Nothin' but Net: Donovan has work ahead
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Oklahoma City Thunder and Billy Donovan seem like a marriage very easily made in heaven.
Since GM Sam Presti fired Scott Brooks, Donovan's name was the one most attached to the job. Sure, there was some flirtation with Connecticut's Kevin Ollie, but what marriage comes without an outside minx jutting his or her nose in briefly?
Presti got his man, a man who is among the most successful college coaches without a difficult-to-spell Polish last name. Donovan won two NCAA titles while at the University of Florida and was ready to try his hand at the NBA level. Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino told us all so.
For the Thunder, and especially Presti, if Donovan was the man for the job, the mission accomplished easily. The man can clearly coach as evidenced by his 467-186 record in Gainesville, those two titles and two more Final Four appearances.
Donovan ran pro sets offensively at Florida and guided 15 Gators to spots on NBA rosters. He is an under-18 coach for USA Basketball and being in that pipeline could be a ticket to the big gig when the aforementioned Polish power, Mike Krzyzewski retires from that gig following the 2016 Olympic games in Rio.
Don't forget, Donovan has professional experience. He was the head coach of the Orlando Magic for about 22 hours. Yes, he resigned from the post the day after the introductory press conference, so if the Thunder can get him through the weekend as head coach, they should feel fine.
The Thunder got the guy they wanted with limited red flags. In fact, no red flags. The Magic thing was a guy who got cold feet about doing the job. It was eight years ago. Donovan's age feels like a factor, but, despite the fact that he looks like he should be carded before entering a piano bar, he'll be 50 at the end of the month.
Donovan should have leapt at this opportunity as well. Oklahoma City has, when everyone is healthy, the best roster 1-15 in the NBA.
Donovan inherits Kevin Durant, the second-best player on the planet, and Russell Westbrook, who will finish in the top five in MVP voting. That's enough right there, but with Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Steven Adams and, assuming he signs, Enes Kanter, there's a championship-winning nucleus in OKC.
That doesn't mean everything will be chocolates and roses in this marriage.
Coaching in the NBA versus coaching in college comes down to managing egos. Critics say Phil Jackson won because he had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, but getting those pairs of teammates to play together requires skill.
Donovan had superstars together at Florida, namely Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer during those championship runs in 2006 and 2007. Noah was a selfless player who loved defense. Horford is the same and Brewer really came into his own later. Having Durant and Westbrook, arguably the two best scorers in the NBA, was a juggling act Brooks balanced decently. Can Donovan do the same, especially when you consider what Westbrook did for the Thunder this season when Durant was mostly in suits?
Donovan, by most accounts, is a forceful, but not tyrannical leader. He'll have to be with the Thunder. Durant is an exceptional teammate and leader. Westbrook is as well, but he can be mercurial, somewhere on the spectrum between a three-year-old eating vegetables and a cloistered monk on a meditation retreat.
Donovan does not appear to have the ego of his mentor, Pitino, who loved/loves the spotlight.
Durant, who had a close relationship with Brooks, is already on board.
"I know he's going to do a good job because from what I've heard he works extremely hard, his attention to detail is one of the best and everybody's been telling me he's an NBA coach coaching in college," Durant told Royce Young of ESPN.com. "So I'm excited. I'm very excited to learn from him and get better from him and try my best to do whatever he tells me to do. I can't wait to get started."
And make no mistake, building a relationship with Durant is paramount. Durant is a free agent at the end of next season and with the salary cap expected to explode next summer, suitors will be aplenty. Donovan recruited well at Florida and that personal touch will be vital in trying to keep Durant, who, while he publicly wants to stay in OKC, might be swayed if Donovan rubs him the wrong way.
Westbrook, who was also tight with Donovan, is a free agent the following summer. If Durant bolts in 2016, would Westbrook, a Los Angeles guy, be sure to follow?
Donovan has to deal with those franchise-altering figures deftly. This isn't to say he can't, but there's nothing more important to his success than Durant and Westbrook.
It's a lot for a first-time NBA head coach. That's another potential landmine in the ointment, but, again, Donovan ran a pro-style offense at Florida. He should hire a strong defensive-minded assistant, someone like Tom Thibodeau was for Jeff Van Gundy or Doc Rivers.
The stigma surrounding first-timers, especially college ones, has been debunked some in recent years. Brad Stevens made the leap from Butler to the Boston Celtics and reached the playoffs in just two years. Leaps don't get much bigger than Butler to the Celtics, and Donovan has been in the pressure cooker of top-level college basketball a lot longer than Stevens was.
Look at the success Steve Kerr had in his first season with the Golden State Warriors. Kerr was a front-office guy, then a broadcaster, and in his first go-around as a head coach, he guided the Warriors to a 67-15 record, which tied the sixth-best regular-season mark ever, and Golden State is favored to win the title.
Experience is overrated in some respects, which Durant highlighted in his interview with Young.
"I wouldn't say it matters," Durant said of Donovan's inexperience. "If you know how to coach a team, that's all that matters. He's been at one of the highest levels of basketball and won a title. That's tough to do. So you can't just downplay what he's done in the college ranks and just automatically say he's not going to be great in the pros. He produced a lot of pros, and they all love him."
Donovan is thought of very highly as a basketball coach. He should be fine in the job and the Thunder should be contenders next season with all pieces back and healthy.
It won't be an easy ride, but what marriage is?
- I can't tell you how impressed I am with the Los Angeles Clippers. A team that has not been a good playoff squad, and one that lost its composure in critical spots during Game 5 at home, went to San Antonio and beat the defending champions in an elimination game. The Spurs might be kicking themselves Saturday night.
- The Bucks will learn from that Game 6 experience. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams responded to shenanigans from Mike Dunleavy. Antetokounmpo was ejected and Carter-Williams basically punched Dunleavy in the face. (Never thought Dunleavy would be an agitator like that.) It's hard when you're down 56 or so points and that's going on, but those Milwaukee youngsters will learn from it. It was really an amazing season for them going from last in the league to a game six versus the Bulls.
- I'm in the group that does not believe Kelly Olynyk was intentionally trying to dislocate Kevin Love's shoulder. Speaking of growing up, J.R. Smith can't blindly swing at a guy in retaliation with his history. It's a shame because Smith has been really good in Cleveland and this two-game suspension could cost them the series. That, and Love's absence.
- Movie moment - Caught up on a little-seen movie from a few years ago called "The Master." It's a Paul Thomas Anderson joint and Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams were all nominated for Oscars. It's very good and I say that as someone who would not be classified as an Anderson fan. The virtual insanity Phoenix and Hoffman brought to this would've scared me senseless if I was working on the set. Adams is an awesome actress, who did not deserve to be nominated. Check it out.
- TV moment - Thank you, God, for bringing me back "Veep." Best cast on television with filthy, yet smart humor and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the best comedic actress EVER.