Former Florida Gators Coach Billy Donovan at a Career Crossroads

“Coaching is nothing more than eliminating mistakes before you get fired.” – Lou Holtz

Billy Donovan (right) and Jeremy Foley (left) share a laugh during Donovan's court dedication. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Billy Donovan didn’t exactly get fired by the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in the week. What happened is described as a mutual parting of the ways between Thunder ownership and Donovan. As OKC general manager Sam Presti noted, “Sometimes the arc of things just don’t align. It’s no one’s fault.”

Presti would have been happy if Donovan had signed a contract extension to remain in Oklahoma City, yet he wasn’t exactly tearful when Billy declined. The NBA is a business that has made it perfectly clear that it’s all about the players. Not about the coaches. Not even a coach whose .608 winning percentage ranks 11thall-time for those who survived five years at the helm.

Donovan won a lot of games and made the playoffs every year. He was on the cusp of playing for an NBA title his first year in OKC when he had both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on his roster. If he wins that game seven against Golden State, maybe Donovan would have won an NBA title and that would have changed that arc of things Presti talked about at the press conference that announced the Thunder and Donovan had reached a point of no return.

Maybe the better way to describe this mutual parting of the ways is that Billy Donovan decided enough was enough. After five years of seeing his best players either leave as free agents or traded away and with ownership committed to a long term rebuild, Billy Donovan fired himself.

Durant had no problems with Donovan. None whatsoever. But he thought there was a far better chance to win championships with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors so he left as a free agent. Serge Ibaka, a defensive force who helped the Toronto Raptures win the 2019 NBA title, was traded to Orlando for Victor Oladipo and the draft rights to Domantis Sabonis. Oladipo and Sabonis were traded to Indiana for Paul George. The Thunder acquired a perennial all-star for two who have become all-stars in their new location. George got traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. Westbrook got traded to the Houston Rockets.

Even with all the flux in his roster, Donovan still won but the Thunder never got close to a championship after that first year. In the recently completed season, Donovan did one of the great coaching jobs of the last 15-20 years by taking a young roster with nine new faces to a number five seed for the playoffs. For that he was named co-Coach of the Year for the NBA.

If Donovan could have counted on the Thunder adding a couple of necessary pieces to make a deeper playoff run next season, he might have signed a contract extension, but the Thunder are committed to a massive rebuild. Two of Donovan’s best three players – Dino Gallinari and Chris Paul – probably won’t be back. Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent who will be seen as the missing link for several teams that need a proven scorer. Paul has a huge contract with two years remaining but his point guard skills are still at such a level that he can command a nice return on the trade market. It is expected the Thunder will trade both Gallinari and Paul while they are very marketable commodities. Would the Thunder use the trades to bring in experienced players or go for more draft picks to add to the 13 first rounders they have accumulated over the next seven years?

That kind of uncertainty left Donovan at the crossroads of a rebuild job or heading off to St. Somewhere Else. Donovan chose the road less traveled and it’s probably the wisest choice he could make.

“Glad he’s out of there,” texted a former Donovan assistant who has spent time in the NBA. That same assistant agreed that Donovan essentially has three choices moving forward: (1) Another NBA job; (2) a college job or (3) take a year off and then decide whether he wants to continue in the pros or go back to his college roots. It sounds like a basketball version of Let’s Make a Deal.

Behind Door Number One, it would seem the best fit for Donovan would be the Philadelphia 76ers. Blessed with an enormous cache of talent, the Sixers under-performed in 2020 and much of the blame has to do with the dreadful coaching of Brett Brown. This is a team with almost all the ingredients to win championships with the right coach pulling the strings on the bench. Take a look at the starting five. Joel Embiid has established himself as the dominant big man in the league and Ben Simmons is a triple-double looking for a place to happen. Former Gator Al Horford adds maturity and the ability to do at a very high level whatever the team needs to win. With Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson added to the lineup, this is a team that could win it all with the right coach. If Donovan were hired, Horford would probably stay and the Sixers would have that quiet voice of leadership in the locker room that they need to go with a coach on the bench who is a proven winner.

Door Number Two will require a little bit of patience. Due to the Covid-19 virus and the NCAA furloughs, there is an immediate shortage of good college jobs but that could change in a hurry, particularly if the infractions committee or the independent arbitrator for NCAA jailable offenses meet soon (as expected) and sentence a number of coaches and programs to serious time in the NCAA penitentiary. Potential jobs that could come open in a hurry are Kansas, Arizona, Southern Cal, Oregon, Louisville, Creighton, LSU, Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina, all of whom are caught up in one way or another in the college basketball corruption trials and a tangled web of evidence.

Donovan has a squeaky clean image that would resonate well with school presidents whose basketball programs face the wrath of the NCAA. If and when the NCAA drops the hammer, there will be firings and if Donovan is available, you can bet his name will be linked to every opening. But, there are a lot of ifs involved in that scenario. First of all, the jobs have to come open and secondly, Donovan has to be available. Then comes the third part of the equation. Would Billy want to take on a program under NCAA sanctions that might include scholarship restrictions? That might be too much like trying to navigate the Thunder through the massive rebuild they face over the next few years.

