LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — If you’re making a list of guys who could get any college basketball job they wanted, Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan would top my list.
They’ve won — and won without background noise.
They’ve recruited, developed and produced players who have excelled in the NBA.
They win games, they win alumni gatherings and they win press conferences.
They’ve made the move to the NBA and achieved more than Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Fred Hoiberg, Lon Kruger and others who have tried.
But the trend lines for Donovans and Stevens are no longer soaring. They’re declining.
There’s been grumbling in the cheap and expensive seats in Oklahoma City (Donovan) and Boston (Stevens). They’re being second-guessed more than they were ever second-guessed in college.
Donovan made the Western Conference three years ago and has not won another playoff series. His Thunder squad got bounced by Portland in five easy games.
Stevens did masterful work guiding an injured Boston team to the Eastern Conference finals in 2018. The Celtics just lost four straight to an ascending Milwaukee team by an average of 16.3 points — and were booed in their home arena.
In his seasons Stevens has won as many titles as Pitino, Jim O’Brien or M.L. Carr — zero. Bill Russell, Larry Bird and Paul Pierce aren’t walking through that door.
Even Stevens sounded deflated after Milwaukee punished Boston again Wednesday night.
“I’ll be the first to say that as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach it’s certainly been the most trying,” Stevens said.
“I think I did a bad job. Like, at the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
It’s the first time a season ended with grumbling directed at Stevens. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward healthy and LeBron James relocated to the Western Conference, this was supposed to the season that Boston made its move.
Reminder: Before the season, the Celtics were listed as an 8-to-1 pick to win the NBA title, the fourth overall choice.
Didn’t happen. Not in the playoffs. Not in the regular season.
Milwaukee, Toronto and, at times, even Philadelphia, have looked like the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference in 2019 — and beyond.
For Donovan, the situation is gloomier. When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant to Golden State in free agency after the 2016, they lost their mojo as legitimate Western Conference contenders.
Durant made comments critical of Donovan on Twitter. He later apologized. Too late. Damage done. One of the game’s greatest players was on the record saying he did not like playing for Donovan. Billy the Kid never had that problem in Gainesville.
Welcome to the NBA, where Donovan still has to live with the antics of Russell Westbrook.
But without Durant, OKC has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three straight seasons. Without Durant, his post-season record is 4-12.
I’d expect both to be at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago next week, searching for players they can draft and develop. They won’t run from their challenges.
Donovan has one season remaining on the original $30 million contract he signed when he left Florida for the NBA in 2015.
Stevens signed a six-year, $22 million deal when he left Butler in 2013 but that contract was extended by three years to 2022.
Translation: Unless the Thunder extend Donovan before next season, the chatter about him will be unrelenting.
Stevens figures to have the opportunity to get the Celtics back to playing how they played before the locker room went sour around Irving.
They have already survived longer than most college guys who made the transition. Donovan and Stevens rank in the Top 10 in tenure among NBA head coaches, where guys generally get the ziggy after one, two or three seasons.
Any athletic director who wants to win, and win big, has Donovan and Stevens on their speed dials.
The minute either decides he wants to return to campus, he becomes the Best Available Candidate, especially if a prime-time job like Duke, North Carolina or elsewhere on the upper tier become available.
This was the season the NBA stopped going gaga about Stevens and Donovan. I wonder if it’s the season that one of them will return to college basketball.
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