This time, it’s serious.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have fired their coach after seven years, a coach who has the highest winning percentage in NBA history of coaches who coached at least 300 games and didn’t win an NBA title. That the Thunder are willing to part with Scott Brooks, who his players like and respect, after a year in which injuries to three key players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka) devastated the team, tells you they mean business when it comes to hiring a replacement.
That can only mean storm clouds on the University of Florida basketball horizon because Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti is (a) a close friend of Donovan’s, (b) thinks Donovan is a coach who could seamlessly adapt his coaching style to the NBA and the players would respond, and (c) Donovan has indeed wearied of the sleaze that permeates recruiting on the AAU circuit.
This is not a situation like the one in 2007 when Donovan left briefly for the Orlando Magic only to reconsider and three days later return to the University of Florida. Yes, the Magic made sense back then because it was Orlando, which meant he wouldn’t have to uproot his family, but he came back because he felt a sense of responsibility to the UF program, which was set back to ground zero with the early entry to the NBA by Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. It’s true that Florida is coming off a losing record, the first after 16 straight winners, but the program is in infinitely better shape right now than it was in the spring of 2007.
Had Donovan stuck to his original thought and remained the coach of the Magic, he would have inherited a roster that included Dwight Howard and won 52 games under Stan Van Gundy in 2007-08. That was a decent roster and Van Gundy is a better than average basketball coach.
The roster that Donovan could inherit at Oklahoma City is far more talented top to bottom than what he would have had to work with in Orlando back in 2007. With a healthy Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, Donovan would have three cornerstones to build a championship roster. About the only thing missing is a back to the basket center who can rebound and doesn’t mind being the fourth or fifth scoring option – hello Omer Asik or DeAndre Jordan – and the Thunder could be scary good.
Presti is a forward thinking general manager who is heavy into statistical analytics. One of his front office people is the very skilled Oliver Winterbone, who did video and analytics for Donovan so well that Presti hired him in Oklahoma City. Donovan is big into the analytics, which has everything to do with why he’s taken rosters without the overload of McDonald’s All-Americans and won big. Analytics tells you what your players can and can’t do in certain situations. The right coach who understands that can juggle his roster and play calls to fit and win even when he doesn’t have the best personnel from a sheer talent standpoint.
During the past 10-12 years, Donovan has remarked on dozens of occasions that the intrigue of the NBA is that it’s all basketball all the time. In the NBA there is no recruiting, no mountainous NCAA rulebook that requires having Jamie McCloskey on speed dial to interpret, no 20-hour weekly restriction on practices and games, no rules that prevent personal interaction with players in the offseason, no sleazebag AAU types to deal with, no shoe company influencing what school a high school player will sign with, no out of control alumni giving money under the table and no worries that his players are hanging around with agent runners or going to class.
In the NBA there is actually an offseason. Players have to have their time off to rest up from the grind of an 82-game season and the playoffs. That means the coach has time to spend with his wife and family. There is time for a decent vacation unlike college basketball where school is in session for 10 of the 12 months if you count summer school; camp season is June and you’re on the road recruiting all of July.
This is not to say that the NBA is a piece of cake because it isn’t.
When Rick Pitino left the Boston Celtics to return to college basketball, he remarked (I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the things that made the decision easy for him was looking down at his bench and had a dilemma about which player he needed to put in the game. On one hand, he had a player making less money but who was actually playing better basketball, but if he put that player into the game, a player making more money would have ego problems. If he put the player making more money in, he might upset the self-esteem of the player making less money who was actually playing better basketball.
That’s not absurd. That happens. Those absurd NBA salaries (the cap for a 12-man roster next year will be something like $80 million) are such that some players have egos large enough to apply for statehood. But, as the late great Bill Veeck once said, “It’s not the high price of stars that is expensive; it’s the high price of mediocrity.” In the NBA that translates to this indisputable fact: For every high priced star on a team you typically have at least one high priced player who is borderline mediocre but has the ego of a high priced star and therefore must be accommodated.
There is free agency in basketball. Players go where the money is and there is very little in the way of loyalty. The days when a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan will spend his entire career playing for one team get fewer and further between every single year. For example, if Donovan were to go to Oklahoma City, he could have Durant for only one year and Westbrook for two. Durant becomes an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season and Westbrook can leave unrestricted after 2017. So, the window of opportunity to win a championship in Oklahoma City would be small and who’s to say that once Durant and Westbrook are gone that Oklahoma City could (a) draft players of equal talent or (b) attract great free agents. It’s one thing to attract great free agents to come play with Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. It’s another thing altogether to ask players to come to Oklahoma City if there aren’t the two big stars who offer the possibility of an NBA title. Oklahoma City is a very nice place but New York or LA it isn’t. Heck, it isn’t even Atlanta or San Antonio.
