clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tuesday Thoughts: On Billy Donovan's future, Florida, and the lure of the NBA

Florida's best coach ever will always have chances to leave Gainesville. But will he ever take one?

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For Billy Donovan, Florida's 2014-15 season had to be the most frustrating year of work of his professional life.

One year after setting a program record for wins and winning percentage, running off a 30-game winning streak, and going more than three months between losses to eventual national champion UConn in December and at the Final Four, Donovan's Gators went 16-17 — about as dramatic a drop-off as an elite program has ever had.

One year after having four four-year senior starters — unheard of in major college basketball — and seeing his trust in and teaching of them rewarded time after time, Donovan had a more fractured, less connected roster of players — ones he lamented never quite being able to convince to play as a team in his last press conference of the season, saying "They never really wanted to deal with the truth," and calling them "delusional." ("As a head coach," Donovan said, "I really fell short.")

One year after dealing with a relatively drama-free season, at least after suspensions and maladies hampered the Gators in November, Donovan seemingly had to change lineups for every game, for a host of reasons: Florida used five different starting lineups in its first five games, and 14 over in the 33 games of the season, and never used a single starting lineup for more than five consecutive games. (And that five-man unit — Kasey Hill, Eli Carter, Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Jon Horford — went 2-3 over those five games, with two one-point wins.)

This was an arduous season, a waking nightmare of a year, and it came after about as satisfying a campaign as a team could ever have without a national title. The 2013-14 Gators set the gold standard for overachieving; the 2014-15 may have set the bar for underachieving equally high.

For those reasons, I think that Donovan's going to listen more intently to NBA suitors than he has in the past, as ESPN's Marc Stein alluded to earlier this month:

There is a growing sense in NBA coaching circles that Florida's Billy Donovan will give renewed consideration to making a move to the pros after a rough (by his standards) season in Gainesville. Although there is no firm indication yet that the Orlando Magic will pursue Donovan again when they ramp up their coaching search in late April, it's a scenario that's bound to be talked about.

The Miami Herald's Jesse Simonton tweeted he "would not be shocked" if Florida's loss to Kentucky were Donovan's last game as the Gators' coach. And Adam Silverstein of Only Gators noted that Jalen Rose had explicitly connected Donovan to that Magic job — the one he once took, before returning to Florida — in his excellent look at Donovan's future last week. It doesn't take any insight at all, really, to suggest Donovan might want to try the NBA.

Truthfully, I wouldn't be "shocked," either.

Donovan has done just about everything there is to do at Florida, and in college basketball. He's won two national championships — and consecutively, something no coach other than Mike Krzyzewski has done since the early 1960s. He's won 500 games, and earlier in his career than anyone other than Bob Knight. He came to Florida when it was a program with significant potential and made it a perennial power, stringing together the sixth-longest streak of 20-win seasons in the history of the sport. Former Florida president Bernie Machen wasn't kidding when he said last year that "We're going to honor (Donovan) in some way," and that a reporter was "damn right" that there should be a Billy Donovan Court, and there's no indication new Florida president Kent Fuchs is of a different mind.

But the long-awaited renovation of the Stephen C O'Connell Center that would have paved the way for such a honor in the fall of 2015 has been pushed back a year. And even though the delay seems to be due to contractor error rather than any failing on Florida's end, it has to be frustrating for Donovan that Florida won't be opening The House That Billy Built when it told the world it would.

Plus, though I have no question that Donovan is a far better man than I am, I don't think even he could help but be miffed by Jim McElwain's football program getting a $15 million indoor practice facility before even playing in a spring game — in part because the O'Dome was going to be renovated, $10 million basketball practice facility and the renovations done to it ($1.8 million) and the O'Dome ($3.4 million) have in total.

Investing $60 million — revised upward from $50 million — in the O'Connell Center is the most significant capital upgrade Florida's athletic department could make for its men's basketball program (and for its volleyball and women's basketball programs, too), certainly. But it took seven years and another Final Four after arguably the greatest accomplishment in the modern history of college basketball for that to be formally put into motion for Donovan — and he's going to have to wait yet another year for it to become a reality, while McElwain had to wait three months, and his major accomplishments at Florida are "closing well on a relatively terrible recruiting class" and "not being Will Muschamp."

Again: I would not blame Billy Donovan for being exasperated by his current situation.

But there's a difference between exasperation that can pass with time, and exasperation that would lead me to expect Donovan to leave Florida, and I think what Donovan has felt of late is more like the former.

The Gators will be better next year: Donovan's recruiting has covered for the holes that were on the 2014-15 roster, and there's basically no way Florida can be that "unlucky" on the court again, so much of the frustration of coaching a "bad" team as well as he could and getting piddling results should recede. (With the insurpassable memory of that 2013-14 team a year further away, even a season with typical struggles might not seem so bad, relatively speaking.) Florida does, now, have a solid timetable for the renovation of the O'Dome, and the court's still likely to bear his name someday. And the pressure to follow up a Final Four is gone, so Donovan's Gators can feel free to play without at least some of the weight of expectations that seemed to wear on this team.

Also, uh: Where is he going to go?

