Bulls

4 ways Billy Donovan can immediately improve Bulls

Bulls

Billy Donovan is the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

By now, you’ve heard the news. You’ve pored over Donovan’s lengthy resume and career history. Consumed laudatory testimonials from past players and peers.

The most accomplished head coaching candidate in a market flush with desirable vacancies chose the Bulls. That’s a big deal.

But what’s next? How can Donovan, hired by the Bulls’ fresh-faced management team led by Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley, help drag the team out of the rudderless rebuild that has produced back-to-back 22-win seasons, the latter of which featured stagnation from key pieces of a talented core?

Here are four thoughts on how Donovan improves the Bulls immediately, based on his track record relative to where the Bulls struggled under predecessor Jim Boylen:

Late-game execution

You saw it often in these pages, and many others, throughout Boylen’s 123-game tenure as head coach: “We competed.”

And it’s true (ducks). Even as the Bulls underwhelmed in 2019-20, they played competitive basketball, especially on the defensive end. In fact, in pre-hiatus play, they were tied for fourth in the NBA in “clutch” games played, defined by NBA.com as games within a five-point margin with less than five minutes to play, with 38.

But their 13-25 record in such contests marked the fourth-worst winning percentage in the league (.342). Time and time again, the Bulls ground games down to the wire, but came up short — against competition both superior and inferior.

 

Why is that? A smorgasbord of factors. Without a reliable source of self-creation or foul-drawing on the roster outside of Zach LaVine, the offense often stagnated when opponents locked in — and, in turn, LaVine, who is undoubtedly a clutch player and had standout performances, was generally inefficient in the “clutch” this season. The Bulls’ blitzing schemes grew easier to pick apart as games wore on. Injuries took hold. Timeout mismanagement and poor execution on after timeout (ATO) plays — both categories from which an evaluation of team performance can be attributed to the head coach — were themes. Take your pick.

But put simply, the Bulls weren’t a good team to begin with. Their .342 winning percentage in clutch games is roughly transferable to their .338 season-long mark. Underperformance in that context wasn’t an outlier. 

The same can’t be said for Oklahoma City Thunder, Donovan’s old team. Pre-hiatus, the Thunder both appeared in, and won, the most clutch games in the league, posting a 29-13 record in their 42 barn-burners. That .690 winning percentage far transcends their .611 season-long mark.

Obviously, having Chris Paul played a major part in that. He’s one of the best clutch performers in the league, and posted 52.2% field goal, 37.4% 3-point and 92% free-throw shooting percentages in the “clutch” this year. The 2019-20 Thunder’s late-game profile exceeded Donovan’s past four seasons, when his teams posted a cumulative 94-84 (.528) winning percentage in the “clutch.”

But Donovan should get some credit too. That 94-84 mark, after all, is still really good. Approaching .500 in close games would be marked improvement from where the Bulls were. 

And though the botched ATO that ended the Thunder’s season with seconds to play in Game 7 against the Houston Rockets made headlines, Donovan’s reputation is one of a bright, in-game X’s and O’s mind when given the chance to strategize.

Take it from Doug McDermott, who played for Donovan for 22 games in Oklahoma City during the 2016-17 season, in a recent interview with Bulls.com:

“He's really good at ATOs late game, getting guys threes," McDermott told Sam Smith. "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.”

And, of course, consistent late-game execution bleeds into…

Adaptability

Under Boylen, the strategic tenor around the Bulls was rather rigid. On offense, the team sought to play a higher-tempo, read-and-react, 3-point and rim-attempt-heavy offense, but its efficiency never actualized. Defensively, they blitzed the absolute hell out any and everyone in their path, seeking to force turnovers and spark transition opportunities.

 

To be fair: The above is, by nature, an oversimplification, and those stylistic implementations were made with good intention. And, to be fairer: The Bulls had their moments last season, mostly on the defensive end. Kris Dunn made seismic bounds as a disruptor on the perimeter. LaVine had the best season of his career with the modernization of his shot distribution.

But when injuries or other adversity struck, a lack of adaptability exacerbated the Bulls’ struggles. Running a blitz-heavy defensive scheme is tenable with Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr. anchoring it, but that philosophy persisted, and imploded, in each’s injury-related absences. Without the Bulls’ best pure jump-shooter in Otto Porter Jr. for nearly the full season, a chasm quickly opened (and never closed) between the team’s volume and efficiency from behind the arc.

Now consider the job Donovan did with the Thunder this past season. With Russell Westbrook and Paul George gone, replaced by the likes of Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and others, Donovan leaned into his players’ strengths — even when doing so bucked convention, and his own self-professed beliefs. 

First, let’s examine the offensive end of the floor, where, per comments made at a virtual basketball coaches clinic in April (via The Oklahoman), Donovan’s core philosophy is predicated on ball and player movement.

Here’s how the Thunder offense profiled by playtype, as defined by NBA.com this season. A lot of isolation, a lot of pick-and-roll, and not a ton of off-ball action relative to the rest of the NBA:

Playtype

Frequency

League Rank

Points per Possession

League Rank

Isolation

8.8%

3rd

0.96

4th

PnR Handler

22.5%

5th

0.95

6th

Post Ups

4.1%

19th

0.97

5th

Spot Ups

22.8%

9th

0.97

24th

Handoff

3.9%

25th

0.86

25th

Cut

5.3%

28th

1.29

12th

Off Screen

2.3%

30th

1.06

3rd

Transition

14.1%

21st

1.09

22nd  

Crucially, the Thunder also slipped from sixth in the league in PACE (averaging 103.38 possessions per game) to 21st (99.42); 13th (32.6) to 27th (30.2) in 3-point attempts per game; and vaulted from 20th (29%) to third (34.5%) in the percentage of their field goal attempts taken from the midrange, according to Cleaning the Glass, between 2018-19 and 2019-20. 

