OKC Thunder: Billy Donovan deserved more time with the Thunder

Billy Donovan Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)
Billy Donovan Oklahoma City Thunder (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The OKC Thunder made a major error in letting head coach Billy Donovan walk after five years with the club on Tuesday night.

This summer’s coaching carousel has been unlike any in recent memory, with one coach (Nate McMillan) being let go after a trip to the playoffs and even getting an extension. Another postseason coach is now out, with the OKC Thunder and Billy Donovan parting ways on Tuesday evening.

Donovan was a “lame duck” coach entering the season, with his contract set to expire at the end of the 2019-20 campaign. Still, it would’ve been logical to extend Donovan after arguably his best coaching job during his Thunder tenure.

Oklahoma City advanced to the postseason every year under Donovan, although they only made it past the first round once, a notable blemish on his coaching record. It appeared 2019-20 would finally break the coach’s playoff streak, but the team battled all the way to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference in a season with drastically lowered expectations. After all, the team traded franchise legend Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in the offseason, seemingly kicking off a rebuild ahead of a new era of Thunder basketball.

Donovan managed to push the right buttons each step along the way. The Thunder ranked 27th in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game. No Western Conference playoff team averaged fewer points per game. Oklahoma City finished last in the league in offensive rebounds and third-to-last in the league in assists. And yet: the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.

Fate intervened and the Thunder met the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. Oklahoma City lost the first two games of the series and were destroyed in Game 5, yet were still a couple of plays away from competing against the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, instead of Houston.

There were challenges along the way, to be sure, most notably friction between Donovan and star Kevin Durant, ahead of the latter’s departure. But it never felt like Donovan had a better grip on his roster than this season, making his departure even more shocking.

A rebuild in the cards for the OKC Thunder?

In his report on the coaching change, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski cited the Thunder’s imminent rebuild as a reason for the mutual parting of ways. That doesn’t exactly pass the smell test. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander developed into a star under Donovan’s tutelage. Rookie forward Darius Bazley showed promise with Donovan. Rookie Lu Dort had an unbelievable postseason with Donovan as his coach. Who’s to say he wasn’t the right man to lead the Thunder into the next chapter?

There may be valid reasons why the Thunder felt an extension was untenable. Maybe Donovan didn’t want one. Or maybe he wanted a raise and Oklahoma City didn’t feel comfortable giving it to him, considering his postseason record, not to mention the pandemic and the team’s uncertain future with or without Chris Paul.

Donovan won’t be hurting for work. He’ll immediately become a top candidate for every opening NBA job. He’ll also be a candidate for any college jobs that come open, should a college coach vacate his position for one of the NBA gigs.

A shared future of Billy Donovan with the OKC Thunder felt more hopeful yesterday than a did a year ago. Suddenly, in the dark of a latter summer night, that future has been dashed.

Next. 25 best players to play for the OKC Thunder. dark