Ask Sam Mailbag: The Billy Donovan Edition

Sam opens his mailbag and answers questions on Billy Donovan, Kris Dunn, and Lauri Markkanan
Billy Donovan
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Randall Sanders:

I think the Donovan hire is a slam dunk for the Bulls. It shows that this new Bulls management team is serious about changing the image & culture of this Bulls Team in a hurry. He's a proven winner especially in the western conference and throughout his coaching career. I read an article that stated the Bulls have not hired a Coach with NBA experience since 2003. That explains things quite a bit right there. The Donovan hire speaks volumes because most winning coaches would not want to step into a situation like the Bulls at the moment. I would have thought he would have signed with Philly or even Indiana. I think he sees the Bulls current roster better than the record shows. One thing for sure with the bulls players, I think they will play much better for him under a new system.

Sam Smith:

It's true the Bulls have a history of hiring first time coaches, and I thought they would again. Which isn't a bad thing because the Bulls have been one of the best—and it's an adorable trait—of not only giving deserving people a first chance, but being adept at discovering talent. Tom Thibodeau, after all, was a first time head coach after being passed over several times. So was Doug Collins, who was responsible for a massive Bulls turnaround, double digit wins more in each of his first two seasons from 30 to 50 in two years. And, oh yeah, that Phil Jackson guy who not only had been passed over for several NBA jobs but was in the minor leagues and about to leave coaching when the Bulls rescued him and thought he deserved a chance despite his lack of experience. But I agree it does reflect well on the Bulls potential talent that many even here don't think much of.

Plus, I suspect there's another reason why Donovan might have chosen the Bulls perhaps over teams where he would have a more immediate chance of competing for a title, like Philadelphia, is he wants to coach again. The Big Star system in the NBA doesn't always allow for much coaching. You don't tell Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and Paul George and certainly LeBron. Donovan's critics often held that against him, that he allowed Westbrook to run wild (good luck stopping that) and had a new system for every new star. Because that's basically what they demanded. Of course that also speaks well of his flexibility, sophistication and versatility. Pat Riley cracked down on LeBron. So as soon as LeBron could get out of that contract he left Miami. I think Donovan sees talent with the Bulls. But I believe he sees an opportunity once again, like in college, to not so much become Ditka or Lombardi, but to help push players along to where he can help them go and enjoy that collegiate and collegial family aspect that is somewhat rare in this NBA of player brands. You know, coach. Instead of always risking being told where to go.


Chris Paul and Billy Donovan

Oliver Doc:

I am thrilled with literally every action that has taken place for the Bulls since the season ended. However, I see doubt from fellow Bulls fans over Donovan's hire. Maybe its GarPax PTSD. But these are my reasons for optimism:

Donovan's winning percentage speaks for itself. He's developed players, won with superstars, and made the playoffs in the West with practically different rosters each year. The 8 teams that didn't make the bubble, are about to start scrimmaging in 2 weeks. Smart move by AK to hire a well seasoned coach, comfortable with implementing his system, as opposed to a 1st time coach with little prep time.Clearly the Bulls don't feel like they're rebuilding. If AK had given him that impression, why would Donovan sign with us? He literally left OKC because they want to rebuild. This Bulls team is loaded with talent. All they need is health and a legit coach to bring it out of them. His coaching assistant hires will be critical. They nail that, and the Bulls are back in business.

I feel like this season will be what last season should have been. I say we see how far we get with our current roster, and let next year be where we fine tune.

Sam Smith:

I'm not sure who you've been speaking with, but the response I've been getting in mail and from mask wearing fans outside is this is the team's best coaching hire in a decade and one of its best ever. Even on talk radio, which apparently did first make sure he isn't a relative of Trubisky. We'll see about that in the long run as Donovan has to be really good to surpass Collins' short stint, Phil and Dick Motta. Still, the vibe (and I get vibes, which also could be the air conditioning) I've been getting from fans is considerable optimism. Of course, they haven't lost since March. Wince. It is for many of the reasons you point out. It is encouraging that Donovan apparently thinks it's enough talent (loaded? not quite sure of that) to have left Oklahoma City because there may not be enough talent soon enough there. It's a lot of excuses and such about injuries, system, yadda, yadda, but the Bulls last season should have been in the Brooklyn/Orlando Eastern Conference neighborhood. We should expect at least that now with a pro leading.


