Donovan to OKC: Secondary Needs

Former Florida Gators coach Billy Donovan left his position in Gainesville Thursday to become the new head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Both Donovan and the Thunder are attractive commodities in basketball, so the pairing makes sense. But considering how frequently the involved parties have been second-best in recent seasons, the move seems squarely designed to nudge each party over the top.


Donovan's name emerged seemingly every spring as a candidate for seemingly every prestigious job opening. While some of this was surely typical agent-driven leverage, Donovan seemed poised to leave when the right opportunity came along like many prominent coaches.

While Donovan's Gators certainly could return to the heights they reached in winning consecutive national championships in the mid-2000s, today's landscape looks much different less than a decade later. Florida clearly fell behind Kentucky within the SEC with little evidence that pecking order would change soon. The Gators recruited well enough, but outside of Bradley Beal, Donovan never quite succeeded at attracting the number of one-and-done players needed to compete at the top of the sport.

In this context, Donovan's decision to finally leap to the NBA makes sense, much more than his near jump to Orlando in 2007 ever did. Donovan has little, if anything, else to prove at the college level, and with plenty of time left in his career, he could easily return to a significant college post when this Thunder stint runs its course.

In Oklahoma City, Donovan has the tools to compete for the NBA title. He walks into a locker room and front office setup to succeed. It will be a new and unfamiliar challenge, but Donovan can realistically believe he will have a fair chance to conquer it with the current setup, certainly more so than he would while facing the Lexington Buzzsaw in the near future at Florida.

Kevin Durant and the Thunder

On the eve of the 2013 postseason, Durant summarized his plight eloquently, if glumly, to Sports Illustrated:

"I've been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."

Two years and multitudes of disappointment later, Durant must be fatigued to exhaustion by being second (and worse). And with his potential free agency looming just a summer from now, the Thunder are clearly sympathetic.

Firing Scott Brooks was certainly predicted, but with only a year of commitment from Durant, the pressure to replace him with a championship-ready coach was immense. The recent boom of NBA superstar free agency has reinforced that the game's top players will not let the gleam of a bigger contract preclude them from pursuing a better basketball situation during their peak years (though that value system shifts after peak years; right, Kobe?).

The results of the 2015-16 season will determine the future viability of the Durant/OKC relationship. If the organization can show Durant a championship is within reach, staying with the Thunder may be his most attractive option. With the team's other main players contracted beyond this season, head coach was the biggest opportunity for improvement. For a superstar and organization mired in almost-success, Donovan looks like the best sherpa to ascend the NBA mountain.


Westbrook's NBA career has always felt like that of a superhero bound to maintain an alter ego while flashing powers greater than this world.

Durant's absence for significant stretches of this season freed Westbrook to parade around OKC in his cape and spandex. For stretches, Westbrook toed the line between top-gear superstar and maniacal ballhog. Like a fireballing pitcher with a propensity for losing fastball's over hitters' heads, it is Westbrook's out-of-control streaks that make him most threatening to opponents, teammates, and his own coaches. Properly harnessed, that wildness becomes unstoppable.

One of Donovan's main duties will be integrating the uncaged parts of Westbrook's game into a system that maximizes the talent of one of the league's elite scorers, but this was also true for Brooks. Donovan's value is the credible voice he brings to this challenge.

Not only having proven himself by winning at Florida but also having managed some significant star egos along the way, Donovan will walk into the OKC locker room in a better place than Brooks did.

Donovan has both the reputation and skill set to disarm any budding internal rivalry. For a team enviably talented in its top two players, this may be more important than any in-game decisions or strategic considerations.

If second place is the world's most miserable result because it reminds you how close you were to first, Donovan, Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder make for pretty miserable company lately. Oklahoma City is betting their pooled misery is enough to finally breakthrough.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site