CHICAGO – Billy Donovan qualifies as the luckiest, unluckiest rookie coach in the NBA. He also, by the way, has to save a franchise.
Donovan is the former University of Florida coach who led his team to consecutive NCAA titles and then in the spring of 2007 immediately afterward accepted a five-year $27.5 million contract to coach the Orlando Magic.
About a day later after a celebratory news conference with the Magic where staff gave him a standing ovation, Donovan changed his mind and asked to be released from his already signed contract to return to the Florida.
Supposedly, Donovan’s family got the cold feet about leaving the secure grounds of a college campus, and especially just after Donovan’s triumph that made them campus icons. Donovan apparently got outvoted at home.
He’s never said anything more than he simply had a change of heart. Of course, it’s often said home is where the heart is.
So who in coaching college pulls a stunt like that and not only gets another NBA job, but one of the best in the NBA with two of the top players in the league in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?
And a raise with a five-year $30 million contract?
Pretty lucky guy.
Now Billy, you better win, and win big. Because if you don’t free agent Durant might leave and begin the franchise’s march to competitive oblivion with Westbrook a free agent in the summer of 2017.
Good luck, Billy.
That’s the story in sleepy Oklahoma City where one of the most lively NBA dramas takes place.
Scott Brooks had one of the NBA’s most successful runs as Thunder coach the last seven seasons, a 338-207 record with three conference finals appearances and a loss to the Miami Heat and LeBron James in the 2012 finals.
But seven years also is a career for most NBA coaches. Or a stop to it.
Phil Jackson actually was talked out of leaving the Chicago Bulls after their 72-10 season in 1995-96 because his contract expired and he had timed it to a seventh season.
Jackson believed players tire of a coach’s voice after that time. Some Bulls players actually ended up going to Jackson’s home to persuade him to re-up for another year, which he did twice and then left after the sixth title in 1998.
So it was a natural coaching lifespan for Brooks in some respects. But it also was a gamble and a mandate.
Durant had played only 27 games in the 2014-15 season after multiple foot surgeries. Westbrook was spectacular in his absence in leading the league in triple-doubles. But the Thunder missed the playoffs.
Hardly the fault of Brooks given the competition in the Western Conference and the injuries, which included Serge Ibaka’s absence.
But general manager Sam Presti had been cooling on Brooks.
Many viewed the Thunder’s fatal flaw as Durant and Westbrook. Certainly not their talent, but their almost mutually exclusive play as if they were taking turns on offense and basically not letting the other kids play.
Presti’s belief was that Brooks had become too close to the duo to properly coach them anymore and develop the team’s depth to get past competitors like the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers.
Presti is an out-of-the-box thinking young executive, one of the NBA’s best, who built the Thunder with clever draft picks. Though he made the disastrous trade and lost James Harden in an ownership-inspired financial move.
But now with Durant, the franchise star, approaching free agency and many around the NBA convinced he will leave unless the Thunder win a title or return to the finals, Presti felt it not only was time to make the move but perhaps even too late.
Presti had long identified Brad Stevens of little Butler University in Indianapolis as a pro coaching gem. But Presti waited too long with the Thunder doing well and the Celtics scooped up Stevens.
Presti reportedly was kicking himself about losing Stevens, the new model of NBA coaches, young, energetic and more relatable to the kids.
So Presti went to Donovan, a popular collegiate coach with many supporters among NBA players who played for him, like Chicago’s Joakim Noah on the two championship teams.
But it’s been an uncertain start as Durant and Westbrook have continued to dominate the Thunder’s game as they split their first six contests before winning easily Sunday over Phoenix.
The Thunder were then headed to Washington, where Durant is from and many speculate he could opt to return as a free agent to not only get out of the tougher Western Conference, but finally break the cord with Westbrook.
They are not adversaries as many suggest. But the belief is Durant wants to separate his game. And playing with a passing point guard like John Wall and a spot-up shooter like Bradley Beal may be a better fit.
The Wizards elected not to extend Beal’s contract last month so they supposedly could retain salary cap room if Durant wants to go there. They could match any offer for Beal.
So enjoy, Billy.
Central Florida may not look too bad again before long.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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