Chicago Bulls head coach Billy Donovan spent 19 years coaching the Florida Gators before jumping to the NBA in 2015 and joining the Oklahoma City Thunder. During an appearance on Miami Heat icon Udonis Haslem‘s ‘The OGs’ podcast, Donovan revealed how Durant and Westbrook showed him that the NBA is an altogether different animal compared to college basketball.
Despite spending two decades as a coach, he was quickly and inadvertently humbled by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook before his first game in charge, in the NBA. He said,
“We are playing the San Antonio [Spurs], and I’m walking out there for a shootaround on the day of the game. And I had to come to the realization that Kevin Durant knows a lot more about guarding Kawhi Leonard than I could ever tell him. And Russell Westbrook knows a lot more about guarding Tony Parker than I could ever tell him.”
Donovan explained that he realized he was far below tactically. Instead of spending time instilling his philosophy, he had to catch up to Durant and Westbrook’s level of game awareness before coaching them to play how he envisioned. Donovan credited OKC’s superstar duo for exercising patience with their rookie head coach and guiding him when he needed it.
Despite feeling out of place, Donovan guided OKC to a win over the San Antonio Spurs in his first game as the team’s head coach. Westbrook scored 33 points and dished 10 assists, while Durant scored 22 points and grabbed six rebounds.
OKC enjoyed a tremendous regular season with Donovan at the helm. They finished the regular season as the third seed in the West with a 55-27 record. He took the team to the WC Finals, where they faced season-ending defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Evidently, Donovan was a fast learner and quickly understood the assignment.
Kevin Durant’s betrayal amid OKC’s magical run
In the playoffs, Donovan’s OKC dispatched the Dallas Mavericks in the first round in five games and set up a semifinal series against the Spurs. They were down 2-1 in the series but rallied to win three straight games to set up a Western Conference Finals showdown against defending champions, the Golden State Warriors.
OKC shocked the Warriors by taking a 3-1 lead in the series. OKC stood on the doorstep of the NBA Finals, but that’s when Donovan’s lack of experience cost the team. They lost Game 5 in Oakland when they had the chance to seal the deal at home. However, Klay Thompson‘s 41-point performance and Stephen Curry‘s dagger three-pointer from way beyond the arc forced a Game 7, where the Thunders had their second-worst offensive performance of the playoffs.
In the offseason, Durant shocked the world and joined the Warriors, leaving Westbrook, Donovan, and the team pondering what could have been.
While Donovan credited Durant for helping him acclimatize to the NBA, the former MVP wasn’t a fan of the former Florida Gators head coach. In 2017, Durant accidentally admitted on X (formerly Twitter) that he did not enjoy playing under Donovan. He meant to post it from his burner account but forgot to switch. He wrote,
“He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan. His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and Russ. Imagine taking russ off that team, see how bad they were. KD can’t win a championship with those cats.”
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Durant’s posts made him public enemy #1. He received a lot of flak for quitting on OKC and joining the 73-win Warriors team. And the accidental post tarnished his reputation further. Donovan remained with OKC until 2020 before joining the Chicago Bulls. Now a seasoned coach, he’s hoping to replicate the magic of his rookie season and go two steps further and hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.