Last month, before chaos descended on the basketball world, the University of Florida honored Thunder Head Coach/former Florida Gators Head Coach Billy Donovan by dedicating the basketball court at the O’Connell Center in his name. Humble as always, Donovan credited his success to everyone but himself, saying, “It takes a lot of people to really contribute and help. Everybody contributed. I’m just thankful that I was around such great people. I think that’s what it speaks to…the quality of people that I was fortunate enough to be around here at Florida.”
As head coach at Florida, Donovan led the Gators to six regular-season SEC titles, three SEC tournament titles, and two national championships. He was also named SEC Coach of the Year in three separate seasons. Most would agree that Donovan put Florida, a longtime “football school,” on the college basketball map and, in many ways, he’s doing the same for Oklahoma City.
Donovan’s predecessor, Scott Brooks, helped thrust Oklahoma City into the public spotlight with the 2012 Thunder team, but it’s Donovan who has kept them there. Since taking over as head coach, Donovan has won 60% of his games–the most of any college coach turned NBA coach in the past thirty years. The fact that Oklahoma City has maintained its relevance as not one, not two, but three superstars have departed is a strong testament to Donovan’s adaptability as a coach.
Part of what made Donovan so successful at Florida is his unselfishness as both a person and a coach. Donovan’s back-to-back championships at Florida were built on a fast-paced offense that emphasized sharing the basketball. In other words, the complete opposite of the Thunder teams that characterized his first four seasons as Thunder head coach. While Donovan did an above-average job coaching those teams and even had some stand-out coaching performances versus the Spurs and Warriors in the 2016 postseason, this season’s Billy Donovan is the best version yet because he finally has the perfect kind of team for his coaching style: unselfish.
Even considering a potentially shortened regular season, Donovan has already surpassed all expectations. But one question remains: Will Billy Donovan’s performance thus far be enough to win 2020 NBA Coach of the Year?
The Case for Billy Donovan
After losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George during the off-season, the Thunder were not expected to be playoff contenders this season. In fact, ESPN gave the Thunder just a 2% chance to make the playoffs at the start of the season and Vegas set the Thunder’s regular-season record over/under at just 31 wins (a mark the Thunder passed back in early February). Part of the reason the Thunder were so underestimated was because of their lack of a “superstar” to fill Westbrook and George’s shoes (assuming Chris Paul would be traded). However, this factor turned out to be the Thunder’s greatest asset.
In his tenure as head coach of the Thunder, Donovan has been excellent at developing young talents. With Westbrook and George out, it opened up the opportunity for young players to get more meaningful minutes. Thanks to Donovan’s coaching (and admittedly, Chris Paul’s veteran leadership as well), players like Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley have had impressive rookie seasons. Additionally, Donovan’s pass-first, motion offense is perfect for a true point guard like Chris Paul and maximizes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander off-ball. Furthermore, Donovan has found the perfect role for Dennis Schröder–allowing him to run the second unit, but also to contribute down the stretch and close games.
After starting the season 8-11, Donovan’s coaching adjustments brought the Thunder out of their dysfunction and straight to the best record in the Western Conference since December 18th. They climbed up the Western Conference standings all the way to the 5th seed before the season was suspended, moments away from a chance to take the 4th seed (if not for Donnie Strack blocking tip-off versus the Jazz and saving the entire NBA). For the first time in a decade, we are seeing a Thunder team that isn’t centered around one or two players. In fact, the Thunder had five games this season where seven players scored in double figures and one game with eight players scoring in double figures (a franchise record).
Chris Paul frequently says that he loves this team because they play for each other. That approach to the game starts with Billy Donovan. He has had the perfect roster this season to showcase his adaptability and strategic prowess as a coach. It’s unfortunate that Donovan is finally hitting his stride in the middle of a global pandemic, but I hope we get to see what more he’s capable of in the playoffs.
Billy Donovan is not the only coach with a case for Coach of the Year. In fact, this season’s race is one of the most crowded we’ve seen in a while and there’s no obvious choice.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Nurse has received most of the COY buzz, and with good reason. After winning a championship last season and then losing his star player in Kawhi Leonard, he hasn’t missed a step. Prior to the season’s postponement, the Raptors held the second-best record in the East and the third-best record in the league. Nurse has also done a tremendous job developing Pascal Siakam into an All-Star caliber player.
Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
It helps that Budenholzer has the best player in the Eastern Conference and arguably a top-three player in the NBA on his team, but he doesn’t really have much else to work with. The most impressive aspect of Budenholzer’s coaching has been his ability to turn mid-level players like Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez into actual assets on a championship-contending team.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Spoelstra is leading his young cohort of players to a resurgence of Miami basketball. With the exception of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic, Miami’s “stars” are all 25 or younger. With young players like Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, and Tyler Herro showing out, Miami has not only been fun to watch but also become an actual playoff team to be reckoned with. They are currently 4th in the Eastern Conference standings with the eighth best record in the league (just above the Thunder).
Honorable mentions: Nate McMillan (Indiana Pacers), Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), and Frank Vogel (Los Angeles Lakers).
With a field this crowded and a potentially shortened regular season, Billy Donovan’s performance so far probably won’t be enough to edge out the other contenders. However, he has been fantastic coaching this particular group of players and it bodes well for next season, especially if the Thunder can keep this team together. If the NBA regular season is able to resume and Donovan can coach this team to the third or fourth seed in the Western Conference (a feat that is far from unimaginable), it would significantly strengthen his case for 2020 Coach of the Year.