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What should the Bulls expect from Billy Donovan?

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After watching Billy Donovan grow into an NBA head coach the past five seasons, here’s what the Bulls should expect from the ex-Thunder coach

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Houston Rockets v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Six days after the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by the Rockets in a two point Game 7 loss, the franchise and Billy Donovan decided to mutually part ways.

The decision to go in different directions stemmed from the Thunder being unable to give Donovan a definitive answer as to what the future holds for the franchise. Soon after the news broke, Donovan became a hot commodity for multiple contending teams looking for a new head coach. The 76ers and Pacers were two teams who had interest in Billy Donovan.

However, Donovan shocked everybody. In a surprising move, Donovan decided to sign up for the Bulls job, inking a four year deal worth over $24 million.

This left some people confused as to why Billy even left Oklahoma City to begin with. Did he really just move on from one rebuilding situation to another? There is one huge difference between the Thunder and Bulls which was important factor in Donovan’s choice.

The Thunder are on the verge of implosion and will begin a rebuild fairly soon. The Bulls have been through a rebuild and are ready to start competing again. Chicago believe they have the young pieces to do so.

The Bulls last made the playoffs in 2017 with a 41-41 record. After that season, they traded Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves. The trade indicated that a rebuild was on its way and that is what has happened in the Windy City over the last three years.

In their last three seasons, Chicago averaged 23.7 wins. But the results of games were an afterthought, the main focus for the Bulls was to add talent and develop young guys.

The Butler trade meant the Bulls added Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn which was a decent haul that jumpstarted their rebuild. All three players are 26 years or younger and still play for the team.

The Bulls made good in the Draft as well. Chicago used consecutive seventh overall picks in 2018 and 2019 to select Wendall Carter Jr. and Coby White. Both players have been impressive in their young careers and have shown serious flashes of potential. Chicago also owns the fourth overall pick of the upcoming 2020 NBA draft.

The Bulls are entering the stage of the rebuilding cycle where wins will begin to matter once again and making the playoffs are an expectation, not wishful thinking.

A guy like Billy Donovan thrives in situations where a team is full of young talent who are looking to be competitive. Donovan became a college coaching legend in Florida by turning high school graduates into good players in the pros.

The pinnacle of Donovan’s run in Florida were his back to back championships in 2006 and 2007 with a roster filled with future NBA players like Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer.

Donovan has clearly made a positive impact in his player’s lives that can still be seen to this day. Bradley Beal is one such example. Beal was coached by Donovan in his lone season at Florida. When the news dropped, Beal gave the Bulls his stamp of approval on Twitter.

In 2015 article by The Oklahoman, Beal was on the record saying that Billy is a great people’s person and cares about his players on a personal level.

Meanwhile in OKC, it looks likely that the Thunder will open up a fire sale this offseason with guys like Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams all being available in trade talks. Gallinari is an unrestricted free agent but has shown a willingness to work out a sign and trade with OKC. Gallo ideally wants to get to a contending team.

The only players who are safe bets of returning next season are Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort and Darius Bazley. Everybody else should be considered movable.

So for Donovan, the situations are not that similar. One can argue the Thunder have the better young players but the Bulls have the benefit of playing in the inferior Eastern Conference where making the playoffs with a young team is more realistic than it would be in the West.

So with all that in mind, what can the Bulls expect from Donovan? Well for starters, Billy Donovan is not Jim Boylen.

In his five seasons with the Thunder, Billy was always a player friendly coach who would stick up for his guys when needed to. Donovan was also relatively easy to work with for the media.

This is crucial factor in a league where public relations matter a great deal. This statement is especially true in a basketball crazy market like Chicago. Billy is also the type to never publicly call out his players, which Boylen was known to do.

Donovan is also not a hard-nosed, boot camp-style coach like Boylen; Billy’s entire vibe is that he is a coach that is easy to play for and easy to talk with. He will not chastise his star player during the game or bench him as punishment.

Donovan will also prioritize rest over practice time. Donovan understands that managing the workload of his players is vital in a sport that plays games nine months out of the year. Billy did a marvellous job this season managing the minutes of older players like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari which helped them to stay healthy all season.

An issue the Bulls faced in the Boylen era was that the coaching staff forced the team to play their style of basketball instead of Boylen building an offense around his players’ strengths.

in January, rookie guard Coby White mentioned how the Bulls told him to not take any midrange shots:

A strength of Donovan’s coaching style is how player friendly his offense is. Billy gives individuals breathing room to run the offense. Donovan is also a coach who focuses more on offensive flow than running particular sets to produce looks.