Door Number Two and Door Number Three are similar in that both will require Donovan’s patience for what could be several months of uncertainty but likely would give Donovan the option of another NBA job or returning to the collegiate ranks. Rather than plunge headfirst back into the NBA or take a fire sale job as the result of NCAA punitive actions, Donovan might just choose Door Number Three to unwind in the Gainesville home he never sold and where he can explore the best fit for whatever is next.

There will always be NBA jobs so Donovan can afford to pass on any current openings if he needs time to sort things out. From the five years he spent with the Thunder, Donovan knows how the NBA works in regards to trades, free agency, salary caps and the draft so it will be a matter of finding a front office that is committed to building the kind of team that can win a championship. If he was willing to pass on the Thunder rebuild it’s unlikely he will take on a build from the ground up job in the NBA.

Returning to the collegiate ranks will always seem the safest and best bet for success although that might not be what Donovan sees as the right option. He despises the shadiness of the AAU circuit, how the shoe companies manipulate kids and the amount of money exchanged under the table. Three of the players Donovan will coach (Embiid, Simmons and Harris) if he is offered and takes the job with the Sixers are a grim reminder of how that works. However, if a true collegiate blueblood job were to open up that might be just the thing to lure Donovan back to his coaching roots.

Three blueblood jobs come to mind. None of them are currently open but the coaches are no longer spring chickens and might be ready to pull the plug on long, successful careers after another year on the job. Mike Kryzyzewski at Duke is 73 years old. Roy Williams at North Carolina is 70. Jim Boeheim at Syracuse is 76. What these three jobs have in common is they are all in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where college basketball is played at its highest level and their arenas are always packed with some of the most rabid, knowledgeable fans in the country. All three of those schools have great academics, great tradition and in some respects recruit themselves.

When he was at Florida, it was a struggle for Donovan to land top recruits, largely due to what was then a dump of an arena (The O-Dome has been renovated since he left) and fans so interested in beating the traffic that the O-Dome was often less than 30 percent full when the final buzzer sounded. Recruits pay attention to those things and that has something to do with why so many of the best recruits went elsewhere even though they loved Donovan. At blueblood schools like Kentucky, Duke, Carolina, Syracuse and Kansas, the fans arrive early and stay late. They also travel very, very well at tournament time which is why they usually get prime landing spots when the NCAA brackets are announced.

There is no guarantee that one of these blueblood jobs will come open, but Donovan might roll the dice by taking a year off to see what comes available. He knows the NBA will always be there so he can afford to wait.

For years before he took the job with the Thunder, Donovan answered questions about the NBA. He always talked about the lure of basketball only with no recruiting and ultimately, that led him to give the NBA a shot. He didn’t fail as an NBA coach, but his five years in OKC have probably opened his eyes to realities that he probably didn’t see before.

One afternoon in July of 2011 at the steamy gym on the Oglethorpe University campus in Atlanta where an AAU event was being played, Donovan was there along with Rick Pitino and several other college coaches watching players like Joel Embiid, Kasey Hill, Alex Poythress and Shabazz Muhammad strut their stuff. Pitino and I talked about the players and then the conversation turned to the NBA and Billy Donovan, who is almost like one of Pitino’s sons.

“At some point I think he will try,” Pitino told me. “He needs to find out for himself and maybe he will like it but maybe when he does he will find out that college basketball is where he really belongs. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have left Kentucky for the Celtics but I had to find out for myself.”

Pitino recalled the incident that made him realize he needed to be back in the collegiate ranks. He needed to make a substitution but the player he wanted to put in the game made less money than another player, who was a starter but was taking a breather on the bench.

“He was a starter and if I didn’t put him back in the game I would hurt his feelings and I’d have to deal with that,” Pitino said. “I told myself that night you need to be back in college basketball.”

Dealing with similar issues might be what lures Donovan back into the collegiate ranks but if he takes the plunge it will be at the place of his choosing. He won’t take just any job, only one that best eliminates some of the issues that he despised when he was coaching at Florida.

Although he hasn’t been offered the job (that we know of) by the Philadelphia 76ers, that loaded roster in need of a stabilizing coach might provide just enough temptation for Donovan to give the pros one more shot. Until Donovan became available, Tyron Lue, who won an NBA title with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, seemed the likely candidate but the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Donovan has emerged as a candidate. If the Sixers poll their players – a good many of whom Donovan recruited when he was at Florida – he might be the slam dunk choice to take over.

So what will Billy Donovan do next? He’s at a career crossroads, is as secure as he can be financially and doesn’t have to work unless he chooses. If he goes the NBA route immediately, the Philadelphia job seems ideal. Indiana is open but the Pacers seem to have narrowed down their search to a couple of candidates already. The other openings might require a bigger rebuild than OKC. Here is a guess what he might do: If he wants a ready-made NBA situation he will take the job in Philadelphia if it’s offered. If Philadelphia doesn’t offer or if the front office situation isn’t to his liking, then Donovan will sit for a year, weigh his options and decide what’s next in the spring of 2021.

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