When Billy Donovan was lured away from the University of Florida to take over the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, some of the experts feared for his long term security. Donovan was entrenched in Gainesville, having won two national championships and eight Southeastern Conference titles in his 19 seasons there.
He endured only three losing seasons; his first two and his last. Still, despite last season’s 16-17 record, few expected him to bolt for the NBA.
Or perhaps he might change his mind before actually leaving for Oklahoma. After all, he had taken a mulligan once before.
In 2007, Donovan shocked Gator Nation by announcing he had accepted the head coaching job with the Orlando Magic. His NBA coaching tenure lasted all of one day. Just as quickly, he indicated he wanted to go back to the Gators, who welcomed him back with open arms.
When the Thunder fired Scott Brooks after seven seasons, it was a certainty they would be looking hard for the right coach. Despite a roster that included three all-stars in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and rim protector Serge Ibaka (E-blocka), OKC missed the playoffs. Injuries had something to do with that.
Enter Donovan, who has led the Thunder to a 40-14 record at the all-star break. Oklahoma City is one of three Western Conference teams with 40 wins at the break, but they understandably are being overshadowed by the record-setting Golden State Warriors and the robotic San Antonio Spurs.
Donovan is only the second rookie coach in NBA history to have 40 wins at the all-star break. Golden State’s Steve Kerr had 42 wins last season.
When the season began, Sports Illustrated listed the pressure on Donovan as 10 on a scale of 10. A coach with that kind of talent is expected to deliver. Last year, Kerr had a lot of talent at Golden State, but was not under similar scrutiny. We saw how that ended.
For his part, Donovan knew what he was getting into.
“The one thing for me, I knew it was a good team, but you have to feel good about it,” he told the Orlando Sentinel before the season. “Happiness inside a job has to do with the people you work with every day.”
He has some pretty impressive people to work with every day.