After five successful seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Billy Donovan has parted ways with his former employer, switched Conferences along the way, and joined the once mighty Chicago Bulls. It’s a bold and unexpected move for a winning coach who has worked with superstars such as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook since he started his NBA coaching career back in 2015. Behind him, Donovan leaves a rebuilding Thunder roster, who far-exceeded everyone’s expectations this season. His move to Chicago, see’s him pass on a potentially bright future in the plains of Oklahoma for a cloudy one in the Windy City. However, if you did a little deeper this move makes sense on a number of levels.
Billy Donovan’s playing career was short. Drafted in 1987 with the 68th (yes SIXTY-EIGHTH) pick, Donovan floated between development league and NBA teams before calling it quits in 1989. He immediately found himself a role as an assistant coach in Kentucky, where he was very successful. After five years with the Wildcats, where he’d worked his way from being a graduate coach to Rick Pitino’s top assistant, he took a head coaching job at Marshall University.
Marshall were a poor team and at 28 years of age, Donovan was the youngest NCAA Div I head coach. Expectations weren’t high but in his first season, Marshall went 18-9, massively improving on their 9-18 record the season before. He stayed until 1996 and recruited Jason Williams (aka White Chocolate – you may know the name).
He became head coach of the Florida Gators in March ‘96 and White Chocolate followed him there. The Gators squad that Donovan took over was mediocre and the program had fallen away since it’s first Final Four in 1993. The athletic trainer at Florida knew that turning the program around was a long process and thus, signed the young and exciting head coach to a six-year contract.
“The first back-to-back winners since Duke”
The first two seasons with Florida were poor, with losing records both years, but Donovan was said to be a “relentless” recruiter. In his third season, Donovan’s Gators went 22-9 and kicked off an outstanding streak of 16-consecutive 20+ win seasons. His squads performed fantastically in the regular season, but seemed to fall off in post-season competition as they repeatedly lost to lower seeds in NCAA tourneys.
Then in 2006, the Donovan and the Gators finally broke through. The third-seeded Gators smashed into the sweet sixteen, defeated Villanova to progress to the Final Four, then, against UCLA, won the school’s first NCAA championship 73-57. Donovan’s entire starting-five (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer and Taureen Green) opted to stay another year and try to win another title.
Granted the number one seed for the 2007 NCAA tourney, the Gators ran riot through the competition. They reached the Final Four after dispatching of Jackson State, Purdue, Butler and Oregon. A rematch vs UCLA in the semi-final ended 76-66 to the Gators. Two nights later, the Gators won it all again with an 84-75 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes. Donovan’s Gators where the first back-to-back winners since Duke in 1991 and 1992.
The Gators failed to win another NCAA title before Donovan joined the OKC Thunder in 2014-15, but continued to consistently attain NCAA tourney invites. In the 18 years Donovan was head coach, the Gators had 14 NCAA tournament appearances, two national championship titles, four-outright SEC regular season titles and two shared-titles and four SEC tournament titles. He became one of two Head Coaches to reach 500-wins before 50.
Player development master
One skill that we often see with coaches that come from college teams is the ability to develop and maximise the skills of young talent. Donovan was no different. The list of players to graduate from Donovan’s Gators squad and become key NBA pieces includes names like Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Horford, Noah and Brewer, Chandler Parsons and current Wizards star Bradley Beal.
Just those names alone should give you a sense of the high-calibre players Billy Donovan has a history of developing.
We’ve seen him do it in the NBA too. Take this past season for example. Donovan’s Thunder team defied all expectations. At the start of the season OKC were tipped to be a top team in the lottery for the upcoming NBA draft, but shocked the entire association and ended up as the fifth seed come the playoffs in Orlando. They could even have been higher as when the season was ended, the Thunder shared an identical record of 44-28 with the fourth-seed Houston Rockets.
But what really made this team special? The leadership of a written-off Chris Paul? The experience of the Thunder veterans? No. It was the stellar development and impact of the young players. Plenty of young pieces held significant minutes in Billy Donovan’s rotation and boy did they produce. Luguentz Dort, 20, averaged 22.8 minutes per game. Terrence Ferguson, 21, averaged 22.4. Hamidou Diallo, also 21, average 19.5 and Darius Bazley, just 19 years of age, average 18.5 minutes over 61 games.
“The Thunder staff promoted Shai into a borderline star”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. 21 years old. The Thunder’s BEST player for 2019-20. Leading the team in minutes (34.7) and scoring (19.0). Second only to center Steven Adams (9.3) in rebounds (5.9). He also kept his turnovers (1.9) lower than both Chris Paul (2.3) and Dennis Schroder (2.6). It’s undeniable that Billy Donovan and the rest of the Thunder staff promoted Shai into a borderline star in only his second NBA season. It’s shocking he wasn’t on the shortlist for Most Improved Player.
But it’s Billy Donovan who was behind the scenes for Shai, OKC and the Gators. It’s that college coaching experience. It’s the knack for winning. Just think what he could do with Chicago’s young core. Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, the list goes on.
For me, it’s a match made in heaven.