Into The Fire But Out Of The Way: Billy Donovan’s Supremely Difficult Balancing Act With The Thunder

The most essential difference between coaching in the pros and coaching in college is — and always has been — a very simple one: The colleges are a coach’s game, while the pros are about the players.

As great as Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson might be — and they’re both as good as we’ve seen in professional basketball, up there in the top reaches of the pantheon with Red Auerbach and Pat Riley — they didn’t win because they were geniuses at the Xs and Os. The greatest coaches at the professional level thrive because they convince massively talented superstars to trust them. The psychological connection, paving the way for an emotionally contained relationship and a locker room that is harmonious when it needs to be, is what the great NBA coaches manage to establish.

As Billy Donovan leaves Florida, his two national titles, his four Final Fours, and his four consecutive Elite Eights for the Oklahoma City Thunder, make no mistake: His foremost challenge lies not in drawing up better endgame plays than Scott Brooks did. That’s important, but it’s not numero uno.

Donovan’s main task is to convince Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that his methods can work — in 2016, sure, but much more importantly, in 2017.


Anyone who follows the NBA knows that this next season is incredibly important for the Thunder, since there are no guarantees Durant will stay beyond it. Winning a championship is the obvious and best way for Oklahoma City to keep Durant around, but if the Thunder fall short — as well they might, given this transition to a new coach — securing Durant for an additional period of time would give Donovan the chance to ultimately succeed. If Donovan fails to claim a championship in 2016, but he wins Durant’s long(er)-term loyalty to the Thunder, the coming season will not be a waste, and this larger pursuit of a title could still find fulfillment.

This underscores why the relationship-building part of Donovan’s job is central to his success (or failure).

What episode from Donovan’s career at Florida suggests that he’s equipped to take on this challenge? It has to be the 2007 season, when the Gators repeated as national champions.

The first thing to point out about the 2007 Florida season is that if it fell anywhere short of a national title, it would have been viewed as a relative disappointment — less so in the Final Four, but still something less than what was sought.

Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey — they all came back to do what Duke and Mike Krzyzewski achieved in 1991 and 1992. They aimed to win back-to-back titles. This next NBA season, an appearance in the Finals would be immensely satisfying for the Thunder, but in light of the possibility that Durant could leave town, there’s more than a little anxiety in Oklahoma City. Fans are rightly worried that if the Thunder don’t win it all in 2016, the franchise might not have another really good title window in the near future. This will mark the second time in Donovan’s coaching career that he enters a season needing to win big.

No, we’re not going to suggest that the Butler team Florida defeated in the Sweet 16 that season will prepare Billy D for the Memphis Grizzlies, or that the Oregon team the Gators knocked off in the Elite Eight will give Donovan a taste of what the Golden State Warriors could bring to the table next season. What is essential to recall about Florida’s march through that season and the NCAA tournament in particular is that, much like the Atlanta Hawks, those Gators really didn’t care who scored or rebounded. Everyone contributed and served team goals first. No one took possessions off at the defensive end of the floor.

It’s true that Noah — such a coachable and enthusiastic player — performed all sorts of off-ball tasks which made it so much easier for his teammates to operate (at both ends), but it must also be said that Noah’s ego didn’t spill out in the wrong ways during that NCAA tournament. Donovan threaded the needle in terms of balancing the need to instruct with the equally important need to get out of the way and let his cohesive team just play ball. This is, interestingly enough, what Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer told his team during a timeout over the past weekend in the Hawks’ playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets: “Just play.”

This serves as a perfect lead-in to what Donovan is inheriting with the Thunder.

It is true that Oklahoma City — enabled by Brooks — devolved into hero-ball at the ends of playoff games over the years, and that Russell Westbrook sometimes operated without the clarity needed to be the best possible point guard for his team. However, it also has to be said that coaching shouldn’t unnecessarily complicate various equations. Brooks, to his credit, gave Westbrook the freedom to make plays on his own. That’s hardly the worst piece of coaching ever displayed. It’s actually quite reasonable.

Moreover, we’ve seen that while Westbrook takes a lot of shots — such that it gives the appearance of being selfish — an elite player is supposed to take a lot of shots. To be even more specific about the matter, Westbrook has needed to shoot the mid-range jumper in order to make his drives to the basket that much more effective. If Westbrook has at times been too selfish, one must hasten to add that on most occasions, he’s been necessarily selfish, to the great benefit of the Thunder.

Scott Brooks didn’t get everything right, but he didn’t get everything wrong, either.

With this in mind, Billy Donovan is not in a position to overhaul everything that preceded him in Oklahoma City. He’ll need to make tweaks, as opposed to tearing down what Brooks put into place. If you’re expecting Westbrook to be a completely different player under Donovan, you’re expecting too much… and you’re expecting something not in tune with the heartbeat of the NBA, a player’s league. The Westbrook-Durant dynamic doesn’t need to be radically reshaped. It’s worked pretty well when both men have been able to stay on the court. As any OKC follower knows, health is what has held back the Thunder over the past few postseasons.


Donovan’s development of players will emerge not in how he deals with his superstars — that’s the psychological challenge he faces with Durant and Westbrook — but in how he cultivates his bench and searches for the right lineup combinations.

If Brooks made one mistake (repeatedly) during his tenure in Oklahoma City, it was playing Kendrick Perkins far too much, and not giving Nick Collison nearly enough run. In terms of tactical acumen and moving pieces on a chessboard, Donovan must be able to maneuver with the deftness which often eluded Brooks. He has to win the hearts and minds of the most central figures on the Thunder’s roster, but the use of role players and big-man rotations is what might make the difference between a playoff series win and a tough six-game loss.

This is admittedly something Donovan did not really face in his 2007 season at Florida. The Gators used seven-man rotations in the Final Four, giving an eighth player bread-crumb-level minutes against UCLA (national semifinals) and Ohio State (national championship game). This past season with Florida, the Gators’ constant brushes with injuries and suspensions forced Donovan to have to mix and match players with an undesired degree of regularity. One might be able to claim that such an experience could give Donovan a taste of what’s ahead this next season with the Thunder, but Billy D was choosing among some very unpolished players this past winter. In the NBA, he will make a very different set of evaluations.


In the end, as much as a coach might think that he has the solutions to an NBA team’s problems, the NBA remains the primary province of players. Donovan might sell his Oklahoma City players on what it was like to coach three solid pros — Noah, Horford and Brewer — with the 2007 Gators, but it’s up to the players to choose to trust what their new coach will tell them.

Oklahoma City is right to expect big results with Billy Donovan, but the question all of us will be asking over the next 11 months — leading up to the 2016 playoffs — is if it’s reasonable to expect a first-year pro coach to deliver a world championship.

The verdict here is that it’s not… which makes Billy Donovan’s true goal in 2016 not the attainment of a trophy, but the retention of Kevin Durant for many more years as an Oklahoma City sports icon. If the new coach can convince the established franchise player to stick around for 2017 and beyond, this franchise could be Thunder-struck by championship elation in two or three seasons.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |