Billy Donovan won’t return as coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder after five seasons, the team announced Tuesday night, ending a largely successful run that ought to make him an attractive candidate for jobs around the league.
Donovan, who was at the end of his contract, took the Thunder to the playoffs every year and was a finalist for NBA Coach of the Year this season after his squad outperformed expectations and pushed the Houston Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Donovan went 243-157 with Oklahoma City.
“I have a great respect and admiration for the players I coached in Oklahoma, and I also want to thank the coaches I worked with, who gave unbelievable time and expertise to our common goal,” Donovan said in a statement.
The Thunder and Donovan described his departure as a mutual decision. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti said he couldn’t give Donovan the assurances he wanted about the future.
“In knowing where he is and the caliber of coach he is, I wouldn’t want to mislead him and tell him it was going to be a certain way and then have it not be that way,” Presti said. “But ultimately, it was also five years and I think in his mind, it may have been time to move on. I totally respect that and I have a great deal of respect for him. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Before his run in Oklahoma City, Donovan led the University of Florida to two national championships and four Final Four appearances in 19 seasons.
Donovan inherited All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when he was hired before the 2015-16 season. The Thunder reached the Western Conference Finals, where they squandered a 3-1 lead against the Golden State Warriors.
Durant left for the Warriors that offseason, shaking the franchise and its fans. But the Thunder bounced back — Westbrook was the league MVP and set a league record for triple-doubles in a season. It was the first of three straight seasons that Westbrook averaged a triple-double. The Thunder lost to the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
The Thunder tried to assemble enough stars to compete with Golden State, trading for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony before the 2017-18 season. It didn’t go as planned — the team went 48-34 and lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2018-19, the Thunder went 49-33 and George finished third in the MVP balloting. Oklahoma City lost in the first round again when Portland’s Damian Lillard hit a deep game-winning 3-pointer over George in Game 5.
Expectations for Oklahoma City were low after the Thunder traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul and sent George to the Los Angeles Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. Many weren’t sure if Oklahoma City’s new players would function well together — or if the group would stay together.
Instead, Paul was an All-Star, Gilgeous-Alexander emerged as the team’s top scorer and Gallinari had one of the best seasons of his career. The Thunder went 44-28 and nearly knocked off the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
Presti said he wanted Donovan to return and even lobbied for him to be Coach of the Year. Donovan finished behind Toronto’s Nick Nurse and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer.
“We appreciate him greatly, and I think we were pretty clear about that before the playoffs started,” Presti said.
But with the Thunder stockpiling draft picks and Paul’s future with the franchise uncertain, among other things, Presti understood Donovan’s hesitation.
“I think he’ll have other opportunities that may be more — just a little more certainty in terms of what that’s going to look like beyond the next season,” Presti said. “And I respect that completely.”