Billy Donovan didn’t have to say all the right things at his introductory press conference for Bulls fans to know he was the right man for the job, but it sure didn’t hurt that he did.
On Thursday morning, executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas formally introduced Donovan as the team’s next head coach. Donovan answered a wide-range of questions about the future of his Chicago Bulls team over a Zoom call with reporters, and practically every response demonstrated that the only thing Donovan and former head coach Jim Boylen have in common is holding the same title.
A Player-First Program
Donavan’s greatest strength was arguably Boylen’s greatest weakness. The former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach has proven he can earn full respect from his players. In other words, Boylen induced eye rolls will turn into locked-in head nods.
“It’s going to be a player-first program in which we’re going to do right by the players and put them in a position to continue to grow and be successful,” Donovan said. “Strategizing style of play, how we play, how we can utilize everybody.”
Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley both preached a very similar sentiment in their respective introductory press conferences. With their focus on player development and appeal from the beginning, the Donovan hire makes that much more sense. While someone like Kenny Atkinson may have been another praised player development coach on the market, no available coach came with as much praise and prowess as Donovan.
No, Really … It’s About the Players
In today’s league, nothing is more important for a head coach than understanding each player on a roster. The X’s and O’s may get someone in the door, but the truth is there are plenty of qualified basketball minds across the league. What a strong head coach does is connect on a deeper level with a player before using expert basketball knowledge to put them in the best situation to succeed. A head coach can’t get the most out of a player if that player doesn’t personally trust them.
With that in mind, Donovan said his first line of business as Bulls head coach is clear – listen to the players.
“First thing I’ll do is watch a lot of film … hear from them (players) on how they want to be used. How do they feel they’re most effective? How can you take advantage of their skillset in the offense? Then you build out how you want to play,” Donovan said.
I’m sorry, but I just have to point this out again – that’s just so very different from Jim Boylen. Last season, the Bulls were forced to fit into a system that was hand-picked by Boylen. He would constantly remind reporters that he had to establish a system on both ends of the court, and it was a process that sure as hell sounded like it lacked any collaboration from players. After all, if the players did have any kind of say, we likely wouldn’t have seen the constant frustration on their faces and heard the snarky comments in the locker room.
Flexibility is Key On Both Sides of the Court
Donovan has received some criticism for his lack of a clear system in the past, specifically on the offensive end. But at the same time, the flexibility he has shown in the past is one of his more promising attributes. Donovan has proven that he can tweak his philosophy on either end of the court to ensure that he has a winning roster. Remember, Oklahoma City has found its way into the playoffs each season he has been at the helm, and it’s not like that team didn’t experience its fair share of personnel changes during Donovan’s tenure (Durant leaves, Paul George arrives, Westbrook and George leave, etc).
I expect a pretty different looking approach from this team on both ends of the court next season. While they might be able to take some things away from the defensive performance in 2019-20, I still expect far less blitzing and far more drop-back coverage. On the offensive end, I have to imagine Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. become a larger priority, while Coby White and Zach LaVine both try to improve their playmaking. Donovan also did make an interesting comment about the mid-range game on Thursday, and it sure does feel likely that it will make an appearance for several players again next season.
Letting Guys Be Themselves
Mhmm. I’m listening:
Billy: “If you have guys comfortable playing in the midrange, you don’t want to take away who they are… I would not want to tell a player we’re never going to take a 2-pt shot, we’re only going to take threes, etc. How do you put players in a position to do what they do well.”
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) September 24, 2020
I understand why the mid-range isn’t a preferred look, but the Bulls do have several players that pride themselves in this shot being a strength of their game. As Donovan notes, if that’s the case, a player shouldn’t be told not to use it. Regardless, we can’t think too hard about the offensive structure just yet, as Donovan hasn’t even stepped foot into a gym with these boys.
The larger point is Thursday’s press conference confirmed that Donovan’s general coaching philosophy coincides well with what this front office hopes to accomplish. From Karnisovas’ first day on the job, he set a goal to build a healthy and attractive player-first environment, and that’s exactly what Donovan knows how to do.