That brings us to the next possibility. Even though Billy is close friends with Sam Presti and even though he would have the chance to coach Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who’s to say that Oklahoma City is going to be his only option?
There are all sorts of rumors that Tom Thibodeau is going to split the blanket with the Chicago Bulls and see if he’s a better fit somewhere else. Chicago is a prime free agent destination and if Donovan went there, he would reunite with Joakim Noah with a roster that is a couple of players away from championship caliber. Then there are the Knicks and the Lakers. If Billy Donovan were to call Phil Jackson in New York or Mitch Kupchak in LA to express an interest in coaching there, you can bet all that is sacred to you that the private jet would be landing in Gainesville in a matter of hours to whisk Billy away. Those two teams are horrible right now and they’ve been mismanaged, but they’ve got unlimited money resources. Put the right coach and the right personnel people in place and you’ve got a place that free agents would flock to.
So, even if Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t reach an agreement, it’s not like that will be the only chance to bolt for the NBA.
If asked, Billy Donovan will respond as he always has. He’ll say he’s happy at Florida but he won’t ever say never as in Billy, you would never leave, would you? He’s going to listen just as he’s always listened, only this time it’s more serious than the other times. He had opportunities to leave last year but he elected to stay in Gainesville for at least one more year. He signed a one-year contract extension and got a raise to more than $4 million, too, but that’s not going to hold him back if he wishes to leave.
There are, however, reasons he might elect to stay. Here are five of them.
1. He really does love it here, otherwise why would he have turned down Kentucky three different times?
2. It’s one thing to leave with the satisfaction that you’ve won a championship and whoever replaces you can ride championship momentum his first year on the job but Florida went 16-17 last year. It took all that blood, sweat and tears to get Florida to the level of winning two national championships and over another four-year span going to three straight Elite Eights and then the Final Four, so why leave on a losing note?
3. If he leaves Florida now, there will always be those whispers that Billy was run out of the league by John Calipari and Kentucky and Kentucky people will always say, “We gave him three chances to come here and he didn’t so when we got a coach who could outwork him, he ran.” Billy doesn’t have a Calipari ego, but it’s big enough that those kind of whispers wouldn’t settle well.
4. Youngest son Bryan will be a senior at The Rock School in 2015-16, where he scores about 15 points a game for a very good team. Billy could uproot the family (youngest daughter Connor will be an 8th grader next year) or he could stay at least one more year and let Bryan finish out his senior year.
5. He’s going to have a young roster next year, but it’s talented and he’ll have the kind of size and pieces to play with to create mismatches. It’s a roster designed to get Florida back among the elite teams not just in the SEC but in the country.
And, there is one final part of the equation. The University of Florida could make an unprecedented commitment to basketball. Money has never been the driving issue for Donovan but commitment is. Show him the love with a long-term contract that maybe isn’t Calipari money, but it puts him in the same neighborhood. Pay assistant coaches John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant in the $300,000-400,000 range and raise Rashon Burno’s pay as well. Give Donovan more money for hiring support staff for things like analytics and operations. No more bus trips to Athens (do you think for a second they would do that at Kentucky or Kansas?). Make sure the renovation to the O-Dome is more than lipstick on a pig. If Donovan can’t have a brand new arena similar to the ones at Auburn or Ole Miss then spare no expense in the O-Dome renovation. It’s not like there isn’t more than adequate money.
My instincts tell me that Billy Donovan will elect to stay at least one more year at Florida. He knows that the NBA will still be there next year if he elects to stay at UF for one or more seasons. Coaches of Donovan’s caliber don’t grow on trees and Donovan is good enough that he can pick and choose his situation. But, the clock is ticking and this situation is indeed serious. If the powers that be at the University of Florida intend to keep Donovan, then their clock is ticking and it’s time to show Billy unprecedented love like never before.
If you were in Donovan’s shoes and determined to go to the NBA, would you take the Oklahoma City job if offered or wait for another job to open?
The California Honeydrops continue to be my most important music discovery of the last two years. I can listen to them and hear the influence of Memphis soul and Dr. John in their music. I haven’t had a chance to catch them live yet, but friends who have say one of their bar gigs is the most fun they’ve had in years. Today’s music is their 2014 album “Like You Mean It.” I think you’ll particularly like the sixth song on the album, “Just Another Day.”