Stevens and Donovan Have Found NBA Success – But Can They Join Elite Company?

Success in the college game doesn’t always translate to success in the NBA. Michigan’s John Beilein was the latest to find that out, resigning mid-season after losing 40 of the 54 games he coached. He isn’t alone, as quite a few high-profile college coaches have flamed out in the NBA, like Rick Pitino, John Calipari, and Lon Kruger. There are exceptions, however, such as Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics.

Both have winning records — 60.7% for Donovan, 54.9% for Stevens — through the 2018–2019 season, and they have steered their respective teams to the postseason multiple times, including this season. The question now is whether or not they can join that elite company of coaches who won at least one NBA title after coaching in the college ranks. That company is comprised of only six members: Larry Brown, Bill Fitch, Dr. Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta, Chuck Daly, and Paul Westhead.

At the moment, Stevens looks to have the inside track. The former Butler head coach was hired in 2013 to mastermind the Celtics’ post-Big Three rebuild and he has proven to be cut out for the job. After a rough first season, the Stevens-era C’s have steadily improved, thanks in part to shrewd management maneuvering (trading for Kyrie Irving, signing Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker), some excellent draft choices (Marcus Smart in 2014, Jaylen Brown in 2016, and Jayson Tatum in 2017), and Stevens’ own coaching acumen.

Over the past three seasons the Celtics made it to the conference finals twice, losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017 and 2018. They then took a bit of a step back last season, falling to the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals after a tension-filled year. Stevens seems to have righted the ship this season, and he has the Cs looking like contenders again with Tatum and Brown both making the leap. That said, this probably won’t be the year Stevens joins elite company, what with the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers all looking extremely formidable. But with a talented core that is only getting better, Stevens might soon be the seventh member of that exceptional group.

That’s in stark contrast to Billy Donovan‘s future. After his dalliance with the Orlando Magic in 2007, the former Gator coach finally made the jump to the NBA in 2015, when he took the reins in Oklahoma City. He guided the Thunder, then led by Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, to the conference finals, where they lost to the then-defending champions the Golden State Warriors. Durant left thereafter — a departure that turned the Thunder from a contender to middling playoff team.

Despite Durant’s departure, Donovan has piloted OKC to four more postseason appearances (including this 2019–2020 season). Each playoff, however, has ended in heartbreak. Most heartbreaking was last season, when Donovan and his Thunder found themselves on the receiving end of a Damian Lillard dagger that made Bwin’s top NBA playoff moments list of the last decade. Lillard’s 37-foot game-winner not only ended the Thunder’s 2018–2019 campaign in the most absurd of ways, but it also precipitated the trade of the team’s two best players in Westbrook and Paul George.

Naturally, the Thunder were expected to falter this season. But they have emerged as a pleasant surprise, with Donovan getting the best from an aging Chris Paul and a rag-tag squad of unheralded players. Even so, Donovan’s shot at joining elite company depends on a contract extension, as his initial five-year deal will expire at season’s end. But as pointed out in a Sports Illustrated op-ed, Donovan deserves that extension, as he has shown the kind of leadership that elicits complete buy in. Whether or not Sam Presti sees that is anyone’s guess, though for Donovan’s sake, the hope is he does. Otherwise, only Stevens will have the chance to chase rarefied company.