Billy Donovan Under Enormous Pressure to Immediately Thrive with OKC Thunder

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIMay 8, 2015

Billy Donovan, newly named head coach of the NBA basketball Oklahoma City Thunder, listens to a question at a news conference in Oklahoma City, Friday, May 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder took a huge gamble by hiring a coach with no NBA experience in Billy Donovan. Now, the pressure is on Donovan to raise the bar previously set by the departed Scott Brooks. 

Donovan comes to town with impressive college credentials after a 19-year run at the University of Florida. He compiled a combined 502-206 record in the collegiate ranks with Florida and Marshall, leading the Gators to 16 straight 20-win seasons. He also won back-to-back NCAA championships for Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Royce Young @royceyoung

Billy Donovan at 49: 502 wins, 2 national championships, 4 Final Fours Coach K at 49: 473 wins, 2 national championships, 7 Final Fours

In addition to Donovan's accolades, former assistant and current Texas coach Shaka Smart described Donovan as a smart, offensive innovator and a great communicator who specializes in building relationships with his players, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman

He's got a great, great offensive mind...He’s really, really good at creating perfect spacing for his teams and putting the right players in positions to succeed in pick and roll and isolations with movement...He’s just got an extremely advanced understanding of what goes into winning, I would say more so than anyone else I've ever been around. In addition to that, he’s got a great way of communicating those things to players.

Donovan will need his brilliant brain to help overcome arguably the biggest challenge of his career. The looming "Summer of Durant's Free Agency" transforms this season into a do-or-die campaign for the Thunder, essentially giving Donovan one year to lead OKC to previously-unseen heights. 

Donovan enters a situation that is completely unique for an inexperienced NBA coach. Unlike other rookies such as Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics, Donovan inherits a team with championship aspirations. His success will ultimately be determined both by how the season ends as well as whether or not Durant opts to stick around for more next summer.

Replacing Scott Brooks

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - MARCH 28:  Head Coach Scott Brooks of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game against the Utah Jazz on March 28, 2015 at EnergySolutions Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

The task of replacing Scott Brooks may not be as lofty as taking over for Dean Smith at North Carolina or Phil Jackson with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, but the former Thunder coach left a significant mark that will serve as the standard to which Donovan will constantly be compared. 

While Brooks (perhaps unfairly) took his share of lumps for failing to win a title with a talented roster, he still accrued a 338-207 coaching record (.620 winning percentage), led Oklahoma City to three conference finals and even managed a trip to the Finals in 2012. 

On top of that, Brooks was beloved by his players, as evidenced by the team's "Big Three" coming to his aid when his job was in jeopardy. 

Fortunately, Donovan is aware he has big shoes to fill, per Cliff Brunt of The Associated Press

"Scott Brooks has done an outstanding job while he was here, and I hope I can continue to build off of what he's built," Donovan said. "I know that's very important to the organization."

However, making matters worse for Donovan, he carries the stigma of seemingly being general manager Sam Presti's first and only choice to replace Brooks.

While Presti claims he "cast a wide net" and "looked at lots of people," the fact of the matter is that Donovan was the only man interviewed and he got the job a little over a week after Brooks was dismissed. Donovan's long-standing relationship with Presti likely played a role in his getting the nod as well. 

Presti didn't wait to see how Tom Thibodeau's situation plays out in Chicago. He didn't sit down with other candidates. He was as swift as a hare in his decision to peg Donovan as the new sergeant of the sidelines. That kind of quick thinking will either be a stroke of genius or a costly mistake. 

Oklahoma City will have a new look with Donovan at the helm. In his introductory press conference, he stressed ball and player movement as key points to his offensive approach. As Mayberry points out, that will be a refreshing change from the old regime. 

The Thunder has long been one of the best offensive teams in basketball. But it’s long been clear that OKC’s attack also could benefit from more creativity, more precision and a more methodical approach that boosts efficiency and effectiveness when it matters most.

