The case for and against Billy Donovan as Sixers head coach


For the first time since 2013, the Sixers are searching for a new head coach. 

With the team deciding to move on from Brett Brown, we’re continuing our series analyzing potential candidates to replace Brown with Billy Donovan. Tyronn LueIme UdokaJason Kidd, Nate McMillan, Dave Joerger and Stan Van Gundy are among the coaches we've looked at so far. 

Donovan and the Thunder mutually parted ways on Tuesday night. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, Donovan is expected to be a candidate for the Sixers job.

Let's look at the case for and against hiring him:

The case for Donovan 

Donovan coached the Thunder for five years, never failing to make the playoffs, and his most recent season was probably his best. Few thought Oklahoma City would be a playoff team or take the Rockets to seven games in the first round of the playoffs heading into the season after the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades. Donovan was third in Coach of the Year voting, and he tied for first with the Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer in the National Basketball Coaches Association voting, indicating his peers think highly of him. 


The Thunder had a mix of veterans and young, developing players that Donovan coached well. Undrafted Luguentz Dort started for Donovan and scored 30 points in Game 7 against Houston. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had an excellent second NBA season, averaging 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists after moving from the Clippers to the Thunder. Nerlens Noel (still just 26 years old) has become an ultra-efficient, high-impact reserve big man. At 35 years old, Chris Paul conducted Oklahoma City’s offense, while Dennis Schroder finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. The guard trio of Paul, Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander was brilliant. OKC had a plus-28.6 net rating when those three shared the floor, and each had stretches of stellar individual play.

As a player at Providence College, Donovan led the Friars on a run to the Final Four in 1987. He later worked under his college coach, Rick Pitino, as an assistant coach at Kentucky, then ascended to head coaching jobs at Marshall and Florida. His stint in Gainesville was a long and decorated one, and he had a court named in his honor this February. Al Horford, a starter on the 2006 and 2007 national champions, was one of Donovan’s former players in attendance. 

College success isn’t the same as experience deep in the NBA playoffs, but it helps Donovan’s case that he’s coached and won a bunch of big games. 

Donovan is an adaptable coach who likes to shape his offense to best fit his team’s personnel. It’s an intuitive concept, but not something every head coach is able to pull off. With Westbrook gone and Paul at the point, the Thunder ran 4.5 more pick-and-rolls per game and averaged 0.95 points on those possessions, sixth-best in the NBA. 

Those who know Donovan have ample praise for him as a person. 

The case against Donovan 

Oklahoma City squandered a 3-1 Western Conference Finals lead to the Warriors in 2016, Donovan’s first season in charge, before Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors. Donovan hasn’t won a playoff series since.

The Sixers are looking for a coach who can take them to the cliched “next level,” and Donovan hasn’t proven he can do that in the NBA. 

He’s known for listening to his players and incorporating their feedback — perhaps sometimes to a fault. With “accountability” a buzzword following Josh Richardson’s comment that there wasn’t enough of it under Brown, that's a factor the Sixers may consider.

“… Billy is kind of rare,” Schroder told reporters after last season, per The Athletic’s Erik Horne. “I’ve never had it before. It can go either way, I think. When it goes too much and he listens too much to the players, it can go bad as well. Me and him had good conversations. I never tried to change anything. We never had any issues. He’s been great with me.”


If Donovan becomes the Sixers’ next head coach, he’d have to find the right approach in his relationships with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid and look to establish mutual respect. 

Finally, as is the case with nearly every potential Sixers candidate, Donovan has never coached a center as imposing as Embiid in the post and is coming from a perimeter-oriented team.