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Rosen: Can Billy Donovan Transition to the NBA?

There are five players on each side, the ball is round, and the basket is ten feet above the floorboards, but professional basketball and college basketball are as different as hard-boiled and poached eggs.  For sure, highlighted by back-to-back NCAA championships in 2006 and 2007, Billy Donovan‘s tenure at the University of Florida was impressive. Even so, the adjustments that Donovan must make in moving from Gainesville to Oklahoma City are considerable.

For starters–and despite the agreeable preseason testimonies from several of the Thunder veterans–Donovan will inevitably struggle to gain the total respect of his veteran players.  These guys always know the score and won’t be moved by the boola-boola encouragements, the coaching by fiat, or the easy intimidations that are crucial parts of every college coach’s game plan.

The most important sequence in the Thunder’s entire season just might be the last timeout in the very first down-to-the-wire ball game they play.  As far as the players are concerned, it will be their rookie coach’s abilities that will be on trial, not theirs.  How composed and knowledgeable will he be in the huddle?  What matchups will he go with? What play will he call to win or lose the game?  Will the veterans agree with the choice and be enthusiastic in its execution?   And if the Thunder does lose, how much will the players second guess Donovan?

During any given game, Donovan will also have to make about four times as many decisions on offense and defense than he did in Florida (choosing from about 20 times the available options), and he must make them much quicker.

Moreover, Donovan is going to have to learn a new set of on- and off-court rules—from the NBA’s version of zone defense to deciding whether or not to establish curfews on the road. From learning how to deal with a media greedy for bad news to learning how to motivate so many different personalities. From learning how to talk to (presumably) mature millionaires to learning an entirely new coach-speak vocabulary.

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 07 Florida at Kentucky

The pressure is on for Billy Donovan in the NBA.

No matter how good Donovan’s ideas might be, veteran players are always reluctant to learn new ways of doing the things that they’ve been doing for lo these many years.  Why should they zig instead of zag when zigging has sufficed to make them so rich and famous?   (Much richer and more famous than Donovan.)

The quantum jump in talent level means that Donovan will also have revise his habitual drills and practice sessions. College kids are willing to stand around and listen to their coach’s explanations and pontifications.  But, like livery horses, seasoned pros must be kept in motion to keep them from raising a stink.

Counting the preseason and playoff games, figure OKC’s season to range from 100-to-125 games, while a college campaign lasts for only 30-35 games.   This translates into fewer practice sessions in pro ball and less time for game preparation, which, in turn, increases the importance of execution, concentration and consistency.   The long NBA season also means that even the league’s premier teams will suffer down-times that can last for several weeks. Pacing and prioritizing become critical.  When Jerry West coached the Lakers (1976-79), his pre-game motivational mantra for 82 games was always the same:  “This is the most important game of the season.”  But while this sense of perpetual urgency is unquestionably true for undergraduates, it’s liable to create player burnout in the NBA.

Donovan must also learn that sometimes a team must lose before it can win; that every team will be somewhat sloppy and inexact until roundabout Christmas; that the post All-Star-Game blues can be manically depressive; that the refs will treat him with the same kind of marginal disrespect that they do any other rookie coach. While refs do give a modicum of respect to first-year coaches who have played in the NBA, Donovan’s brief 44-game stint with the Knicks in 1987-88 won’t make the cut.

Bill Fitch, Dick Motta, John MacLeod, and Cotton Fitzsimmons successfully made the boys-to-men transition back when the NBA game was simpler. Credit Fitch and Motta, particularly, with introducing the routine use of game tapes.  (With Cleveland, Fitch even went as far as to dim the lights during halftime intermissions to replay highlights of the first half…    ZZZZZ.)    But the likes of Tim Floyd, Rick Pittino, Jerry Tarkanian, and John Calipari were dismal failures. Moreover, Roy Rubin was the worst coach in NBA history.

APR 22 Thunder at Lakers

How will Donovan manage the relationship between Durant and Westbrook?

Some may point to the Olympic gold medal teams coached by Mike Krzyzewski as proof that NBA players can willingly respond to the ministrations of a successful NCAA coach. But Coach K’s successes in Beijing and London were achieved under extraordinary conditions: None of the mostly bench-bound Olympians could dare complain about insufficient playing time. The team was together for several weeks, not several months. Most of the games were laughers so there was minimal pressure to win. The USA and international media was always positive.

Cultural and technical adjustments aside, what does Donovan have to do for the Thunder to have a successful season? Unfortunately for him, this means at least surviving into the Western Conference final.

At Florida, drive-and-dish was Donovan’s go-to game plan, augmented by the launching of threes at every conceivable opportunity.  Reprising Golden State’s championship small-ball strategy does fit this mode, but OKC’s only dependable long-distance shooters are Kevin Durant, along with a trio of subs—Anthony Morrow, Steve Novak, and Kyle Singer.

Donovan’s staff includes two holdovers from Scott Brooks’ regime—Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic—as well as Monty Williams and Mo Cheeks, who are also veteran assistants.  The players will be interested in how much authority (in practice sessions and in games) Donovan will relinquish to his assistants. Too much will emphasize Donovan’s inexperience and indicate that’s he’s in over his head. Too little will emphasize his ego. Either extreme will result in his losing the respect of the team. So it’s a fine line Donovan must walk.

Collegiate coaches usually need 2-3 years to learn how to coach in the NBA.  Let’s hope that Donovan lasts that long.

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