Their half-court offensive efficiency? 98.6 points per play, fifth in the NBA. Their field-goal percentage on mid-range jumpers? 43.5%, third — both per Cleaning the Glass. The adjustments worked for a roster that naturally revolved around three ball-dominant guards, and midrange assassins, in Paul, Schröder and Gilgeous-Alexander.

That’s not to say the Thunder were world-beaters on the offensive end. They finished bubble play 17th in offensive rating. But Donovan’s year-over-year stylistic malleability is indicative of a coach willing to listen to his players, absorb information with humility and adapt based on their needs and strengths. 

That quality was undoubtedly cultivated coaching a quarter-century at the college level, where complete roster upheaval occurs annually. And it’s a quality the Bulls will value.

 

RELATED: In Billy Donovan, Bulls get a proven winner and another sign of new era

As for the defensive end, tempering that blitz should be expected. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, citing Second Spectrum, the Bulls blitzed more last season (1,353 times) than Donovan’s Thunder teams did in his five-year tenure (1,333).

When the blitz worked, it worked, throwing opponents off balance and generating easy looks for a largely lethargic Bulls offense in transition. And the Bulls finished pre-hiatus play 13th in defensive rating. 

But mixing schemes up can’t hurt, especially when you consider the Bulls’ defensive rating trended downwards — linearly — from first to fourth quarters in 2019-20. Oklahoma City’s defense, which finished pre-hiatus play ninth in defensive rating, was much better at limiting opponent corner 3s and rim attempts than the Bulls’ as well. 

If shooting more of each of those types of shot is a tenet of a modern offense, limiting them should be a tenet of a modern defense.

Player Development

A fundamental piece of Karnišovas’ criteria for the coaching hire, and an area in which Donovan should excel. At Florida, he fostered the development of plenty of future NBA stars, starters and rotation guys alike. Paul and Schröder (a Sixth Man of the Year finalist) revived their careers in 2019-20. Gilgeous-Alexander took a step forward. 

By all accounts, Donovan is a player empowerer and strong communicator.

“Incredible work ethic, incredible family man, never knocks his players. Always builds them up,” Rick Pitino said of Donovan yesterday to Dan Bernstein and Leila Rahimi on 670 The Score, among other notable nuggets. “He’ll be tough in practice, but you won’t see that aspect with the media. He’ll be tough in practice. But once the game starts, it’s their (the players’) game. He’ll be on the sidelines strategizing, he’ll give them the plays at the end of the game. But it’s going to be their game, it’s not going to be Billy Donovan’s game.”

As far as what he’s able to extract from individual Bulls? Such projections might need to wait until we have a better sense of his, Karnišovas and others’ evaluation of the roster, and who will actually be taking the floor for him in the long-term.

Take these nuggets for what they’re worth:

  • Perhaps Donovan and the Thunder’s grandest innovation of the 2019-20 season was the use of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schröder on the floor together. Lineups featuring that three-man combination played 401 minutes (197 of which came in fourth quarters) for the Thunder this year and outscored opponents by 28.6 points per 100 possessions — the best net rating for any three-man combo in the league. The Bulls didn’t have as much success with three-guard groupings this season, but lineups featuring Tomáš Satoranský, Zach LaVine and Coby White boasted the best offensive rating of any of the team’s three-man units last season (min. 50 minutes). There could be something to be unlocked there, especially if LaVine and White start together. Donovan, mind you, was a point guard in his playing days.
  • Donovan coached, and won two national championships with, two slick-passing, defensively versatile big-men at Florida in Joakim Noah and Al Horford during his time at Florida. Will he have inventive ideas for Wendell Carter Jr.’s usage on both ends?
  • As our Kevin Anderson noted on Twitter, Donovan will be LaVine’s sixth coach in seven NBA seasons. If LaVine is getting better every year amid that tumult, imagine him with a steady, consistent presence on the sideline — something the Bulls are hoping Donovan can be.

And this quote, also from that aforementioned virtual coach’s conference: “... a lot of times your personnel can change — whether it’s through graduation in high school and college, or whether it’s through different changes in the NBA — I think you’ve got to locate and figure out what each guy’s strengths and talents are. And then, the job of the coach is to maximize those individual talents as best they can.” 

 

Again, Donovan seems to be someone that listens to his players and adjusts with them. He’s been criticized for over-leniency and over-flexibility, but the Bulls won’t mind an overcorrection in that department next year. The Bulls’ young core needs that targeted attention.

RELATED: Joakim Noah lauds Bulls head coach Billy Donovan: 'What a big hire'

Leaguewide Stature

The significance of this hire for the Bulls can’t be understated. The new front office regime effectively sold the a biggest-name, biggest-money coaching candidate on the market on the organization’s vision amid a more-than-competitive field. That the team went against tradition and hired someone with prior NBA head coaching experience speaks volumes too. The new front office is interested in immediately improving the team’s cache across the league.

Donovan will. For his track record of success, relationships with players and because his hiring signals that the new-look Bulls have truly turned a new leaf. If his positive qualities bear out and he’s able to refurbish the culture around the team — plus, you know, win some games — gravy.

Whether all of that translates into newfound free agent success remains to be seen, and that’s where eyes will be given the Bulls’ clean cap sheet for the 2021 offseason. For now, Donovan brings the makings of a solid starting point to get the rebuild back on track.

Download
Download MyTeams Today!