Bulls finish season 31-41, Billy Donovan reflects on first season as head coach

Chicago made a 9-win improvement on last year's campaign but missed the playoffs for the fourth-straight year.
by Sam Smith
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The Bulls beat the Milwaukee Bucks 118-112 on Sunday night on the final day of NBA regular season. Chicago finishes the 2020-21 campaign with a 31-41 record. Billy Donovan spoke extensively with the media following the game, giving his full thoughts on his first season as Bulls head coach.

Well, that didn't go exactly as the Bulls hoped and planned.

And so the Bulls 2020-21 season ended Sunday night in a meaningless losing streak ending 118-112 victory over Milwaukee Bucks, who minutes before the game benched all their starters when their playoff third-in-the-East position was assured.

The Bulls for the fourth consecutive season aren't going to the playoffs and for the first consecutive season aren't participating in the inaugural play-in tournament, which was the Bulls modest goal. Though at 31-41, it was the Bulls best record since finishing .500 in 2016-17 and beginning a rebuilding project.


"I'm disappointed that we didn't get to the postseason," admitted coach Billy Donovan in post season closing remarks. "That's something I'm gonna take a deep dive in on myself personally. Are there things I could have done differently or done better?"

It was Donovan's first of six seasons as an NBA coach not to be in the playoffs. And there were the Covid absences of several players early and Zach LaVine fatally for 11 games late, illness, injury and an incomprehensible series of blown last-second losses that Donovan conceded were unusual and too difficult to overcome.

Billy Donovan reflects on his first season as Bulls head coach with the media.

"Over 72 games, you are going to have games where, ‘Gosh, I wish we could have had that one back. That was one where we let slip away.' Or, ‘We just didn't play to the level we needed to.' That happens, but not the number of games we had," said Donovan. "There were a lot of things that for us were really hard to overcome. What was hard to overcome was the amount of games that we gave away."

And so there were injuries, Lauri Markkanen missing 22 and Garrett Temple 17. And all the unprecedented Covid-related precautions of daily testing and isolations, though which Donovan pointed out every team faced. Plus, the lack of practice time and seemingly endless travel.

"I will say this: Every day for me with these guys was phenomenal," Donovan reiterated. "They were a great group. The one thing I really appreciated about the group was I don't know if people know how hard it was for them to play every single day. The testing, having to come in and test and sit around for 45 minutes before you can leave. Or before you can go on the court and practice and getting into hotels at three o'clock in the morning and having to go down and wait in line and get tested. These guys never complained. They never, ever were anything else but professional and worked hard. So I've got a strong affinity for these guys as people and the way they conducted themselves professionally. It's hard for me to sit here and say ‘What does our team need?'"

Those questions will go to Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnisovas, who is expected to address media Monday along with players.

And Karnisovas certainly will address the elephant in the room that sat on the season, The Trade.

Which also suggested that once the decision was made—just a few weeks after Karnisovas' midseason state of the team address emphasizing development of the roster that began the season—the plan for the Bulls future became little about this season and more about reconfiguring the team for the next few years around the acquired players and altered style of play.

Because the Bulls effectively went from promoting a young, athletic transition-type team to a big, physical, veteran scoring team. Certainly various pieces remain to be put in place. And with almost half the roster changed at the trading deadline, it's possible two thirds of the current roster doesn't return for next season.

"There were just a lot of interesting things that we all had to handle and they all handled it great, but I don't know what our team will look like contractually," Donovan said. "There are lot of guys whose contracts are up."

Which also suggests the development that Karnisovas predicted before the season became less about the current young players and more about a rebranding.

Among the top nine players from the opening day lineup Dec. 22, starters Wendell Carter Jr. was traded and Markkanen was benched and is questionable to return as a restricted free agent. White was benched, but earned his starting job back. Otto Porter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford all were traded, making it half the top eight from opening night gone and another benched.

It still does suggest optimistic possibilities for the Bulls with two All-Stars in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic and emerging rookie Patrick Williams to go with White.

