma City missed the playoffs because Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka missed a combined 88 games—not for any fault of Brooks’. His firing after this most recent season makes as much sense as his firing a year earlier would have, in that it’s justifiable reasoning has more to do with the team’s potential than its recent performance. Brooks, clearly, was good enough to keep the Thunder in the NBA’s top tier when healthy. But if Presti and his staff saw opportunity to be even better with a different voice, that fact has very little to do with whether OKC made the Western Conference finals in 2014.
Instead, Presti opted to give Brooks another year. That choice was fine for all of the reasons described here and elsewhere, underlined generally by the fact that the Thunder played hard for Brooks and met expectations when allowed. In doing so, however, he’s put Donovan in a precarious position. The five-year deal offers security to compensate, though the reality is that if Donovan doesn’t pull off his next year’s worth of work in a very particular way, the complexion of the entire Thunder franchise could change dramatically.
Donovan knows this and what’s more: there’s good reason to believe that his move to the Thunder has been some time in the making. Donovan has been linked to a few NBA jobs since formally taking and then forfeiting the Orlando Magic had coaching gig back in 2007. Yet he and Presti have a relationship not unrelated to the fact that the Thunder hired two members of Donovan’s staff (D-League affiliate coach Mark Daigneault and analyst Oliver Winterbone) within the past year, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com. The short and direct nature of the Thunder’s coaching search (Presti reportedly pursued Donovan exclusively) along with the long-standing connections between Presti and Donovan point to something more than coincidence or an overlap in professional tastes.
The Thunder got their man. Whether he’s up to the task of pushing the franchise forward is, unequivocally, a matter with the potential to change the entire league.