New Bulls head coach Billy Donovan brings experience and relationship-building mindset to Chicago

Billy Donovan comes to Chicago with a 61% winning percentage and a reputation of building relationships with players
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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The Chicago Bulls announced the hiring of Billy Donovan on Tuesday afternoon. In Donovan, the Bulls are getting an experienced NBA coach with a track record of success, a player relationship-building mindset, and diligent work ethic.

It was the summer of 2017 and Doug McDermott, following the February trade with Taj Gibson to the Oklahoma City Thunder, was trying to get a head start on the next season. So he stayed in Oklahoma City that summer with a few teammates, Domantas Sabonis, Jerami Grant and Alex Abrinas. Billy Donovan called. Why don't you guys come over for a meal.

"He's a really good relationship guy," McDermott was saying about Donovan by phone Tuesday. "He's not a guy who isn't going to talk to you; he's a great communicator. Obviously, for me, he knew my dad a little bit from college coaching. So we always talked college hoops. But the guys loved him. Never got too high or too low. Always very even keel with us and as a person, he was awesome. I remember him inviting us to his house with his wife, me, Sabonis, Jerami and Abrinas. They cooked and we talked everything but basketball.

"He was really welcoming," McDermott said. "That's part of the college in him. He wants to have a good relationship with his guys; he does a good job of doing that. And guys go hard for him. His teams won and were good. I can't say enough good things about him. I'm glad he's staying in NBA, but I'm not glad he's in our division."

Donovan, 55, takes over as Bulls head coach with a longtime record of success and as a protege and disciple of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino. It was for Pitino at Providence College with his long shooting and aggressive trapping defensive style the relatively unathletic, undersized so called "gym rat" who became known as "Billy the Kid" for his daring shooting helped Providence overachieve to the Final Four in 1987. Which also led to Pitino's emergence in pro coaching.

The six foot Donovan played briefly in the CBA, the forerunner of the G-league, and then joined Pitino with the New York Knicks as a little used guard for a half season. With little basketball playing future, Donovan took an unfulfilling stock broker job on Wall Street before returning to Pitino's congregation as an assistant coach at the U. of Kentucky and another Final Four run. Donovan then left the nest to turn around the Marshall U. program and then went to the U. of Florida, where he won two NCAA championships led by former Bull Joakim Noah in a 19-year run that included a brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in 2007.

Kevin Durant and Billy Donovan

Kevin Durant and Billy Donovan in 2016.

Donovan finally left Florida in 2015 to coach a talent rich Thunder team with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. They had a 10-game improvement to 55 wins and were ahead 3-1 in the conference finals when they lost three straight to Golden State. The Warriors went on to lose to the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, prompting the recruitment of Durant to Golden State.

The Thunder then recovered around Westbrook, a pattern for Donovan teams, and Westbrook became the league MVP with the first triple double season since Oscar Robertson.

Though Donovan was heavily influenced by Pitino with his three point shooting emphasis and defensive pressuring style of play that alienated his Boston Celtics team, Donovan's NBA teams were not generally known for either three-point shooting or pressure defense.

Donovan appears to be a coach who adapts primarily to his talent.

"Guys go hard for him. His teams won and were good. I can't say enough good things about him."

Pacers forward and former Bull Doug McDermott

The Thunder generally were top 10 in the NBA in defense, though 20th his first season in Oklahoma City. They've generally been in the bottom half of the league in three-point attempts as Donovan's best players, Durant, Westbrook and last season Chris Paul, had more sophisticated mid range games. Their offensive efficiency has ranked between 11th and 27th in his five seasons.

"He adjusts really well," agreed McDermott. "One thing about Billy D I really liked is he's not afraid to try new things. You can tell he really leaned on his staff a lot. He's not a micromanager; he's a guy who listens to his staff and is willing to be open to new ideas. I remember we had an assistant on the staff who coached in Europe and he got a lot from him. He's a guy who works with what he has. So it's hard to put a style on him. He demands a lot from you defensively; that's for sure. But he's very creative on offense.

Billy Donovan watches OKC's practice in the Orlando bubble

Coach Donovan watches OKC's practice in the Orlando bubble.

