Billy Donovan Poised for NBA Success

Given his history, temperament and style, Billy Donovan is the perfect fit for the Thunder and for the NBA…

As soon as the Oklahoma City Thunder announced their hiring of Billy Donovan from the University of Florida, the initial wave of reactions swept through the internet like a tsunami. Outbursts, tweets, probably a Bleacher Report slide show or 10. A lot of skepticism, a lot of apprehension. The reaction hasn’t been uniform, of course, but on sites like ESPN and on comment threads like reddit and the Daily Thunder, I have seen a veritable throng of naysayers. Either Oklahoma City fans who wanted someone else hired—a Tom Thibodeau, or Alvin Gentry—or analysts wary of Donovan’s lack of NBA experience.

I’m here to tell you that the skepticism is unfounded. I’m here to tell you that—given two basic assumptions—the absolute worst-case scenario is as good as the best-case scenario of Scott Brooks. Here’s why.

Scott Brooks wasn’t a bad coach. In fact, Scott Brooks was a good coach. Probably a top 15 coach in the league, maybe even a top 10. His players played their hearts out for him. He took over a ragtag menagerie of kids and, over just a few years, transformed them into a regular contender—reaching one NBA Finals and three Western Conference Finals, but when you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on your team, not even that’s good enough. The goal is singular: titles.

But now he’s gone. And Billy Donovan is in.

Here are the two assumptions we must work with for this to be a real-world discussion: First, we assume that the Thunder are healthy at the beginning of the season. Second, less important but still, I think, important, we assume the Thunder re-sign Enes Kanter. Without those two assumptions granted, especially the first one, it doesn’t matter who’s coaching. If Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich mated and had a son who grew up to be a basketball coach, and if that son, Phil Popovich, were to coach OKC without Durant and Westbrook, then they’d still have zero chance at competing for a title.

Assuming those two points, it’s virtually impossible for the Thunder—no matter who’s coaching—to not be a top five team in the league next year. I mean it. They’ll have as much or more star power than anyone with Durant and Westbrook, and they’ll have their deepest roster yet. Throw in a late lottery pick and Donovan’s influence into offseason acquisitions, and this might be the deepest team in the league. In no way am I kidding when I say that I—25 years old, stopped playing basketball after sophomore year of high school—could take this team to the postseason if they remain even relatively healthy.

Next, and this is superbly important: Billy Donovan is really good at all the things that Scott Brooks was really good at. As mentioned, Brooks motivated his players. They liked him. They played hard for him. That’s half the battle right there, and not every coach wins that one. But Brooks did. And so, historically, has Donovan, who started coaching very young and who, subsequently, was a little bit of a freak at times in those early years—bad temper, frequent loss of control. These days, however, Donovan is poised and even. He’ll need that this year.

For a while, it seemed like what helped the Thunder ride Brooks through was his penchant for defense, but even that, in the last couple years, has faded. Donovan will walk into Chesapeake Energy Arena preaching defense. Even his 16-17 Florida team this year, riddled with injury and suspension, finished in the top 25 this year in opponents points per game. With the Thunder, he’ll inherit one of the league’s best shot-blockers in Serge Ibaka, a budding young defensive center in Steven Adams, and a whole team absolutely willing to buy into a defense-first mentality.

What makes Donovan a serious upgrade over Brooks, however, is not only his similar strengths, not only his already-legendary track record in the NCAA, but the fact that his coaching philosophy aligns much closer to Sam Presti’s managerial philosophy. Scott Brooks never embraced analytics. Billy Donovan was on the forefront of the analytics wave in college basketball. Donovan’s college teams have, year in and year out, understood spacing—and that’ll translate, of course, incredibly well. And that was a perennial struggle for the Thunder of Scott Brooks. As Presti mentioned in his brief initial statement, he wants a guy who can adapt, who learns continually and studies with the aid of modern technologies. Billy Donovan is that guy.

Finally, Donovan has the chance, given his similar philosophy to Presti, to become intimately involved with the way the franchise tunes its roster and basketball culture, from day one but also in the short-term future, and in the long-term future.

(What the heck, for example, are the Thunder doing at shooting guard? Right now there’s a strange medley—Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson and Jeremy Lamb (!). What’s Donovan wanting to do there? He might have immediate impact, because he probably won’t stick to Brooks’s rigid idea of a starting lineup and rotation.)

Oklahoma City has the roster Donovan needs for instant success, but it also isn’t committed to any crippling long-term contracts. I.e., as the salary cap explodes in the next few years, the Thunder have less and less on the books. In an ideal world, much of that gets eaten up by re-signing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and perhaps Enes Kanter, but, in a best-case scenario, if that truly does happen, Donovan will be able to collaborate with Presti in assembling a team around that core.

In the end, it’s a shame that Donovan’s NCAA record doesn’t speak for himself. At 49, he was on his way to Coach K status. In 2014, ESPN did a survey of its college basketball writers regarding the best college coach, and they chose Billy Donovan. Above Coach K, above Calipari, above Boeheim and Izzo and Bo Ryan. Donovan reached the highest possible heights in the NCAA ranks, and he did it before turning 50. Right now Gregg Popovich is 66 years old.

In the immediate future, with Durant on the final year of his contract, with the pressures of Ibaka and Westbrook on expiring sheets the year after, Billy Donovan has the tools to, despite his lack of NBA experience, win. I’m not concerned about that. I’m not concerned over whether this is the right guy to shoulder the immense pressure coming his way. And that doesn’t mean there won’t be peaks and valleys—there certainly will be some struggle—but it does mean I think Presti hit a home run with this hire.

What I’m just as concerned about—for this small-market franchise in the face of an ever-changing NBA—is the future, and with Billy Donovan the potential is immeasurable.

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