Billy Donovan during a game

Tom Golden:

I was a little disappointed in the hire until I read more. I don't like retreads. Thought there were several new guys that deserved a chance.

Sam Smith:

I expected that's the way the Bulls would go, especially someone like Wes Unseld Jr. because Karnisovas knew him from Denver and I figured he'd want someone he was comfortable with in a new situation. Plus, the trend these days which you see more in baseball is to go with less experienced coach/managers because of so much front office influence with analytics. Which I don't like, so I'm pleased in that respect to see a veteran coach who I assume has many of his own ideas about how to score which doesn't just mean firing threes all game. Donovan's teams haven't generally done that as he's accommodated players with mid range games like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Even Durant, actually. It's difficult to argue he wasn't one of the best coaches available. As a Bulls fan, you should be encouraged the team pursued talent, experience and excellence over any other factors. It also makes sense for Karnisovas, as I think about it, to come into a new job that he's never done before to have someone who's been there, seen that, knows how to respond and has answered all the questions before.


Billy Donovan looks on

Bruce Cotton:

I know you hav not been a huge Billy fan, but considering all options he is far and away a major upgrade for a soulless Chicago Bulls team. How about a little shout out.

Sam Smith:

Go Billy! You da man! It's not so much I haven't liked or respected Donovan, who is a good choice, as he's always been accommodating and cooperative. He's a respected pro coach. And I have mentioned in the past the need for an experienced coach after so many NBA recent first timers like Boylen, Hoiberg, Thibodeau, Cartwright, Floyd and, yes, even Phil. Billy's a credible pros pro coach, which is what the team needed. I guess I was just being a little selfish and hoping he (or someone) was more like Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino, the garish, legendary quote machine—"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old."

You'll like Donovan, but don't expect to be entertained by his press conferences. Yes, I know, if you can be by his players that's enough. As a writer, I pine for the good quote guy, which Donovan is not. But I will acknowledge that's no longer the NBA coach, or for any sport, really. Mike Ditka the motivator now is the old man screaming to get off his lawn and famously ignored by players. Players are always players, competitive, concerned about health and finances. This also is the generation we've been making fun of. You know, the kids getting the participation trophies. They don't like to be yelled at (OK, other than Jimmy Butler). And if you want them to do something they'll do it, but they'll also need a good explanation. You might notice most of the most successful NBA coaches these days are the genial types who are very supportive, like Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr, Mike Budenholzer, Frank Vogel. I heard Pitino talking about Donovan and saying he and Vogel are the nicest people he's ever known. Coaches, the nicest people?


Charles Barkley speaking on TNT

Art Alenik:

Sorry for you as Donovan won't provide much entertainment or controversy. Let's hope he provides entertainment on the court. Even though he wasn't my first choice (And really, what the hell do I know?), I'll embrace Donovan. He can't help but be a million times better. The only negative comment I heard was from Barkley, who said, "Only two jobs worse: the captain of the Titanic and my fitness coach. They ain't got no good players. He could have waited for a better job."

Sam Smith:

You know, it's just Charles. That's been Barkley, who sort of created what is now an internet/media staple of the hot take. Which also is why that TNT show is the best sports commentary/pregame/postgame talk ever. It's fun and you don't take it too seriously. It was Barkley's great appeal as a player willing to speak. Jordan used to love being with Barkley and always said he delighted in Charles saying all the things he wished he could. Until Charles said Jordan was the worst GM/owner ever and Michael wasn't quite as amused. But you have to ride with Barkley because of his unique ability among celebrities to not only laugh at himself, but admit he's wrong and make fun of himself. You don't see that often. OK, I never have other than with him. I've been around Barkley away from the court and I've never encountered a celebrity, athlete, entertainer or politician who combines his level of generosity with engagement with fans. But Barkley's view is meaningful given the effect of the Bulls having been left out of the Orlando bubble. You know, out of sight, out of trade options. Barkley hasn't seen a Bulls game, well, in about two years since the team never even got on TNT last season because of its projected record. So while he may have heard of Zach LaVine, he hasn't seen him play. Markkanen and Carter, either.

