If you are the kind of basketball fan that needs some “Kentucky” to make games matter, these NBA playoffs have something good for you. Two former Kentucky Wildcats assistants, ex-UK player Dwane Casey and former Rick Pitino-era aide Billy Donovan, have left a big mark as head coaches on the 2016 pro hoops postseason.
Leading the Toronto Raptors, Casey — who played at UK from 1975-79 and was an assistant under Eddie Sutton from 1985-89 — has reached the Eastern Conference finals in spite of a player roster that lacks a true NBA superstar. Toronto trailed the King James Cavaliers 2-1 going into Monday night’s Game 4.
In his first year as head man of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Donovan — the long-time former Florida coach who broke into college coaching at Kentucky as an aide to Rick Pitino (1989-94) — could be in the midst of a historic run. Having already vanquished 67-win San Antonio, Donovan’s Thunder are leading 73-win Golden State and MVP Stephen Curry 2-1 going into Tuesday night’s pivotal Western Conference finals Game 4.
With two NCAA titles at Florida (2006 and ’07), Donovan is seeking to join Larry Brown (1988 Kansas; 2004 Detroit Pistons) as the only head coaches to win both a college national title and an NBA championship.
Hired as the Raptors’ head man in 2011, the 59-year-old Casey has presided over constant progress. In five years, the Raptors have improved their season’s win totals from 23 to 34, 48, 49 and 56 in 2015-16.
This year, Casey and the Raptors have broken through in the playoffs by winning seven-game series over Indiana (opening round) and Miami (conference semifinals). Toronto has done this in spite of its two leading scorers, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, struggling in the playoffs.
A 42.7-percent shooter in the regular season, Lowry had made 36.6 percent of his shots in the playoffs going into Monday night’s game. DeRozan, who shot 44.6 percent during the season, was at 37.8 in the playoffs before Game 4 against the Cavaliers. If that weren’t enough, Toronto had been without its best interior player, 7-foot Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, since he sprained an ankle in Game 3 of the conference semifinals against Miami.
Casey helping his team — ex-UK forward Patrick Patterson is a rotation player for the Raptors — overcome so much has the NBA pundits at last taking notice of his good work. That can’t hurt a coach who entered this season in a “contract year.”
Former NBA head man and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch “I think if Dwane Casey was coaching a team in the (United) States that overachieved like the Raptors did by winning 56 games, and now getting to the conference championship, he would be generating headlines, because I think the way he had this team progress throughout his time in Toronto has been one of the great untold stories in the NBA over that period of time.”
Of course, Casey’s UK coaching tenure ended in controversy. He had the misfortune to have his name in the return address on the Emery Air Freight envelope sent to the father of a Kentucky recruit from the UK basketball office that infamously “popped open” in Los Angeles, revealing $1,000 in cash.
Casey always maintained he had no knowledge of that money. Regardless, the NCAA put Kentucky on probation and slapped Casey with a five-year, show-cause penalty.
I bring the episode up only to point out this: To rebound from that low point and reach Casey’s current career standing is an inspiring testament to personal grit.
Donovan, 50, left a comfortable perch at Florida to take on the challenge of trying to help Oklahoma City and its stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, capture their first NBA championship. Suffice to say, there were doubters.
Ex-Butler head man Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics not withstanding, the track record of college head coaches going directly to the NBA has not been good. Some of the very best college head men — Pitino, John Calipari, Jerry Tarkanian, Lon Kruger, Mike Montgomery among them — have tried the NBA with mostly unhappy returns.
Donovan was smart enough to go to a team with talent, but inheriting Durant and Westbrook brought its own challenges. Durant is in his free-agent year and could leave OKC after this season. Westbrook is a gifted but sometimes enigmatic talent.
Could “a college coach” get buy-in from those two?
The answer seems to be yes.
Against San Antonio in the playoffs, Donovan got the better of the iconic Gregg Popovich by utilizing a “twin tower” lineup with Steven Adams and ex-UK player Enes Kanter — for which the Spurs had no counter. Now, Oklahoma City is two wins from eliminating Golden State, which only had the best regular season in NBA history.
If Oklahoma City were to win the NBA championship by defeating San Antonio, Golden State and King James in order, it would be one of the greatest playoff runs ever.
It would take the already gaudy coaching résumé of Billy Donovan to a whole other level.