And some play-in tournament former Bulls viewing with Robin Lopez, Gafford and Hutchison in Washington, Luke Kornet and Jabari Parker in Boston and Doug McDermott, JaKarr Sampson and Justin Holiday in Indiana.

While Donovan insisted the season was and remained about developing a winning culture with the playoffs/play-in as everyone's goal, Donovan also conceded midseason transactions of that magnitude are almost unheard of and very much disruptive. Even if not necessarily the cause of the 11th place finish.

The Bulls still do hold a possibility of postponing loss of their first-round draft pick from the Vucevic trade to Orlando this season if it becomes top four. With the win Sunday, the first over the Bucks after 12 straight losses, the Bulls finished tied with the Pelicans and Kings for eighth poorest record. There will be a coin flip for positions and an extra lottery ball. The odds of a top four pick from that spot are about 20 percent.

As for Sunday's game, Milwaukee's Jordan Nwora playing in his third professional game had 34 points and 14 rebounds. But the Bulls basically led throughout with Thad Young's 20 points leading six players in double figures. Coby White had 19 points, Lauri Markkanen had 17, Ryan Arcidiacono had a season high 14, Devon Dotson had a career high 11 while Cristiano Felicio had a team high eight rebounds in 18 minutes. Many played their last game for the Bulls.

Lauri Markkanen finishes a big dunk with one hand against Milwaukee

Lauri Markkanen finishes a big one-hand slam against Milwaukee.

"Everything was about these guys and trying to compete and win," insisted Donovan. "I know Arturas had mentioned about evaluation. And I think he'll probably speak to that. But with the group that we were coaching, it was never like, ‘Hey, we're evaluating.' It was, ‘Hey, we've got to establish and develop a winning culture to put ourselves in a position to win games night in and night out.'

"I don't think it has anything to do with the trade," Donovan said. "I would have felt disappointed if Vooch wasn't here and the rest of these guys weren't here. Here's how I look at it: A third of our roster got turned over. We didn't have a chance to work with each other, we didn't have a chance to practice. We threw this thing together (and then) went on a West Coast trip and I'm trying to figure things out on the fly of how the best way for our team to play.

"The one thing that I've seen - and I haven't been in the NBA that long - when you look at these trades, most of the trades are trades to add. Guys coming off the bench or filling a hole. But this was a trade where immediately a guy comes in and now he's unequivocally 1A or 1B," noted Donovan. "Those things don't normally happen in the NBA. The whole entire thing got kind of flipped upside down. And now you're left with a day of practice that these guys cannot participate in because you're taking a West Coast trip and they haven't cleared the medical aspect of it. And now all of a sudden you're going to (play) Golden State, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah.

"If you go around and look at a lot of trades, how many of those kind of trades where a trade was made where a guy immediately elevated and was so good that you had to totally take advantage of his skill set?" asked Donovan. "Doing that it obviously impacted a lot of other guys on the team."

But despite all of that, the Bulls still finished just two games out of the play-in and three games behind eighth place Washington. So there's the excruciating last-second losses and then having Vucevic all season and further remaking the roster this summer with Williams having a normal off season. And then development is not so much about who was here last December, but who will begin a new development by next December.

"I do think long term it's going to help us," said Donovan. "I think in the short term, it was challenging. I'm not making any excuses for that, on the fly going through it. I really want to look at myself. I think the guys, from my perspective, did everything they could to try to make it work. There was no pouting, sulking, they were all try to win, we were all trying to win. But as we started to play some games together, when Zach got the Covid that really eliminated some of that partnership and chemistry for three weeks.

"The chemistry was always very good," said Donovan. "But certainly we changed stylistically because our team got very heavy in the frontcourt. Daniel Theis brings a physicality and a toughness. Thad was playing at a really high level. But his role changed some and his facilitating probably wasn't the same level as early in the season. But even before the trade deadline, we still had a losing record. I appreciate and respect what Arturas and Marc have done to continually try to make the team better. I think we all put our best foot forward, but we fell short. I'm disappointed in that."

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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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