One thing I feel confident about: Donovan's not fleeing Florida for another college program. The Kentucky job, unquestionably the one with the highest ceiling in the sport (as Donovan, whose struggles against John Calipari's juggernaut, could attest) is one of a select few college jobs, none currently open (Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina would seem pretty set with their coaches!), that would represent a definite upgrade from Florida ... and Donovan's turned it down twice, despite being Rick Pitino's point guard at Providence, and his understudy in Lexington.

The open jobs aren't on the same level: Talk of Donovan heading to Indiana is so ludicrous it's laughable (Donovan has been to twice as many Final Fours and won twice as many national titles as Knight did in the post-seeding era of the NCAA Tournament; Indiana has been to one Final Four since 1992, while Florida has been to five), and while Texas has a lot of things to recommend it, and Steve Patterson might want Donovan, it would make very, very little sense for Donovan to leave longtime friend and boss Foley for the more, er, prickly Patterson. (Donovan's passed on lesser jobs before, too.)

Florida, as it exists under Donovan, is a program that stands with the elites of the present day, and though it cannot match the history of the true blue-bloods, Donovan's proven that the deficit in history need not be an impediment to competing at a high level. And with Foley behind him, Donovan knows that he'll have superb support in his quest to keep Florida in championship contention.

Leaving Florida for another job in college basketball simply doesn't make sense for Donovan.

So that leaves the NBA, a level that Donovan has been open about aspiring to, even after reneging on his deal to head up the Magic in 2007.

The New York Knicks have long fit the imagined criteria for Donovan's dream job — he did grow up on Long Island, as his voice still attests, and he was a Knicks point guard for one year. But Donovan's nowhere near Phil Jackson's inner circle, which likely leaves him out of the pool of potential near-term Knicks coaches, and I doubt he'd ever want to cede as much control to Jackson as every Knicks coach of Jackson's tenure as the team's president will. (Donovan, in fact, would probably want a role much more like Jackson's, with significant authority beyond mere coaching duties, than the one Derek Fisher has as Knicks coach.)

It's been no secret, especially in the last year, that the Oklahoma City Thunder have been intrigued by and admirers of Donovan, and there would seem to be no better fit for Donovan in the NBA than a team that runs itself like a college program for adult players, or one that snagged two Donovan assistants last year. But Oklahoma City is a long way from the life Donovan has built in Gainesville, one that now includes close proximity to his beloved father, and the St. Francis Catholic High School that Donovan helped bring into existence — a school he will might have a child at for four more years, given that youngest daughter Connor will be a high school freshman next fall.

In Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City also employs a coach who is beloved by his players, and has never lost them despite regular doses of criticism from national pundits. Brooks hasn't been fired yet, despite years of whispers that he hamstrings the Thunder, and there's probably good reason for that.

Perhaps most importantly, Oklahoma City's once-unbeatable foundation — Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Russell Westbrook — has eroded, and now consists of an injured Durant entering the final year of his contract, Ibaka, and the increasingly tempestuous Westbrook. The Thunder roster is still among the top 10 in the NBA, when healthy, and arguably within the top five, but it's not a lock to contend for championships year after year like it once was.

That issue of player quality is why I'd also be very surprised by a return to the Magic. Donovan was going to be able to stay close to his family when he took the job in 2007 — when son Billy Donovan III, who will graduate from Florida this spring, was still in high school — and would still be able to do the same in 2015. But the Magic's best player then was a young, hale Dwight Howard, and it was a promising roster outside of Howard; Stan Van Gundy would take Orlando to the NBA Finals just two years later, and though Van Gundy is an excellent coach in his own right, I suspect Donovan could have had similar success, had he managed Howard correctly.

The Magic's current roster doesn't have a player without shouting distance of Howard's potential then, just a bizarre constellation of young talent (Aaron Gordon, Mo Harkless, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic) and past-their-prime role players (Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour). Add a superstar to that mix, and the Magic might have something — but does Donovan want to premise his first, best shot at the NBA on the chance of that scenario becoming reality?

Donovan would be a strong candidate for nearly any NBA team because he's a fantastic coach, and likely destined for the Basketball Hall of Fame before his career is done. That's never going to change, though — and neither will Donovan's baseline level of interest in the NBA, nor his philosophy of hearing out opportunities, instead of refusing them out of fealty to Florida.

What will change? Donovan's level of satisfaction with Florida, and the quality of opportunity before him. Had Donovan won a national title last season, and seen a plum NBA job come open, I would have been utterly unsurprised by him concluding that he'd conquered the current level of his profession, and needed to move on. Donovan's frustrations with the 2014-15 season could yet linger into an offseason that might afford him NBA opportuinities, but I don't see a landing spot that makes so much sense that he would be a fool not to make the jump.

This cycle will repeat itself as time goes on, and this isn't the first or last word written on whether Donovan's future will feature Florida. Donovan and Florida are locked into an eternal dance that the Gators will happily continue until there's no more in Donovan's legs. All the Gators — Jeremy Foley, mostly — can do is strive to be Donovan's best possible partner, whether by renovating the O'Dome or other means.

I won't rule out the possibility that Billy Donovan will leave Florida for the NBA — he's done it before, and even if he got cold feet, he more than got the Magic to the dance floor back then.

But Donovan's also chosen to be the head coach at Florida over all other positions many, many more times than he's chosen something else. And I'll never be surprised to see him trying to make his Gators dance.