It’s a big gamble: Replace a coach the players like and respect, then tell the new guy to modernize the team’s offense, and turn team into a contender in his first season on an NBA bench.
It’s exactly what is being asked of Billy Donovan in Oklahoma City, where he was hired on Thursday after 19 years as the coach of Florida.
It’s also what was asked of Steve Kerr this past season in Golden State — and he had Jay-Z level success. The Warriors made the leap under Kerr, winning 67 regular season games (in a crazy deep Western Conference) and becoming title favorites.
Kerr has laid out a blueprint that Donovan can follow this summer and into next season to bring the same success to the Midwest. Donovan has been handed the keys to a Ferrari — healthy this team is a serious title contender — but crash the car and Kevin Durant likely bolts next summer in free agency. Then Russell Westbrook follows him a year later.
We need to start here: This hire was not some massive reach by Thunder GM Sam Presti. He was not pulling a coach from obscurity — this is a guy a number of NBA teams have eyed for years (including the Magic, who thought they had him as their coach until Donovan backed out last minute years ago). Donovan’s former players such as Bradley Beal, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, and Joakim Noah sang his praises and have said they know he can succeed at the next level.
“Billy Donovan is a fantastic coach, and one that probably doesn’t get enough credit for just how good he is,” Rob Dauster, the main man at our sister site CollegeBasketballTalk, told PBT. “Everyone knows about the back-to-back national titles that he won, but I’d argue that the best coaching performance of his collegiate career came back in the 2013-14 season. Florida went 36-3 that season, running roughshod over the SEC and reaching the Final Four with a roster that didn’t feature one NBA player on it.”
The first step in the Steve Kerr blueprint: Hire top-flight NBA assistants.
Get guys with experience, guys whose strengths are Donovan’s weaknesses. Kerr and the Warriors opened the checkbook to poach Alvin Gentry away from Doc Rivers and the Clippers — he was the best offensive mind among the assistant coaches out there. Donovan needs some guys who can show him where the potholes are, who can ease his transition to the next level.
Next step: Meet with the players on the roster during the summer and start to form a relationship.
Donovan may have left college, but he is still recruiting (primarily keeping Durant in OKC). Donovan can’t win his new players all the way over in one meeting, but he can start to build the foundation he will need come the season. Of course, sit down with Durant and Westbrook first. But Kerr flew to Australia to meet with Andrew Bogut and took the time to get to know everyone on the roster. Donovan needs to meet with everyone – and when he does he needs to have a vision and a plan. Kerr was specific, for example he told Harrison Barnes he wanted him to work off the ball more not be the sixth man asked to create for everyone (something Barnes welcomed with open arms). Donovan can’t walk in and make vague promises — he must tell his players exactly how he wants to use them and why this will be good for them and the team.
Third step: modernize the offense.
This is one of the things Presti wanted most of all, what he thought was holding back the Thunder was Brooks’ conventional offense. It was predictable and too often devolved into a Durant or Westbrook isolation (which worked because they are Durant and Westbrook but was not ideal). Presti wants an offense more like we have seen in San Antonio and Golden State.
“The thing that makes him so appealing from an NBA perspective is that his coaching style will fit in well at the professional level,” CollegeBasketballTalk’s Dauster said. “At Florida, he ran a ball-screen motion offense built around floor-spacing, which are offensive concepts that are quite prevalent in the NBA. Not all college coaches will fit in well at the professional level. Donovan will.”
Final step: Keep working toward the big picture.
The finish line is not when the season tips off, even though it’s going to take a lot of work to get there. A hot November is great but can be fool’s gold. Be committed to the process, be open to the suggestions of his assistant coaches and players, tweak things as needed, but always stay focused on the goal of being a team hitting its stride as the playoffs start.
Do all that, and he’ll still need some breaks to go his way — that is life in the NBA. Health is at the top of his wish list.
Do all that and he’ll have a chance to win big — and with that keep Durant in Oklahoma City in 2016.
Which is the real reason he was hired.