It’s not over for Billy Donovan, but he can probably see the end from here.
The Oklahoma City Thunder — fresh off their second straight first-round playoff ouster — says their coach will return for next season. But if you’re Donovan, it’s time to plan an exit strategy. It’s time to go back to school. College basketball is the best option because the immediate future for OKC could turn bleak very fast.
The one-year experiment of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony netted a 48-34 record, fourth in the Western Conference. Now, George is a free agent who most likely will leave – probably to the Los Angeles Lakers. Anthony has a $28 million player option, but do you really want his fossilized remains? He set career-lows in points (16.2 per game), field goal attempts (15.0) and shooting percentage (40.4). He’s basically a non-factor when he’s not scoring (No. 224 out of 353 in player efficiency rating).
Then there’s this question: what to do with the Thunder’s biggest star?
Westbrook is the most athletic point guard in NBA history. But he has played like a one-man gang the past few seasons, accumulating triple-doubles at an unprecedented rate. That hasn’t translated into any substantial winning. Is it his fault for not willing to share the ball? Is it management’s fault for not putting the right players around him? Is it the coach’s fault for not designing an effective offense?
Billy Donovan drawing up the most important play of the seasonhttps://t.co/tK2iPvmMjJ
— J.R.ob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) April 28, 2018
Donovan, who has two years remaining on his contract, will be the fall guy if things don’t improve. And there’s a good chance things won’t get better. Westbrook turns 30 this fall. His game doesn’t appear to be the kind that will age well. He relies so much on his athleticism but what will happen when he’s no longer the freakiest athlete on the court? The competition at the top of the West is fierce. Golden State and Houston are so far ahead of the rest of the conference. San Antonio could return to form if Kawhi Leonard and Spurs management mend fences. And Utah is trending up with emerging superstar Donovan Mitchell.
The door might be shut on OKC being a viable Western Conference contender. The door might be closing on Billy Donovan, 52, being a viable NBA coach. He is used to winning at the highest level, having won back-to-back national championships at Florida. Think about that. Donovan won it all twice at a “football-first” school.
Coaching in the NBA is a tough business. It’s a players’ league and even good coaches can fail. Larry Brown was fired from the Knicks after one season. Stan Van Gundy just parted ways with the Detroit Pistons. Both of those guys have more accomplished NBA résumés than Donovan.
In the NBA, talent acquisition is limited by the draft, free agency and the salary cap. Also, there are usually less than 10 superstars who truly make a difference. In college, the talent pool is larger. The limits on talent acquisition are not as strict. Donovan can stack the odds in his favor by stockpiling players. Donovan won’t have to worry about players aging or his team being handcuffed by a bad contract.
He doesn’t have to bolt immediately, but he should take a hard look at the possible college coaching landscape for 2019 and 2020. What are the premier jobs that might come open?
UCLA: The Bruins landed the biggest football coaching free agent of 2018 in Chip Kelly. Why not (potentially) the biggest basketball one? Yes, Steve Alford has had three Sweet 16 appearances at Westwood, but he’s also had three double-digit loss seasons in five years. He was never a popular choice.
USC: Andy Enfield hasn’t done much at USC. And if you look over the totality of his career, he’s enjoyed one great season when No. 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast reached the 2013 Sweet 16. The Trojans have been the second banana to UCLA basketball, just like the Bruins are the second banana to USC football. Maybe they want to change that.
Duke: Mike Krzyzewski is 71-years-old and has been in charge at Duke since 1980. He’s still at the top of his recruiting game, landing the top incoming class for the third straight season. But at some point he’s going to step down. A lot of guys with Duke ties will be fighting for that job: Bobby Hurley, Chris Collins and Jeff Capel. But if Duke looks outside the family, Donovan would be an ideal fit.
North Carolina: Dean Smith retired from coaching the Tar Heels at age 66. Roy Williams is 67. Like Coach K, Williams is still at the top of his recruiting game, and North Carolina, like Duke, is always in the title hunt. Also like Duke, North Carolina might be tempted to stay in the family (assistant coach Hubert Davis?). But unlike Duke, there really is a list of obvious candidates with direct ties.
Arizona: Sean Miller is safe… for now. But the clock is ticking. The FBI college basketball probe cost Rick Pitino his job at Louisville and Miller might be next. Plus, the alums may be still angry about that 89-68 NCAA loss to Buffalo.
Texas: Shaka Smart has been a disappointment at Texas. He hasn’t won more than 20 games and has yet to win an NCAA tournament game. If the Longhorns don’t show progress, it’s hard to imagine that Smart sticks around.
All of these potential options are better than Donovan’s current job. Plus, the money would be substantially more. Donovan’s Oklahoma City contract is for a reported five years at $30 million. For any school to lure Donovan back to college, the going rate is going to be around $8 million per year. That’s what John Calipari and Krzyzewski make – and Donovan is in the class.
Before Donovan exited Florida, his annual salary was $4 million. He left in 2015 because he was given the best NBA job a college coach had ever received. Donovan was entrusted with Kevin Durant and Westbrook. In his first year, he guided them to a 55-27 record and was within a game of the NBA Finals before blowing a 3-games-to-1 lead against Golden State.
After that season, Durant left and the OKC job has slowly become less and less appealing. It’s time for Donovan to do the right thing for his coaching career.
It’s time for him to go back to college.