Bulls head coach Billy Donovan drawn to partnership with Karnisovas in building a winning team

The new Bulls head coach spoke about how the opportunity came to him, the current roster, and gave insight into his coaching philosophies.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

After a lengthy introductory press conference with the media on Thursday, it's clear why Arturas Karnisovas zeroed in on Billy Donovan to be the franchise's next head coach.

Billy Donovan spoke with media Thursday for more than an hour. He didn't say anything memorable like Churchill did during the World War II blitz when he called it England's finest hour. Or Nelson Mandela when he said it's impossible until it's done. Or like FDR in his fireside chats about a smooth sea never making a skilled sailor. Though Donovan did frequently go nautical with metaphors about being in the same boat.

I listened to Donovan for more than an hour and perhaps 6,000 words and couldn't come up with a lead sentence.

But I felt good.

This is not to suggest a foursome with Churchill, FDR and Mandela would ever include Billy Donovan. But he does, like they did, seem to offer reassurance and hope, if not always specifics.

The Bulls are piling into the dinghy of new coach Billy Donovan, and you do get the sense this time it's sturdier and not going to leak.

"I've never been a guy that's come in with this is a two-year plan, this is a three-year plan, this is a four-year plan," said Donovan. "I've always tried to take the approach of how do we get better today? How do we maximize today? It's never going to be on a linear, upward trend all the time. The biggest thing in all those situations is you have to have everybody rowing the boat the same direction. You have to have everybody inside the organization making each other better.

OKC Thunder center Steven Adams and Billy Donovon

OKC Thunder center Steven Adams and Billy Donovon

"I wanted to be in a situation where everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction, everybody is pulling together, everybody is working for the same cause, a lot of really good dialogue and communication," Donovan added. "The word he (Karnisovas) kept using to me, which was powerful to me, is partnership. 'I want to be partnered with somebody and I want to work and build together and have good dialogue and good communication and work very, very closely together and be involved with each other at every possible level of the organization.' That's really what it came down to for me. You're a part of it all the way through from top to bottom. I think Arturas was looking for that, looking to partner with somebody as a coach to try and continue to develop and build the program."

If Donovan's New York accented soliloquy often was short on specifics, it was long on solace. Donovan, 55, hasn't often been mentioned with the coaching gods like Jackson, Riley and Popovich. But he's not someone you'll ever find beached on a ship of fools. He doesn't have to talk about being a leader; he talks like a leader.

Coaching no longer is about Woody Hayes and Bobby Knight. But with his chiseled, square jaw and military buzz cut Oliver North bearing, Donovan looks like he can get you snap to attention without saying anything.

"This kind of came out of left field for me," Donovan admitted. "I had no idea that any of this was necessarily going on. Then Arturas (Karnisovas) said, ‘Hey, listen, I really just want to be able to sit down and talk and just share what my vision is and see if it matches up with what you think.' So I didn't really have any team per se on my radar. I really didn't know after leaving Oklahoma City what the future would hold. I didn't know if I'd be sitting out. If that happened, I would have been OK with it. But this was a situation that transpired that I just thought, ‘Wow, this is just a great opportunity to really work and partner with somebody here in Arturas.' And just getting a chance to meet Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorfs) and talk to them. Those things really hit home for me and really resonated with me. And from there things really progressed pretty quickly."

Donovan, wearing a white dress shirt spoke on a Zoom conference from Florida even as the Bulls this week started their mini-bubble at the Advocate Center with their first scrimmages since the March NBA closure. He has to quarantine before he could be involved, but he said he's texted with some of the players and obviously will begin to follow up.

Joakim Noah and Billy Donovan at the University of Florida in 2006

Billy Donovan coaching Joakim Noah at the University of Florida in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

Donovan said he spoke with former Bull Joakim Noah who led his two University of Florida national championship teams. "He had unbelievable things to say about the city of Chicago, about the organization," said Donovan. "He obviously spent the majority of his career in Chicago, loved every minute of it. He's actually talked about coming back and doing charity work for the Bulls, maybe later in his career. I think he's probably going to evaluate what the next step for himself is as a player, what that looks like with the Clippers."

As close as Donovan got to Xs and Os was an observation about today's game and how he's not aligned with any particular pop theory.

"If you've got a team that maybe is not a great three-point shooting team or you have a team that has some players that like playing in the mid-range... I had Carmelo who liked doing that; so did Paul George," Donovan related. "Those guys were elite offensive players for their entire careers. So you don't want to take away what's made them who they are.