"He's really good at ATOs late game (after time out), getting guys threes," McDermott added. "Some of his ATOs, I was like, ‘This guy is incredible.' I remember I loved playing for him because he always had something for shooters. He draws up his plays without markers; he has these magnets. It took some time to learn, but I really liked it and missed it when I left because you always knew where you were at and supposed to be."

Donovan has a record of charitable giving, once donating $1 million to Providence for basketball courts while his wife, Christine, was active with the wives of other players in community activities. They have four grown children.

Donovan has been known as a student of the game, seeking advice from top coaches in other sports like Bill Belichick and Tony LaRussa.

"I met him when I was with the Cardinals," said La Russa from a baseball game in San Diego. "I went over to watch his practices a couple of times. I wanted to meet him because I had some friends in college basketball who were really high on him. One of the neat things is when you're around awhile as a coach you kind of share experiences, priorities, notes. Over the years we stayed in touch. With Billy he was well thought of and when his teams played you could see how they did it. You watch Bill's teams and they reflect him. Billy did a heck of a job at Oklahoma City. I don't know a lot about pro basketball, but the guys I knew were very complimentary. People I respect give him high marks."

"He's a hard worker, a serious basketball guy," added one NBA coach who asked not to be named. "He's someone who looks at what he has and sees what he can do. Like this season, Chris Paul had one of his best seasons ever. He's a lot like (Celtics coach) Brad Stevens, measured, good with the players, not one of those know-it-alls. He's a modern NBA coach who knows how to circumvent the landmines,"

McDermott agreed about the work ethic.

"There's nobody I've ever been around who's worked harder," said McDermott. "And I played for Thibs. Billy D's there at freakin' 5:30 am. He's there 'til late. He's a hoops guy, all hoops."

The Thunder, last season, were viewed as overachievers after trading Paul George to the Clippers and Russell Westbrook to Houston as they tied for fourth with Houston. They were eliminated from the playoffs by a last missed shot in Game 7. It was the franchise's fourth consecutive first round ouster. Donovan was rumored to have rejected a two-year Thunder extension, though it seems the Thunder are on the verge of a rebuilding project with all the draft picks from the trades.

Chris Paul and Billy Donovan

Chris Paul and Billy Donovan.

Donovan's Thunder teams have been an eclectic mix of talent with some of the best in the league, which sometimes has been held against Donovan. The Thunder had a player in the top five in MVP voting in each of Donovan's first four seasons and two in his first season. This season, Paul finished seventh. But at the same time, Donovan also appeared to be adept at putting those players in a position to succeed and do their best. After losing Durant, one of the best players in the NBA and third in the league in scoring, Donovan altered the offense around Westbrook, who won MVP as the Thunder won 47 games.

Donovan's Oklahoma City teams were 243-157, a 61 percent winning percentage and 11th all-time among coaches with at least five years experience. His teams were 15-21 in the playoffs.

But with Westbrook and George departing and the Thunder seeming to be in a reboot, Oklahoma City was one of the big surprise teams of the 2019-20 season. After a 6-11 start, the Thunder finished 38-17 before the playoffs in Orlando. Only the Bucks and Raptors had more wins in a similar stretch. The Thunder also led the league in so called clutch time wins in games decided in the last five minutes as Donovan's lineup alchemy produced guard gold with Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Donovan finished third in the media Coach of the Year voting. He was tied for first with Milwaukee's Mike Budenholzer in the Coaches' Association Coach of the Year voting. He was SEC Coach of the Year three times.

Thunder chief executive Sam Presti said of Donovan's departure: "Sometimes the arc of things just don't align. It's no one's fault."

Now perhaps he gets to exert his identity on a Bulls team without an All-Star or MVP candidate, but which appears to have unexplored talent.

Billy Donovan coaching former Bull Joakim Noah at the University of Florida

Billy Donovan coaching former Bull Joakim Noah at the University of Florida

"Incredible coach, super smart," said McDermott. "You can tell why all his Florida guys loved playing for him. I remember Joakim always telling me ‘That's my guy, I love that dude.' And then playing for him in Oklahoma City I saw that. He's a really good, high character guy, really good communicator with the players. Nobody I've been around works harder. I think that's the reason he was so successful at the college level. You see what happened this year with the Thunder. He can really coach."

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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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