Billy Donovan listened to every pitch a year ago – the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Detroit Pistons – and forever found a reason to turn jobs down. From rosters to geography to ownership styles, Donovan passed with an understanding that Oklahoma City loomed in the distance.
Donovan never yearned to run an organization, learning the lessons of his coaching mentor, Rick Pitino, that sometimes less is more. He wanted to win, and wanted a general manager he could trust with personnel decisions and deal-making. For years, Billy Donovan and Sam Presti were magnets pulling closer and closer, until reaching a deal that sources said is worth $30 million over five years.
"I think his relationship with Sam had a lot to do with it," says an NBA coach with close ties to Donovan. "And, obviously, a chance to have immediate success."
Around Scott Brooks, there's a belief that he never had a chance this year, that Presti was always planning to replace him with one of two college coaches that he studied closest.
Connecticut's Kevin Ollie had negotiated too enormous of a buyout into his contract – $5 million – and that was a non-starter for the Thunder. Ollie had a unique history and connection with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but Donovan has a longer, sturdier coaching pedigree.
Several NBA coaches who know Donovan well believe he has the perfect blend of acumen and humility to make the transition to the pros. Pitino had two fatal flaws in his doomed run as emperor of the Boston Celtics: He was too impulsive with personnel decisions; and too vain to accept that the players are the stars.
NBA coaching is increasingly technical and data-driven and management wants to construct strategies and styles around the percentages. Nevertheless, this is still a job of leading men too. Donovan bridges both components, and it's why NBA teams have come again and again for him.
When Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic job in 2007 – only to bail 24 hours later – there was a gulf between NBA and NCAA salaries. Orlando hired him for $5 million a year, a salary level that few, if any, college coaches had reached. The Magic wanted the Florida Gators coach to sell the franchise, but he still wasn't over his campus life and college celebrity.
"I really think that he was afraid," a source involved in the Orlando hiring process told Yahoo Sports. "Coaches were replaced so quickly in the NBA then."
Now, the leap to the NBA is far less appealing for college coaches, largely because the pay discrepancy between NBA and college coaches has not only dissipated, but tilted toward the NCAA. Never mind the pay of the elite college coaches – the Kryzyzewskis, Pitinos, Caliparis – that is in the $6 million-$8 million annual range, coaches several tiers down get handed $2-million-a-year deals like cotton candy. Memphis' Josh Pastner makes $2.65 million a year, and that says so much about the marketplace in a world where recruiting is valued above everything else.
The Missouri Valley Conference has a school, Wichita State, paying its coach, Gregg Marshall, $3.3 million a season. That's a mid-major conference paying more than most coaches who advanced to the NBA playoffs this year, including the Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors and more.
As much as anything, college coaches leap to the NBA to escape the recruiting cesspool, which is part of Donovan's motivation. As contracts become shorter in the NBA, players are cycling through free agency with greater frequency. Organizations have to sell themselves to an increasingly large pool of midlevel talent that is getting offered similar money everywhere, and the chance to prosper with a particular coach can factor into choices.
Presti is hiring Donovan for his presence and leadership, a tough, but empathetic style that leans far closer to strong-willed than maniacal. Donovan's strength is on the offensive end, and now coach and GM search together for a defensive coordinator with strong schemes and a system that makes stops.
Donovan used to tell his new assistants at Florida: If you want to make an impact here, do it coaching defense. Donovan always leans on Jeff Van Gundy for advice, and Van Gundy's coaching tree – including Tom Thibodeau and Steve Clifford – has produced the best defensive minds in the NBA.
In the end, Presti considered Brooks as a guiding hand to get a franchise into contention, but there was always a sense he believed that someone else would be needed to get them over the championship threshold. Thunder officials rushed Durant onto a conference call with media on Thursday, letting him endorse the hiring. In some ways, this was Oklahoma City's way of starting to return the team to Durant, and so begins the push and pull of Donovan's most important job next season: managing the Durant-Westbrook partnership – which will be more fragile than ever with free agency looming.
Billy Donovan has always wanted the NBA, and he gets it all now: big talent, big money and big expectations. He gets a 60-win team, a championship contender and one season to bring it together before Durant can leave, and Westbrook can push for a trade to a preferred destination. Welcome to the NBA, Billy Donovan. This time, there's no turning back.
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