Thunder coach Billy Donovan opened his NBA run with a trip to the conference finals in 2016, when Oklahoma City nearly knocked off the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Three straight first-round exits followed. His roster has a different look this season, led by Chris Paul, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.
Seeded fourth, they earned a matchup against the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook, whom they worked with to find a new home last summer once Paul George declared his intent to head to the LA Clippers. Upsetting one of this era’s top contenders would provide a cap to the comeback season and provide further evidence that Donovan’s place among the coaching elite has been well earned.
The journey started on Long Island. Son of Bill Donovan Sr. and Joan Donovan, the younger Billy came from strong basketball stock – his father is a member of the Boston College Varsity Club Athletic Hall of Fame (2000). The elder Donovan became the school’s fourth 1,000-point scorer after serving as a three-year starter (1958-62) and senior captain, known for his long-range shooting. Later returning to his native Long Island, Bill Donovan raised his family in Nassau County’s Rockville Center.
Followed in the footsteps … at first. Billy played at St. Agnes High School, just like his father, but opted to play college ball at Providence for Joseph Mullaney. A sharpshooting 6-foot-2 guard known as “Billy the Kid”, he helped lead the Friars from 8th in the Big East as a Freshman (1983-84) to the NCAA Tournament men’s basketball Final Four as a No. 6 seed during his senior year (1986-87), aided by a coaching change to Rick Pitino midway through. A failed transfer request resulted in Pitino challenging Donovan to improve his conditioning and Donovan averaged 20.6 ppg (43.5 FG%) as a senior, earning recognition on the All-Big East First Team.
On to the NBA, briefly. Donovan was drafted by the Utah Jazz in the third round (No. 68 overall), but was waived just before the season started. Fortuitously, Pitino was now head coach of the New York Knicks, and signed Donovan a month later. The reunion lasted through March, with Donovan averaging 2.4 points and 2.0 assists in 8.3 minutes across 44 games.
No suit on the street, so he hit the hardwood. Donovan briefly worked on Wall Street before turning again to Pitino, who took him on as a graduate assistant at Kentucky. That soon flipped into an assistant coaching position. And just a few years later, he became the youngest head coach in Division-I at 28 years old, taking the gig at Marshall University.
A quick turnaround and a first prospect. Racking up a 35-20 record and a regular-season Southern Conference championship, Donovan quickly positioned the Thundering Herd – and himself – for future success. He coached Jason Williams (“White Chocolate”) and when Florida tapped Donovan for an SEC return, the flashy point guard followed along, later becoming the No. 7 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
The build toward dynasty begins. Taking over a team that had finished 12-16 (5th, SEC East), Donovan ground out the first two middling seasons before a breakthrough third in 1998-99, when the Gators went 22-9 and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen as a No. 6 seed. That team was led by a pair of freshmen who went on to impressively long – and overlapping – championship-level NBA careers: Heat lifer Udonis Haslem and 3-point bomber Mike Miller. They reached the championship game a year later, only to be defeated by Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson’s Michigan State. That notably made Donovan one of a select few to play and coach in a Final Four.
A lull, and then that back-to-back. The next four seasons all stalled out inside the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament, but in 2005-06 Donovan’s sophomore class – an impressive collection of future NBA talent – marauded through the opposition as a No. 3 seed, winning the title over a UCLA team with six future NBA players. Yes, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green not only came to party, they all came back, for a 35-5 encore that again ended victorious, this time over Ohio State, which rolled out future No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook.
Donovan pump-fakes Orlando. Coming off the title, Donovan agreed to take over the NBA’s Orlando Magic, but didn’t make it through a week before realizing he wanted to return to Florida. He did, stayed nine more seasons, made another Final Four (2014) and joined Bobby Knight as the only coaches to win 500 games before they turned 50. The Magic, meanwhile, turned to Stan Van Gundy and ripped off five straight playoff appearances, peaking with a loss to the Lakers during the 2009 NBA Finals.
Hearing Thunder rumble. With Scott Brooks out in Oklahoma City, Donovan was offered the chance to push the Thunder toward that elusive championship out West in 2015. He accepted, taking over a squad that included Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, quickly acclimating to the NBA challenge and leading that team to 55 wins and a seven-game conference final challenge that stands as perhaps the toughest test Golden State received during its run of five straight Finals appearances.
Turmoil, and then one more turnaround. Kevin Durant left for the Warriors. Russ was unleashed as an MVP-winning, triple-double machine. Paul George arrived, and then was waved off the stage. After three straight first-round exits, it seemed Donovan’s success had stalled. But when George’s exit ended with Russ in Houston as well as a boatload of picks, Paul, a potential future star (Gilgeous-Alexander) and several depth pieces headed to OKC, Donovan went to work. An invested CP3 and a rebooted offense lifted the Thunder to the top half of the Western Conference, and reminded everyone why Donovan was brought in from a comfortable college situation. Doubting any future NBA success comes at your own risk.