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Why Donovan-Karnišovas partnership will define Bulls' future

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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Artūras Karnišovas and Billy Donovan didn’t know each other.

Sure, they knew of each other. And they had mutual friends who spoke highly of each person to the other.

But until Karnišovas and new general manager Marc Eversley traveled to Donovan’s home in Florida to talk face-to-face for 5 ½ hours on Sept. 14, the men had never spent quality time together.

Now, the Bulls’ new executive vice president of basketball operations and new head coach are throwing the “partnership” word around like they’re longtime pals.

It’s what happens when you have two basketball lifers who are united in a common purpose — to restore the Bulls to their previous lofty heights.

Organizational alignment is so critical in today’s NBA. After five successful seasons, Donovan is leaving an arrangement in Oklahoma City that is well regarded throughout the league, from owner Clay Bennett to executive vice president Sam Presti and on down.

That Donovan chose to join the Bulls at a time when other high-profile jobs remain vacant speaks volumes about the vision that Karnišovas and Eversley presented. That the Reinsdorfs backed a significant financial commitment for Donovan of $24 million over four years, according to The Athletic, at a time a source said they’re still paying Jim Boylen close to double what has been previously reported, speaks to organizational alignment.

This isn’t a shotgun marriage. It’s two men who are in a position fortunate enough to pick and choose what they want to do — and then aggressively pursue it when the opportunity feels right.

 

“One of the things that really hit me hard when I was sitting there was Artūras said, ‘I’m not looking for a coach. I’m not looking for a manager of players. I want a partner. I want to work really, really closely with somebody where we can both make each other better. I want to be together and build a program. I want you to be a part of helping us in draft and free agency.’ All of it was about a partnership,” Donovan said in a 20-minute sitdown with NBC Sports Chicago.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with somebody where you feel like you’re trying to build something. I think there was a lot of talk that I didn’t want to be part of a rebuild or I was looking for a ready-made team. I’ve never been that way as a coach. Certainly going into Oklahoma City was an outstanding team that I inherited and we were really close to the NBA Finals. But I’ve always valued who I’m working for and who I’m working with because I think a lot of special things happen when you’re part of a team. If the team is working together, you put yourself in position to accomplish something that you couldn’t accomplish on your own.

“That’s what is so great about a team sport like basketball. Everybody needs each other. That’s why it’s great to partner with Arturas. We have to work together. He has a job with scouting and the draft and free agency. I’ve got a job in coaching. How do you gel and mesh and work together where you’re becoming a team that makes each other better? That’s always been exciting for me and what I really, really enjoy about coaching.”

Donovan and Presti amicably split on Sept. 8. The following day, Donovan drove 17 hours to his Florida home, linked to seemingly every job opening on the market but unsure what would come next.

“I didn’t really have my eye on any job,” he said. “I came through an emotional five years where I developed relationships at Oklahoma City.”

Speaking on a conference call with multiple reporters, Karnišovas admitted he didn’t expect Donovan to become available. His initial interview targets centered on longtime assistant coaches.

Donovan and Karnišovas share Big East playing roots, although since Donovan is six years older, they never played against each other. Karnisovas called and wanted to visit on Sept. 11. Donovan asked for the weekend.

“He was pretty proactive,” Donovan cracked.

After the initial in-person discussion, multiple phone calls followed, including one Donovan shared with the Reinsdorfs. The connection Donovan felt extended beyond the fact the youngest of his four children is the same age as Karnisovas’ oldest.

 

After all, working for a team is like a family as well.

“The idea to be able to partner with somebody and really work closely with somebody in terms of trying to build something, it reminded me a lot of previous situations I’ve been at where there’s been really, really good working relationships. You want to continue that,” Donovan said in the sitdown with NBC Sports Chicago. “I felt Arturas was a guy who I really wanted to work with and wanted to work for. I felt we could hopefully make each other better, work well together and hopefully continue to build something.”

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When Donovan left his college coaching empire at the University of Florida, where he won two national championships, he joined a Thunder franchise where Presti already had established a strong foundation and featured Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. With the Bulls, he’s coming in on the ground floor with executives in new roles for the first time.

“I think that’s the exciting part because it’s a little bit like you have a blank canvas to try to create a culture. I think your culture is always basically the people that you’re working with on a regular basis,” Donovan said in the sitdown with NBC Sports Chicago. “Having a blank canvas to come in and build out how we want to play, what we want to do in terms of building out the (coaching) staff, Artūras’ and Marc’s thoughts on going forward with the current players, hopefully being able to set a good style of player that puts those guys in positions to be successful.

“I think there’s a lot of newness to Chicago for me, which is a little different. I walked into a situation at Oklahoma City where the team was really, really good and a lot of the culture and environment was already established. This is interesting because you’re starting from the ground floor and you have a chance to build upwards. That really excited me.”

Karnišovas is excited.

“With all of our research and background gathering, certain things emerged regarding Coach Donovan, the most impressive being the relationships he’s built with players, coaches and [executives] that have worked with him over the years. He has built a reputation around the league as someone who values others and has a great passion for growing and developing players. Those that have played for Billy trust his coaching acumen and perhaps more importantly trust him as a person,” the executive vice president said on the conference call. “In all of my conversations and my personal meetings with Billy, two things stood out: First, he’s a great communicator and values his relationships with others. And second, he has the ability to inspire enthusiasm in others to strive for a common goal.

“Billy has a team-first mentality that embraces collaboration and partnership with his players, staff, and front office, and is very much aligned with the culture we are working to develop. He believes deeply that it’s about the journey and who we’re with that matters. This is an opportunity for our organization to walk alongside a great coach who brings tremendous leadership to the table and to build a foundation for a sustainable program that Bulls fans can be proud of.”

 

In fact, Karnišovas knew Donovan didn’t have to sell himself to the Bulls because Karnišovas said Donovan’s resume speaks for itself. Karnišovas had to sell the Bulls and his vision to Donovan.

“I pretty much was just trying to sell the relationship that we're going to have once he gets here. The resources that are here available, I mean from practice facilities to the market to the history of Chicago Bulls to ownership,” Karnišovas said. “And again, the vision of us building a program and developing players. We spoke about different ways of building a program from the draft to trades to free agency and the biggest attention that we will have to pay attention to is player development. We have to develop our own players. They have to get better in order for us to succeed.

“And I thought the combination of all those factors, you know, we try to talk to Billy and we were on the same page the way he believed as well. And we wanted to do it together.”

No egos other than professional pride. No agendas. Just two men trying to put players in position to succeed and win as many games possible while representing the franchise well in the community.

“It’s an iconic franchise,” Donovan said. “It has not only nationwide but worldwide cache. Chicago is a great city. Everybody knows about the Bulls. Everybody got done watching 'The Last Dance.' There’s an expectation you want to step across the lines and play as hard as you can play and have people feel good about the effort.”