"But what are the things you have to do to offset a lot of those three-point shots that are going up?" Donovan asked inching his toe briefly into the strategy waters. "One is you can't turn the ball over. Two is you have to rebound really, really well and then you've got to get to the free-throw line. I think you want players to play to their strengths and in playing to their strengths, we had some players like SGA (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), Dennis Schroder, they're penetrating, getting in the paint kind of guards and they're really good and I would not want to tell a player, 'Hey listen, we're not going to take a two-point shot, we're only going to take threes or you can't go here.' Some of the star players, they're star players because of what they do well. So how do you put them in a position that they can do what they do well?

Chris Paul and Billy Donovan

Billy Donovan and Chris Paul inside the NBA's playoff bubble in Orlando.

"I've (also) always said, personnel-based, if you don't want to take non-paint twos then you can't have non-paint two (type) players. If you want to be a three-point shooting team, you've got to put all three-point shooters out there. For certain players it's not a great shot. I think there's certain players that feel more comfortable under 15 feet. I know with Chris Paul and being with him last year, seeing him shoot the ball, he is an amazing mid-range jump shooter and I would never want to take that away from him because it makes him who he is. You want to utilize those things because that's what's made him great."

Donovan as coach sometimes is questioned for how great his teams should have been. He always had at least one All-Star on his roster. Russell Westbrook was league MVP with Donovan and Kevin Durant was MVP two seasons before he arrived. But it's been viewed as a positive for the Bulls roster that Donovan apparently demurred about coaching a rebuilding in Oklahoma City (he predictably said conversations with a former employer should remain private) while embracing a Bulls roster that peaked at 27 wins during the last three seasons.

"When we sat down and we talked about the roster, I thought that this roster is (more) talented than what they showed the last two years," Donovan said. "That they had a lot of potential. We kind of agreed there's a good mix of young players and vets. We have a lot — from picks to cap space in the future — to build this team. So on both sides I think there was a lot of optimism.

Full Billy Donovan Introductory Press Conference

"I think looking at the team there's some really, really good quality players," Donovan insisted. "Lauri (Markkanen) is always a unique player with his skill set and his ability. Zach LaVine is a guy that's got great offensive ability and can create his own shot. I recruited Wendell Carter a little bit out of high school, so I am familiar with him when he was younger. He's a very, very high character, talented big man. I think you look at the veterans in Thaddeus (Young) and Otto (Porter). They've got a good blend there as well. I've had a chance to pretty intimately recruit Ryan Arcidiacono. I think the biggest thing is trying to help the group become a team. That's not to say they were or not, but getting them to play together, to play for each other. I think the last several years for them they've had an enormous amount of injuries. They've certainly had setbacks. But I like the fact that there is a nice blend of some older guys and some younger guys and I look forward to get together and working with them."

Which perhaps is the frustrating part now for the one time overachieving New York born point guard from Providence who providentially remade the University of Florida basketball program.

Once the Bulls bubble pops, the NBA because of the virus is limiting workouts to one player with one coach and no scrimmaging. Commissioner Adam Silver estimated, this week on a CNN broadcast with Bob Costas, the next season probably won't begin until into 2021. So it will be another red light and a long time until the greening of the Bulls begins again. But there does seem to be that proverbial light.

"It's going to be a player first program where we're going to try to do right by the players in terms of trying to put them in the best position to continue to grow and develop and be successful," Donovan said. "That's the number one thing for me and then strategizing our style of play, how we need to play, how we need to utilize everybody. Hopefully we can try to create chemistry, create a bond where they're playing for each other, they're being accountable for each other and trying to help each other and trying to evolve and work to become a better team and a consistent team.

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr, and Coby White

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr, and Coby White

"I've always felt it's important with players to let me hear from them how do they want to be used," Donovan said. "How do they feel like they're most effective? What are things they feel most comfortable doing? How can you take advantage of their skill set and their offense? Then you build out from there of how you want to play. You partner with them and you work with them and you build out something where there's going to be a level of sacrifice by every player. Every player is not going to have the chance to do everything that they want to do. But how do you mesh all of those guys together to get the whole to be better than the sum of the parts as a team?"

Retiring New Yorkers like to joke Florida is God's waiting room. It became the caring nursery for Billy Donovan as he carried that nurturing to the NBA.

"I think anybody that's part of a team wants to have that connection that they've done their job and that their work is valued and it's important," Donovan explained. "So although you're having different personalities, different styles of play, different guys having different games, they're still human beings and they still want to be in a situation where they're loved, cared about and they're accepted for who they are. I think it starts from that place of getting the group really feeling comfortable playing with each other, helping each other, making each other better and accountable to be the best version of themselves.

"The plan," Donovan said, "would be how do we create a culture and an environment and a situation where that culture and environment is sustainable over a long period of time? You want to have standards you want to live up to and I think when you're not meeting those standards, then you're not really working towards building what you want to build. It's an everyday process, an everyday grind to be able to do that. It's every day as coaches, as players, as front office, all working together to make each other better."

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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