It's why that omission was such a disservice to the Bulls. Sure, they can practice in their personal bubble through October 6, but no one gets to see it. So other teams still have no idea. Imagine if Zach made those 13 threes in a bubble game. I know, the Bulls didn't earn their way in. But we saw how much it changed the thinking about the Phoenix Suns. What did everyone say about them before Orlando? Donovan should speed that process with his credibility. I know Barkley at least has heard of him. And aren't those TNT guys always ragging on the 76ers and what a mess that would be to manage? The Pacers? OK, decent roster. Not great. Indianapolis? Chicago? Anyone have a preference?


Billy Donovan and Russell Westbrook

Matt Chilewich:

It's always so hard to evaluate a coach in the NBA. For first few years Donovan coached Westbrook or maybe Westbrook coached Billy. Nonetheless you don't win two national championships unless you are a good leader and coach and I imagine his players in the NBA respected him. With all that is happening in the world today and in the great city of Chicago, I am a little sad that the Bulls didn't hire a young coach who is minority candidate. Could have really galvanized a fan base and city hurting for some equality. Nonetheless, we can't politicize everything and Billy Donovan has massive experience so its a good hire.

Sam Smith:

There was speculation about the minority factor, which hasn't been much mentioned since the Donovan announcement. Which is appropriate because, well, not everything needs to be about politics. And it's difficult to make the case Donovan wasn't, if not the best candidate, at least as good as the best available. Nobody should be condemned for rewarding and pursuing excellence. It seems obvious there's widespread agreement because even some of the usual places for knee-jerk criticism have been mute. It's difficult to make the case not to pursue Billy Donovan.


Billy Donovan

Steve Schnakenberg:

I don't know much about Donovan's coaching style and the players he needs to succeed. Do you think this has much impact on who is drafted and what free agents do you think they would look into in order to play his style? Do you think anyone currently on the team is now out of the plans?

Sam Smith:

Donovan said during his media session Thursday that perhaps what most drew him to Karnisovas and the Bulls was Karnisovas' desire for a marriage. It's not as usual as you might expect in sports. Many organizations, including the Bulls, historically have operated in a discrete landscape in which management selects the players and the coach coaches them and never the twain shall meet. Though Mark Twain didn't say it. It often works as sort of a system of checks and balances and teams have won that way. It's something like supplying the clay and then asking someone to shape it. They are different jobs. Donovan said Karnisovas' pitch to him included that desire to cooperate, which I suspect leads to something of a draft consensus. I like that method. I think it is important to consult the coach, though Jerry Krause rarely did with Jackson. It didn't matter much, anyway, since they always pursed new veterans, which Jackson did have input on.

I liked the way the Suns scouted with Mike D'Antoni. I recalled talking to one of their scouts about a top collegian. He said they really liked him, but they couldn't take him because he wasn't a D'Antoni-style player. They were molding their team around their coach's play. It didn't lead to a title, but they did average 58 wins over a four-year stretch. You'd take that. I doubt anyone on the current roster is out of their plans now since Donovan hasn't really worked with anyone. Though it is a blank slate, which also means you have to earn your playing time. It should prove motivating for some who haven't seemed to at times.


Kris Dunn dribbles

Brandon Oliver:

And what about Kris Dunn? I understand his position as a FA, but I also understand that's a move you make when you're ready to move on from the team. The FO and coach have been replaced. You can't ask for a cleaner slate to prove yourself.

