Thunder Hire Billy Donovan As Head Coach

The Oklahoma City Thunder are reportedly set to announce that they have come to an agreement to terms that would make University of Florida head man Billy Donovan the franchise’s new head coach. A report from News 9 in Oklahoma City confirms the long-expected deal between Donovan and the Thunder, who fired former coach Scott Brooks last week.

Donovan, 49, had been widely regarded as the clear favorite to succeed Brooks within NBA coaching circles, especially after fellow top candidate and current UConn head coach and former Thunder player Kevin Ollie publicly stated his intention to remain in Connecticut last week. He has a long-standing close relationship with Thunder GM Sam Presti, who has hired two members of Donovan’s staff at Florida within the past year to take positions with Oklahoma City — Mark Daigneault as coach of the Thunder’s D-League team and Oliver Winterbone as a data analyst.

billy donovan thunder coach
Donovan with the 2007 NCAA champion Florida Gators.

Donovan has been at Florida since 1996, compiling a 467-186 record, reaching three Final Fours and winning national championships in 2006 and 2007, enjoying 16 straight 20-win seasons between 1998 and 2014. Donovan actually left Florida for the Orlando Magic head-coaching job in June of 2007, but backed out of the deal the following day and returned as coach of the Gators, where he later became the school’s all-time winningest coach.

Florida went 16-17 in 2015, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, but Donovan recently agreed to a contract extension earlier in April that would’ve paid him close to $4 million per season through 2020. The contract also contained a buyout for $500,000 if an NBA opportunity arose.

Prior to coaching at Florida, Donovan was an All-Big East point guard at Providence under the tutelage of Rick Pitino, and enjoyed a brief NBA playing career as a point guard with the New York Knicks in 1987-88. He would later become an assistant at the University of Kentucky under Pitino from 1989-1994, where he remained until being named the head coach of Marshall prior to the 1994-95 season. Donovan, just 28 at the time, was the youngerst men’s basketball head coach in NCAA Division I. He would go on to accumulate a 35-20 record over two seasons as coach of the Thundering Herd before leaving for Florida.

Pitino had recently confirmed in an interview with ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike on April 2 ‎that Donovan ‎”has an urge to coach in the NBA — a strong desire to coach in the NBA — and would like to try it, very similar to (former Butler coach) Brad Stevens, who is doing a wonderful job with the Celtics.”

billy donovan noah
Donovan coaching Joakim Noah during a game in 2006. (Photo: Doug Pensinger – Getty Images)

Donovan has coached many players who have gone on to have success in the NBA, with Corey Brewer, Udonis Haslem, Joakim Noah, Mike Miller, Chandler Parsons, Marreese Speights, Al Horford, and Bradley Beal among the more notable. Beal stated on April 17 during an interview on NBC Radio’s Dan Patrick Show that he believed Donovan would leave Florida for the NBA this offseason.

Donovan turned down offers to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves a year ago.

Prior to being fired by the Thunder, Brooks compiled a 338-207 record during his seven seasons, making five playoff appearances and reaching the NBA Finals in 2012. Presti described the move at the time as “not a reflection of this past season, but rather an assessment of what we feel is necessary at this point in time in order to continually evolve, progress and sustain. We determined that, in order to stimulate progress and put ourselves in the best position next season and as we looked to the future, a transition of this kind was necessary for the program.”

Donovan will be expected to stimulate that progress immediately next season with a roster many believe is capable of reaching the NBA Finals when healthy. 2014 MVP Kevin Durant, 2015 Scoring Champion Russell Westbrook, and team defensive leader Serge Ibaka missed a combined 88 games during the 2014-15 season, but should all be fully healthy by the time training camp begins in the fall.

According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Donovan had an interest prior to his hiring in trying to speak to the Thunder’s key players, including Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, before accepting the job, but it was unclear if the request was facilitated for him.

Wojnarowski also maintained that Presti hasn’t conferred with his top players, nor their agents during the hiring process.

Durant reportedly reached out to multiple former University of Florida players in the NBA to gain insight into Donovan, and became “generally positive” about the hiring prior to an official announcement.

About Kurt Freudenberger

Kurt Freudenberger is a writer, musician, and lifelong sports fan currently residing in the heartland of America.

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