This approach was fairly successful in Oklahoma City. His approach resulted in Russell Westbrook and Paul George having career seasons in OKC uniforms. The freedom Donovan provided also helped other guys grow into themselves and develop into NBA rotation players like Jerami Grant.

Grant came to Oklahoma City as a raw, athletic wing. Jerami Grant left OKC as a Swiss army knife on defense who can knock down deep shots efficiently.

Donovan is a coach who values analytics but he also understands that players require freedom. His answer in the introductory press conference was indicative of his method. It sounds like he will continue his coaching style of letting his players just play ball and will not worry as much about the analytics of the game.

The Thunder were also sneakily one of the best defensive teams in the league during Donovan’s five year reign. The team finished in the top 11 in terms of Team Defensive Rating every year. Meanwhile, the Bulls finished in the bottom five in two of the last three seasons.

How much of that has to do with talented defenders being on the roster and the coaching is unknown. The safe answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Andre Roberson’s rise to an All-Defensive player happened under Donovan. Roberson always had the talent to reach elite defender territory but that never came into fruition until Billy took over.

When it comes to establishing a healthy culture and creating a happy work environment, Donovan excels. This is what the Bulls need after spending years being a joke around the league. Chicago is starting with a clean slate in terms of management.

The Bulls hired respected front office members such as Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley. The Donovan hire will add another experienced, respected name to the organisation.

Those points above are Donovan’s biggest strengths as an NBA head coach; his weaknesses come in the form of failing to get his star players to buy into his system, his lack of flexibility and his in game adjustments. These weaknesses have been exposed greatly during the playoffs since 2017.

It is well known that Donovan never really got players such as Kevin Durant, Westbrook and George to buy into his system, the offenses in the BD era looked eerily similar to the offenses in the Scott Brooks era.

OKC won games because of the talent margin that the team enjoyed when compared to the rest of the league. Wins did not come because the opposition was out schemed. The Thunder were dead last in the league for three straight seasons from 2017 to 2019 in terms of team passes made per game.

Billy was able to get away with this limitation in the regular season and this will most likely carry over to Chicago, but that type of relationship with your star player has a ceiling. It is one thing to have a star player who enjoys playing for you as a coach, it is another thing when they actively listen to you and believe in what you preach.

It is important to point out that it seemed like Donovan and Chris Paul were on the same page this season. I believe this synergy was to do with the fact that they both share similar offensive philosophies. Paul and Donovan believe in passing the rock and evenly distributing scoring.

Donovan never really gained the full trust or respect of his star players but I do not think that will be an issue in Chicago early on with such a young roster. Young players who are trying to find their place in the league will listen to what a respected veteran coach like Donovan has to say.

The issues will occur once the young players hit their prime. Will he still garner that same level of respect from his players? Or will they just turn Billy’s words into background noise? This happened in OKC, the star players did not seem to respect Billy. If the team starts to underperform like the Russ & PG teams did, I worry that history will repeat itself.

In terms of the playoffs, Donovan was exposed as a conservative coach who would rather lose games playing his way than adjust and win games in a different way.

Donovan failed to play Carmelo Anthony less and Grant more in 2018. He failed to to play Steven Adams less minutes in both 2019 and 2020 even when Steve was hurting the team when he played. Finally, he failed to go small against the Rockets even though small lineups worked when used during their series.

When it comes to experimenting and tinkering with lineups, Donovan has no problem testing things out in low leverage situations. However in the playoffs when it actually matters, Billy tries fitting a square peg in a round hole. He goes with what comforts him and that can be a great skill if you get the wins.

However in a result driven business like professional sports, the more losses you collect, the more your coaching style will be questioned by the media and fans.

This is probably Donovan’s biggest weakness as a head coach and what is stopping him from becoming elite coach. Billy Donovan is simply a good coach right now.

For a franchise like the Bulls, these problems are good problems to have considering the state the team has been in since the Derrick Rose era. The Bulls will take the playoff shortcomings as long as it means they play more than 82 games a season.

Right now, Chicago is trying to relearn how to ride a bike and Billy will be great training wheels to do so. But once it is time to go without the training wheels, I am not sure Donovan can be the guy to take a team to that next step.

The Bulls will love Donovan for the first couple of seasons if he can take them from a dumpster fire to a 40 win team that makes the playoffs. It is Year Three and Four of his deal which is more uncertain.

There is a real possibility that the team will sour on him if they show no progression towards becoming contenders in the East. The questions are important but these questions are better off asked another day. At this moment, the team should be focused more on learning how to crawl before worrying about running.