At the end of the day though, the Donovan-Brooks comparisons will be less about the efficiency on the floor and more about the numbers in the win column. 

Endearing Himself to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK -  FEBRUARY 8: Russell Westbrook #0 and Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on February 8, 2015 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The move to hire Donovan was the first of three critical decisions over the course of the next two years that will shape the future of the Thunder franchise. The second one comes next July, when Durant becomes an unrestricted free agent. Durant's stint on the open market will serve as a precursor to the summer of 2016, when Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka will become available. 

Jeff Goodman @GoodmanESPN

Talked to Kevin Durant last night and he was extremely excited about the Billy Donovan hiring -- said he has met Donovan just once.

With Durant's future being the main storyline entering next season, it was only a matter of time before the Thunder's new boss was peppered with questions about the four-time scoring champion. With KD in attendance, Donovan said all of the right things, per Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman

"Well the first thing is that I want to develop a better relationship with Kevin. I want to get to know him as a person. That's the most important thing to me."

Durant also wanted to know more about Donovan. According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Durant reached out to some of Donovan's former players at Florida and walked away from those conversations feeling "generally positive" about his new coach. 

The news of Donovan's ascension to the NBA ranks also excited ex-Gator and current Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who spoke highly of his college coach on Twitter after news broke of Donovan's hiring. 

Royce Young @royceyoung

Durant on Donovan not having NBA experience: "He knows how to coach a team, that's all that matters."

As for Westbrook, there was a rumor that the star point guard was miffed over not being consulted about Donovan's hiring, which Presti shot down immediately. Slater also tweeted that Donovan spoke to Westbrook over the phone, and had this to say about the fourth-place finisher for this year's MVP:

He's a great player. Has great passion, great heart, great intensity. I want him to be able to be who he is. I think that's what the Thunder organization is about. Just like they're trying to let me be who I am as a coach, I need to let Russell be who he is as a player.

With that being said, how can I help where he can not only be himself but also impact the team in a very positive way. As a great competitor like that, you don't want to take that away from him. It all starts with developing that relationship with him. I want to be able to sit down with Russell, talk to him, communicate with him, see how he's feeling and what's going through his mind.

Donovan's ability to get Durant and Westbrook to buy into what he's selling, both in the short and long terms, will play a huge role in his success as the Thunder coach.

Can he help Westbrook find a balance between when to make others better and when to take over? Can he convince Durant to ignore the outside overtures that await him and finish what he started in Oklahoma City? 

Furthermore, how will the coaching change affect the less-celebrated members of the Thunder squad? Will Andre Roberson maintain his starting shooting guard spot, or will Donovan opt for the more offensive-minded Dion Waiters? Will Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones finally get chances to show what they can do? 

This is where Donovan's inexperience in the pros will be put to the test. Unlike dealing with teenagers and young adults in college, Donovan will have to manage millionaire egos, allocate minutes in a way that keeps everyone happy and make adjustments over the course of an 82-game season that is more than double the length of what he was used to at Florida. 

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 01: Oklahoma City Head Coach Billy Donovan is welcomed to Chesapeake Energy Arena for the first time on May 01, 2015 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Under ideal circumstances, Billy Donovan would be the perfect hire as the new head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He's a brilliant basketball mind with a history of collegiate success and getting the most out of his players. 

Unfortunately, these aren't ideal circumstances. 

Donovan's lack of experience makes putting him in charge of a team with immediate championship aspirations a huge gamble. Kevin Durant's uncertain future as well as the specter of Scott Brooks' previous tenure with the Thunder also make this a daunting task. 

The sand in the hourglass is dwindling between now and July 1, 2016.

We got a glimpse this season of what life in Oklahoma City would be like without KD. Russell Westbrook's elite talents make the Thunder competitive, but Durant's presence elevates the team to a perennial contender. 

If Donovan can't convince Durant to stay, it will be the first step in a series of big-time changes for the Oklahoma City Thunder.