Tramel: Billy Donovan's contract is up, but expect him to be back with Thunder next season
Sam Presti jumped on a digital press conference Wednesday and broke every negotiating rule in the book. From his Orlando bubble hotel room, Presti unprompted praised the man he’ll soon be talking with about a new contract.
A season that began with many wondering if this would be Donovan’s final fling in Oklahoma City, with many worried that Donovan might be back for a sixth year, will end with many worried that Donovan might not be.
Donovan coached the Thunder to a 40-24 record before the pandemic stopped the world and the NBA season, and OKC resumes in Orlando with a fighting chance to make Disney magic in the Western Conference.
“I’m not usually one for individual awards, but I really think he needs to be heavily considered for coach of the year,” Presti said of Donovan. “He’s done an excellent job.”
Who can argue? The Thunder was picked to be among the dregs of the West. Vegas’ over/under number for OKC victories was somewhere in the low 30s.
On Thanksgiving, the Thunder was 6-11. From that point, OKC is 34-13 and one of the best teams in the NBA.
Donovan is a longshot for coach of the year, only because Toronto’s Nick Nurse lost Kawhi Leonard to free agency and still has the Raptors flying high, at 46-18.
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But Donovan’s coaching chops now are above reproach, back to where they were when he took the Kevin Durant team within a whisker of the 2016 NBA Finals and when he coached the Russell Westbrook-led team to 47 wins the next season.
Presti got specific on his praise of Donovan.
• Consistent consistency; Donovan is the Thunder ideal, the same yesterday, today and forever, win, lose or pandemic.
“My vote's definitely for him, too,” said center Mike Muscala, a Thunder newcomer this season. “Speaking personally, he's let me be myself, and I think I see that with how he coaches the rest of the players. He holds us accountable, but he lets us express ourselves in our best way and our most comfortable way while also holding us accountable as teammates and competitors."
• Keeping the squad fresh and engaged during the four-month shutdown, without overplanning.
• Letting this point guard-heavy team play free and giving newcomers Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lots of slack to impact Thunder culture, while meshing with Dennis Schröder, himself only a year ahead of anchoring in Boomtown.
“Giving them space and freedom. I think he’s done a good job being creative with the ballhandlers we have and how to put those guys together,” Presti said. “I think he’s been consistent every single day, as he has been in the past.
“Tactically, he’s a good problem-solver. Presented with some unique players and things of that nature, he got to know them pretty quickly. Really learning Chris’ game, figuring out how to put him into position to be successful.
• Finding new talents to develop in the veteran players Donovan long has coached.
“One other thing that’s really tricky,” Presti said. “When you have a player like Steven Adams, who’ve you had for so long, it’s hard to reimagine that player. But Steven Adams is demonstrating, he’s a fantastic passer. You can put the ball in his hands and he can make pretty good decisions. That’s a hard thing to do, to see players you’ve had and see them in a different light. But I think that’s one of Billy’s strengths.”
Donovan’s five-year contract ends after this season. He’s been amply rewarded -- $6 million a season, according to most reports. That’s what it took to pull Donovan away from the University of Florida.
Donovan is like Presti; both are coy about the future, saying glowing things about the other party without committing.
Presti said Wednesday the condensed off-season – the NBA Finals are scheduled to end in October, with next season starting in December – won’t change his gameplan. Presti said he won’t discuss a new Donovan contract while in Orlando.
“Our hope is that we will have those conversations when the year is over,” Presti said. “Nothing’s changed with that. We’ve always been ones to kind of take care of the things that are in front of us. Then when we get to the end of the year, we’ll sit down and figure out what’s best for him, what’s best for us.”
The negotiations figure to be different, courtesy of the pandemic. The NBA’s financial future is in flux. Revenues will be down for this season and almost surely will be down for next season.
But five years ago, Donovan seemed discontent with the trend of college basketball, the scandal-marred recruiting that is a constant part of the game. Nothing has changed there.
And the same revenue problems that afflict the NBA have fallen upon universities even moreso. It seems quite unlikely that a college could make a run at Donovan that would cause him to consider returning to the campus sport.
Could Donovan find a better job in the NBA? Maybe. Could the Thunder find a better coach? Maybe.
But it’s most likely that Donovan has a job he enjoys and the Thunder has a coach it likes, and the money can be worked out, since both parties are reasonable and understand the financial realities.
Expect Donovan to be back next season, without a coach of the year plaque but with a franchise that believes the award should be his.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.