Tricks of the trade
Some advice for Donovan as he transitions to the NBA
Posted: Thursday May 31, 2007 8:36PM; Updated: Friday June 1, 2007 8:24AM
For Florida Gator fans, Billy Donovan's departure means losing a head coach who delivered nine 20-win seasons and two national championships in his 11-year reign. For those on the NBA side, his arrival means the usual shrug of the shoulders and an eye roll at another team that thinks it can turn one of the NCAA's finest leaders of young men into anything approaching a capable pro coach.
From Mike Montgomery to Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Lon Kruger, Leonard Hamilton, P.J. Carlesimo, Jerry Tarkanian and Dick Vitale, the NBA landscape is littered with former college coaches who thought they could exhort and prod their way toward NBA glory. And, to a man, each fell well short. Only Pitino, Floyd and Carlesimo were offered second NBA jobs, with only Floyd (the most maligned of the bunch) improving his record in his second stint.
The overriding theme here is respect, and how to earn it from professionals making guaranteed money while the coach tries to sustain a sense of gravitas from training camp in October to, hopefully, a playoff run in the spring. NCAA coaches, who are allowed to wield scholarships and playing time over the head of impressionable youngsters, are able to get away with emptying all their motivational shells in the midst of what, at best, could turn into a 40-game season. NBA coaches tend to hit their 40th game in early February, with a playoff push and possible postseason run still weeks away.
Despite all the historical evidence suggesting failure, each pro team and each coach think their situation could be the one exception -- the one marriage of pro team and ex-college coach that actually works. There is some evidence that suggests that Donovan, for all intents and purposes, could be the one who breaks the losing streak. But, for now, here are a few suggestions for the latest NCAA entry into the league's coaching pool.
Know your personnel. After that, figure out how to stop the personnel on the other side from scoring 110 points. Respect may be the biggest buzzword in the NCAA-to-NBA jump, but recent runs from ex-college coaches suggest a lack of preparation when it comes to defending the opposition and running offensive sets with the roster they've inherited.
And this isn't a quick fix. Toward the end of his two-year stint with the Warriors in 2005-06, Montgomery was still calling for defensive pressure on players who didn't deserve it and running plays for his own team that didn't have a chance of succeeding. Conventional basketball wisdom flies out the window when it comes to NBA players, who are dynamic and versatile enough to stay in the league but still have quirks and oddities that make them worth studying. The learning curve inherent in scouting these players takes years, not the first two months of a season. How to prevent this? ...
Lose your college buddies. Hire ex-NBA players. Hire retread NBA head coaches to sit next to you or hungry NBA assistants who want nothing more then to parlay hours spent watching game tape into formulating that night's scouting report. With the security of a reported five-year, $27.5 million deal, Donovan can hire assistants who otherwise would be looked at as coaches-in-waiting on other teams. Take advantage of that. Again, considering Donovan's history (read the part about ex-assistant Larry Shyatt), Donovan could be the first to get this one right.
Settle down. This one is easier said than done. Donovan knows the game and will be champing at the bit to prove his worth both to his new players and a doubting league of professionals. That will come in time, and not after a fourth-quarter comeback against the Pacers in mid-December. Choose your battles, save those bullets and think long term -- because your employers are.
We don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that this summer will make or break the Magic franchise for at least the next half decade. Even without the Donovan hire, Orlando is faced with decisions that should shape both its place in the Eastern Conference playoff picture (it finished eighth this year) and big man Dwight Howard's career.
Assuming Keyon Dooling and Pat Garrity pick up their player options and the team passes on re-signing Darko Milicic (a move that is up in the air after Milicic's uninspiring fourth season), the Magic could be nearly $15 million under the salary cap this summer. General manager Otis Smith and assistant GM Dave Twardzik haven't exactly set the league on fire with their personnel moves thus far, and though Donovan will surely be a significant part of the decision-making process, we don't know if that's a good or bad thing. Previous NCAA coaches who had a hand in personnel moves didn't exactly acquit themselves all that well.
There is hope, however. Donovan knows the game, is anxious to please and likely will be far less stubborn than his mentor, former Celtics coach and current Louisville boss Pitino. If anything, Pitino's failure as Celtics president should aid Donovan's transition. He'll tell the 42-year-old Donovan to lighten his grip, admit mistakes on the personnel end and shy away from making rash decisions stemming from the inevitable frustrations that an 82-game season creates. Again, this could work, but Donovan has his work cut out for him.