Billy Donovan Aug 18, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan looks on during the first half against the Houston Rockets in game one of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When Billy Donovan left the University of Florida for the Oklahoma City Thunder, it was to coach a team featuring Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He got that chance for exactly one season, reaching the Western Conference Finals, blowing a 3-1 lead to the eventual champion Warriors, and then losing Durant to Golden State as well.

Now, after five seasons in Oklahoma City, the Thunder and Donovan have decided to go their own ways.

Woj expanded on the situation here, and it really does seem like a truly mutual, agreeable parting of ways:

Donovan’s first NBA job probably didn’t go as he was expectingb once Durant left after one season. (At least he got that one season, though, which is more than Byron Scott got with LeBron in Cleveland.) The Thunder became the Russell Westbrook show, with Donovan seemingly ceding to the narrative that none of the supporting players were good enough to merit Westbrook not trying to average a triple-double over an entire season. (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis both seemingly proved that idea wrong once they got to Indiana.)

Then, after the Russ solo act season, the Thunder added Paul George from the Pacers, once again giving Donovan two star-level players to work with, something few coaches get once much less twice. But in two years with PG and Westbrook, the Thunder failed to win a playoff series. Then George, like Durant before him, also left for a California team, and the Thunder made a move towards rebuilding, shipping Westbrook to Houston for the aging Chris Paul.

This season, Donovan’s fifth and now final one with the Thunder, was maybe his best work if we’re judging by the standard NBA-coaching evalation of comparing results to expectations. The Thunder even took Houston to the final moments of a Game 7 before bowing out, despite being outmanned in the talent department. Donovan was voted co-coach of the year with Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, and it’s wild that one of those guys is now leaving his job and the other one faced a ton of playoff criticism.

Donovan remains a bit of an enigma, though, even after five years; it’s hard to pin down any kind of definitive style or strategy, not even something like Nick Nurse’s “will adjust on the fly constantly”, which has become a style of its own. Donovan clearly didn’t do a bad job there, and his reputation still seems solid in league circles; Woj is already noting that other teams with openings will likely have interest.

Players play hard for him, he never seems overmatched, and there wasn’t massive locker room drama or upheaval like we saw earlier this season in Cleveland when John Beilein made the move from college to the pros. (Remember that? It feels like 15 years ago now.) Donovan, in that sense, deserves credit for adjusting his style and managing a locker room at the pro level. He seems like a solid coaching option, especially for a rebuilding team like the Bulls. Whether he’d be the right choice for a team with superstar players and a win-now mindset, though, is a tougher call.

Both Durant and Paul George ended up leaving, after all, with Durant taking some shots at Donovan on the way out (which he later apologized for.)

But that was also after just one season for Donovan in the NBA. Presumably he’s learned and evolved from that experience, and it’s also taking the word of Kevin Durant, who has never been the easiest player to coach. (Kenny Atkinson never even got the chance to.)

And as to why Donovan’s coaching style hasn’t made much of a mark, it’s important to look at that roster volatility. Arguably just once (George’s second season there) did Donovan get to carry over a system built around the same top player(s). It’s tough to build any kind of continuity under those circumstances.

Whether it’s in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or elsewhere, Donovan is going to get another NBA job if he wants one. Maybe there we’ll get to learn more about what he brings to the table as a professional head coach.


About Jay Rigdon

Jay is a columnist at Awful Announcing. He is not a strong swimmer. He is probably talking to a dog in a silly voice at this very moment.