They Can't All Be Winners, Part 7: Oklahoma City Thunder

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Billy Donovan seems about sixteen. It’s an old sixteen, the sort that makes solid eye contact and has at least thought about bringing a briefcase to school, but there’s still something distinctly wearing-a-suit-that-doesn’t-fit-to-a-movie-theater-date about him. It could be the high and tight haircut, which makes him look like he’s gunning for partner at a handshake firm, or someone who says his favorite teevee show is The West Wing because it seems to play well with his dad’s friends. It is maybe his boyscoutish way of speaking. Every press conference is a debate against P.S. 137, and Donovan is in it to win it. It definitely has something to do with him being a 50-year-old man who goes by Billy.

The leap from college to pro ball is enough to cast even the most experienced coach in a greenish hue. The difference between the two jobs is the difference between fielding knights to protect your manor and trying not to dent someone else’s car. Even the very best pro coaches, save perhaps Gregg Popovich, are more like collaborators than visionaries. They help and instruct; they don’t command. When commentators call the NBA a players’ league, they mean that Chris Paul will allow you to coach him only if he respects you. If you lose his trust, he stays put and you’re looking for a new employer.

So, Billy Donovan isn’t a boy-king anymore. That’s going to be an adjustment. And then there’s the matter of an entire city being poised to mob-murder him if he mismanages his timeouts in the Western Conference Semifinals and Kevin Durant leaves, which is something to take into account.

It’s not odd, on its face, for the Thunder to hire a well-liked and successful college coach, but it’s a touch bold to be doing it now, as a generational talent and franchise standard-bearer is entering a contract year, and as a once-floating-on-elation fanbase gnashes its teeth over whether the team is going to realize its potential before it implodes. Appointing some promising-if-untested fellow to an important post is usually a peacetime move, not one you make with a wolf at the door. Who knew Sam Presti, who looks like a superhero named Polite Man’s even-more-mild-mannered alter-ego, was a gambler?

Maybe there are some jobs in which it is impossible not to be in over your head. Your nose begins to poke out of the water, and suddenly, here comes the riptide. Directing a big-budget movie, for instance, seems unbearably daunting, like trying to gather a cloud of fireflies into one bottle. Coaching might be like this, too. Your job is to teach, and evaluate talent, and create a good work environment, and obsess over detail, and delegate, and work referees, and pore over scouting reports, and lead, and handle the media, and connect with players, and please the higher-ups, and travel, and gameplan, and try not to let it all eat you alive. It’s difficult at any level where people are getting paid decent money to do it, and perhaps the differences among its various echelons are less significant than they’re made out to be. The gist of the gig is that it’s aggravating and impossible, and coaching at one rank or another just means dealing with a handful of aggravating and impossible tasks specific to that rank. For instance, in college, you have to recruit, but you have some control over who plays for you. In the pros, you have less control, but—well, chances are you’re a control freak, so this aggravates you to no end.

With all that said: Billy Donovan, huh? A guy who’s never done this before. This could work out splendidly, but he was making college kids run suicides a handful of months ago, and now he’s plugging a dam that’s just barely holding back a town-savaging quantity of shit. And he seems about sixteen.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets Philadelphia 76ers Houston Rockets Los Angeles Lakers Dallas Mavericks | Indiana Pacers

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