Oklahoma City has hired its top candidate, coach Billy Donovan, and it’s safe to say that he will stay in the league this time.
In the conference, Donovan joked about coaching in the league before. That was almost eight years ago, when he was hired by the Orlando Magic, only to change his mind the the next day and return to the University of Florida. The league gave him a 5 year penalty but he said that decision had nothing to do with the Magic, and that it was more about his relationships with his family and the university.
The 49-year-old successful college coach said it had to “take something very, very special” to make him leave a program he led to two national championships, four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights in 19 seasons. He thought about it for a while and let nobody influence his decision. He leaves the university after starting recruitment for his basketball team just a few days ago.
“I wanted to be respectful to the University of Florida and I wanted to be respectful to the Thunder,” he said. “I think you start talking to a lot of different people, I think it can cloud things and things get out. It was really more about what was best for me and best for my family at that moment in time.”
The coach will have pressure from the start. The team has gone to three conference finals and the NBA Finals once since moving to Oklahoma City in 2008-09, but they have disappointed by not winning it all. Now, Donovan gets a team with 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant and 2014-15 scoring champion Russell Westbrook. He will also have block machine Serge Ibaka, who is considered as the team’s third star. Durant can become a free agent after next season, giving Donovan little time to build a strong relationship with the talented player. Will he bring him back?
Even with Durant’s free agency coming soon, Donovan is optimistic and is looking to bring something different than just results. “I really feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to grow as a person, and really be challenged as a person in a lot of different ways,” Donovan said.
Time To Work
He’ll have a lot of work to do to top the previous coach. Scott Brooks went 338-207 (.620) in seven seasons with the Thunder and was the 2009-10 NBA coach of the year. “Scott Brooks has done an outstanding job while he was here, and I hope I can continue to build off of what he’s built,” Donovan said. “I know that’s very important to the organization.”
One of the many challenges the coach will face is figuring out how to get Durant and Westbrook the touches they need to be effective. Durant is a four-time scoring champion who averaged 32 points a season ago, but he was out for most of this season with a broken right foot and other knee problems. The former MVP is still recovering. Star point guard Russell Westbrook, averaged a career-high 28.1 this season but it was not enough to get the team a playoff spot. The Pelicans sneaked in and took the last seed, winning the last two games of the regular season.
Donovan said his offenses at Florida emphasized ball movement and making the extra pass, a big change from Oklahoma City’s tendency to let Durant and Westbrook create most of the plays. He says he has not taken his time to think about how he will integrate his system into the offense.
“I think the first thing is, coming into a situation as a coach, the relationship part is really important — to have them be able to have some ownership of how they want to play and what they want to do, and to be able to collectively share and game plan and figure out what’s the best thing for the team — how’s the best way for us to play,” Donovan said. “That’s something that I’ve got to do once I get back into town on a more continual basis and spend time with these guys.”
The coach already has some support. Durant and veteran Nick Collinson attended the press conference along with Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford. Kruger is a former Florida coach, and Ford played at Kentucky while Donovan was an assistant.
The coach took his time and even visited children at a Thunder youth basketball clinic at a Boys and Girls Club in Oklahoma City.
He’ll have to get used to having less control of the roster and moves. But the coach knows that the NBA works that way.
“I controlled my recruiting in college, and there’s a certain kind of player I can go after,” he said. “I felt one of the core values with the Thunder is they want really good people. Everywhere I’ve heard, Russell and Kevin, who are no question, talented, high-profile, superstar NBA players, are two of the nicest people you ever want to meet.”
Can he lead the Thunder to the NBA Finals?