Billy Donovan is done in Oklahoma City; what’s next for the highly touted coach?

NBA Oklahoma City Thunder Billy Donovan (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
NBA Oklahoma City Thunder Billy Donovan (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Billy Donovan leaves OKC, but he’s certainly not done with basketball

Less than a week after pushing the James Harden-led Houston Rockets to the brink in their seven-game series, the news was announced that head coach Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City Thunder had mutually decided to part ways in the wake of Donovan’s contract expiring. A move that seems to have caught many people by surprise.

There had not been much talk of Donovan’s contract even expiring at the end of the season aside from the local Oklahoma City radio, print, and television media. We are talking about a coach that piled up 400 wins over his five-year coaching stint in OKC. Let us not forget his 502 wins in 21 seasons coaching at the college level.

Quiet as kept, this makes Donovan the only head coach to amass 400 coaching victories in both NCAA Men’s Division I hoops and the NBA. His teams at the University of Florida won back-to-back National Championships in 2007 and 2008. As head coach of the Thunder, Donovan’s team made the playoffs all five seasons under his watch.

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Though they never made it out of the first round after his first season in OKC, the 2015-16 campaign where the team won 55 games which ended up being the highest single-season win total for Billy Donovan while coaching the Thunder.

That first seemingly magical season for Donovan and the Thunder is remembered by most for another reason. No, not for them winning 55 games in their first season under Donovan. Not for this being Kevin Durant’s final season with the franchise and community that had watched him grow from an awkward sometimes shy 20-year-old into a fierce, outspoken, and fearless competitor on the court.

Nope. For most, and especially those in Oklahoma City, the 2015-16 season will be remembered as the year they watched their beloved team “choke” away (for lack of better phrasing) a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals to the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

For many fans and media pundits, this was the absolute last straw in helping Kevin Durant decide he needed to pack up and take him and his 47 burner social media accounts out west to the Bay Area.

As for Donovan, he was criticized after this debacle in the Western Conference Finals and was even speculated that he was too lax and reserved in coaching the two stars he inherited in OKC in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It was said that they relied too much on individual talent and the one on one game that both Westbrook and Durant especially excelled at.

The talk of Donovan being hesitant and almost afraid to coach his stars only ramped over the next couple of seasons with Westbrook then being the only remaining star left in town. It continued to be much of the same. Another 40-plus win season followed by an early exit in the first round of the playoffs the last four seasons.

Then, during the 2019 offseason, Thunder general manager Sam Presti made a deal that sent shockwaves throughout the NBA. The Thunder were trading their franchises star point guard to the Houston Rockets in return for an aging star in Chris Paul. Yes, there were draft picks traded and swapped as well but ultimately this player for player, point guard for point guard.

With this move, you could also see the beginning of a rebuild and the organization looking more toward the future in OKC. So, going into the 2019-20 season, there really weren’t any expectations for the Thunder. Most experts expected them to finish down near or at the bottom of the pack and no better than to compete for the seventh or eighth seeds in the Western Conference at best.

All OKC did during this pandemic shortened season is go out and win another 44 games in a pandemic shortened season, which was good enough to land them the fifth seed in the west.

Now the script has been flipped on Donovan, and most are calling this his best coaching job since he has been a coach in the NBA and maybe even of his career. While at Florida, Donovan was able to attract top recruits to his school which helped his teams make four Final Four appearances in his 19 seasons there and win two National Championships.

His first year in OKC, he had two top 10 NBA players in Westbrook and Durant, and in his final four seasons, he had the triple-double machine and MVP that Westbrook would become.

For the 2019-20 season, Donovan’s best player was an aging, often injured Chris Paul whose best days are behind him although he did have a great series against Houston in the first round in the Bubble in Orlando. Still, this was a young team, led by a grizzled veteran at point guard that no one really expected to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season.

It just felt like for the first time in a long time Donovan had to get out the drawing board and really engage his players the way many of us know he can. He is a great coach, has a great mind for the game of basketball and his track record on the college and pro level proves that. The NBA is a player’s league and always came off as he was just deferring to his star players since they had been there long before him.

There is no doubt that Donovan will land somewhere for the 2020-21 season if he wants to. There is already speculation that he opted not to re-sign with the Thunder because he wants to coach a team that is closer to being a true contender than OKC currently is.

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Also don’t count out a return to the college ranks, as Donovan could return to the NCAA and net any major opening as well as name his price and the number of years he wants to sign for. It will be interesting to see what direction Donovan decides to go and where he will end up for the 2020-21 basketball season.