Sam Smith:

The NBA has mandated these minicamps—like the Orlando bubble—are voluntary, so no one should be condemned for being excused as Dunn opted out. I might have done the same as Dunn, who has been injured several times and could be an unrestricted free agent if the Bulls don't offer him a qualifying next month. I'm guessing his agent certainly endorsed it. It's a heck of a career risk to get injured now. But human nature suggests he'd have some catching up to do if he returns with the team next season.


Kris Dunn looks on

Andrew Killion:

Kris Dunn: He was really developing well and that game where it all went wrong off the rim against the Warriors was a fantastic game up to that point, playoff atmosphere. Zach was still coming back slowly from his ACL and a shadow of the player he is today, it was really Dunn leading that charge, Niko was playing well in that stretch. Why can't Dunn recapture that trajectory with the right coaching and opportunity? He's excellent at defense but I fear he's given up, or been given up on, his offensive game which was strong. He was getting downhill then he would either drive and finish or pull up at the elbow and knock down the 2.

Besides the injuries, did he get messed up in all this 3-ball focus? He definitely needs to work on that and just shoot it without stopping to think about it but his strength was driving, dishing, pulling up, drawing contact, he's physical and talented and enjoys the big moment, unafraid unless it's a 3. Does the new Providence connection get him on life support?

Sam Smith:

No, but could Donovan want Providence Hall of Fame point guard Lenny Wilkens? Kris is in a difficult situation now with Coby White looking like a starting guard along with Zach LaVine and Tomas Satoransky promising a revival. Sometimes everyone needs a new start. Kris wasn't quite the high scoring model for this era's guards, but he had unique abilities with his defensive play and was showing some real moxie as a finisher. It seems so long, and so many injuries and players ago. His fate will be the most interesting story of October assuming that date hasn't been pushed back, also.


Lauri Markkanen drives

Jake Henry:

There is actually hope now for the Bulls. If we can unload Lauri for a rotational wing or draft pick so we don't waste cap space next year that would be great. Ive seen enough. Best case he turns into kevin love with a midrange game instead of a post game. At worst (present) he is Andrea Bargani.

Sam Smith:

Ouch. It's just one rocky season. Though it's a big one coming up for Markkanen, the fourth year when everyone pretty much has to make a financial decision. As I've mentioned often because of the Bulls bubble bursting, the value of Bulls players combined with the awful season is depressed, if not also depressing. It's not the time to trade anyone. Or at least anyone drafted in the lottery from the last few years.


Joakim Noah guards Anthony Davis

Doug Uding:

What about Joakim Noah for assistant coach? This guy has some fire in him. I saw him interviewed during the NCAA's before. And you know he's been Defensive MVP. Could he help turn Wendell Carter, Jr. into a defensive force?

Sam Smith:

I expect Noah will continue to try to chase that championship as he did with the Clippers this season. There's always time to coach. You play as long as they'll let you.


Chris Paul and Billy Donovan

Brodie Larsh:

With Billy Donovan officially getting hired as the next head coach, do you think a trade for Chris Paul could be next? Maybe something like Otto Porter, Thomas Satoransky and a 2nd pick(or lottery protected future 1st) for Chris Paul?

Sam Smith:

Paul obviously liked Donovan, who helped revive Paul's career with the season Paul had in Oklahoma City. I suspect the Thunder told Donovan they would try to trade Paul (as they did last year after trading for him) and Donovan saw 20 wins. There have been trade rumors regarding Paul, most notably to Milwaukee to help them retain Giannis. Given that Giannis is their next decade you figure they'll spend whatever they need to now and would absorb Paul's (gasp!) $85 million for the next two seasons. I doubt the Bulls would want to and thus end their free agent possibilities for 2021. It's not going to be Giannis, but as Miami, Toronto and Denver have shown in these playoffs it's not all about having the MVP.


Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan

Ryan Carpel:

How about the Bulls trade Otto Porter and the number one pick for Russell Westbrook?

Sam Smith:

So you really must hate Billy Donovan.

Got a question for Sam?

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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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