Billy Donovan does just about everything by hand. He takes meticulous notes on film study, jotting down what he sees. His lesson plan for each Thunder practice is written precisely, with pristine penmanship crafted in his Catholic school days on Long Island.
On Monday it was announced that he’ll have something else to write home about – his first full-season award win at the NBA level. The National Basketball Coaches Association honored Donovan and Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer as co-winners of their Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award.
“I am honored and humbled to be recognized by the Coaches, they are a great group of people that I admire and respect,” said Donovan in a press release from the NBCA. “Receiving the Michael H. Goldberg NBCA Coach of the Year Award alongside such a terrific coach like Bud makes it even more special. Individual honors to me have always been a reflection of good team dynamics and I’m proud of the collective work that our players, coaching staff and the entire organization has put in this season. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead in Orlando as we get back to basketball and using our platform for social justice.”
The NBA’s Coach of the Year award, voted on by media, will be announced during the playoffs, and Donovan will certainly be in the running for that award as well. This one, however, is extra special because it is voted upon by Donovan’s own peers – the other 29 head coaches in the NBA.
Donovan earned the award by leading the Thunder to a 41-24 record, including a 35-13 mark since Thanksgiving, which is the second-best mark in the league. In the clutch, meaning games that have been within five points in the final five minutes, the Thunder has led the NBA with 29 victories, with a 25-5 record in those tight contests since Nov. 25.
After a 6-11 start, Donovan got his team of newcomers on track, first and foremost by creating togetherness in the locker room. With Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala, Darius Bazley and Lu Dort all beginning their tenures with the team, and factoring into the rotation this year, Donovan had a lot of new personalities to meld, but he did it with grace.
“Every season brings different challenges,” said Donovan. “When you’re dealing with a group of people, a group of individuals, how well you mesh and gel and work together is certainly a big part of how successful you can be as a team.”
“It’s been great to see so many new faces come into the organization and work so well together as a group,” Donovan added. “That’s been really fun to watch.”
Getting the locker room connected is one thing, but actually getting all sorts of new players aligned just right with their teammates on the floor is a totally different challenge. NBA players have gotten to this point in their careers by diligently attacking their jobs and honing specific skills. Ready to utilize their preparation on certain shot types, driving actions and defensive alignments, players can sometimes resist changes to their roles by a coach.
This season, as he’s done in other years, Donovan was able to make slight adjustments yet cater the gameplan around where his players excel. For example, he utilized a three-point guard lineup when most other coaches would have hit a brick wall in terms of finding minutes for Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder in a traditional rotation.
Likewise, he re-imagined big men like Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel as offensive threats with the ball in their hands as opposed to solely rollers and rim runners. Adams is averaging a career-best 2.4 assists per game as a playmaker from the high post, with the Thunder’s shifty guards running off of split actions along the wing.
“Billy’s done a great job relative to really letting the guys play, giving them space and freedom,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti, who hired Donovan back in 2015. “He’s done a good job being creative with the ball handlers that we have and how to put those guys together. He’s been consistent every single day.”
“Tactically he’s a good problem solver when presented with some unique players and things of that nature,” said Presti. “That’s a hard thing to do is to see players you’ve had and see them in a different light as a result of other players, but I think that’s one of Billy’s strengths.”
Helping clinch a playoff berth in each of the five seasons he’s been with the Thunder, Donovan is one of just four active coaches to make the postseason in their first half-decade with a team. He’s done so by not only being diligent as a worker and clever as a tactician but devoted as a reliable and caring figure to lead a group of men through the rigors of an NBA season. He’s also been there as a steadying force during COVID-19, racial injustice in the country and as the players left their families for the bubble in Orlando.
“(Donovan) lets us express ourselves in our best way and our most comfortable way, while also he holds us accountable as teammates and competitors and men,” said veteran forward Mike Muscala, who has played for three other NBA teams, including the Atlanta Hawks under Budenholzer.
“He’s done an excellent job,” said Presti. “He’s just trying to control the things that he can control.”