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How Billy Donovan hire continues Bulls' push into new era

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
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In April, the Bulls hired a new head of basketball operations the first time in 17 years.

In August, that new head man, Artūras Karnišovas, fired a coach who was well-liked by ownership and had two years remaining on his contract.

On Tuesday night, the Bulls hired their first head coach with previous NBA head coaching experience in 17 years to replace Jim Boylen.

That coach, Billy Donovan, just finished a five-year, nearly $30 million deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder. So he didn’t come cheap.

To say this is a new era for Bulls basketball is like saying Donovan had some success over his five seasons in Oklahoma City, which featured a winning percentage of .608 and one trip to the Western Conference finals.

Some may nitpick Donovan’s playoff record after four straight first-round exits. But that fails to capture the significance of this hire, the Bulls’ first of someone with head coaching experience since John Paxson tabbed Scott Skiles to replace Bill Cartwright in 2003.

When Karnišovas began his search to replace Boylen, he focused largely on longtime assistant coaches looking for their first opportunity. Only Kenny Atkinson, who resigned from the Nets, had been a head coach before.

Then, the Thunder and Donovan, with his contract up, mutually agreed to part ways when the franchise got bounced from the bubble playoffs. And Karnišovas and the Bulls pounced.

Donovan is a proven winner. For nearly two decades before joining the Thunder, he built the University of Florida into a powerhouse, accumulating 467 wins, a .715 winning percentage and two national titles across 19 seasons. His .608 NBA winning percentage is better than all but two coaches in Bulls franchise history, Phil Jackson (.738) and Tom Thibodeau (.647). He comes to Chicago one year after the 10th-worst campaign in franchise history by winning percentage.

 

But the hire moves even beyond Donovan's credentials. In fact, it says as much about Karnišovas as anything else. That he has ownership’s complete trust — not to mention checkbook — can’t be overstated. He hired the most expensive candidate of those he interviewed.

He also felt comfortable hiring someone with whom he didn’t have a previous working relationship — such as Denver Nuggets assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. — and someone who has a strong personality and name recognition.

In fact, talk to people around the league about Donovan and Karnišovas and you’ll hear some similar themes. A fiery competitiveness behind a friendly exterior. A humble approach to success. Leaders who prioritize the team construct, not individual notoriety.

RELATED: Why Joakim Noah is happy Bulls hired Billy Donovan: 'What a great hire'

It also shouldn’t be overlooked that Karnišovas sold his vision of the Bulls’ future to Donovan. Donovan in part left the Thunder because it likely will undergo a significant rebuild. But young group or not, the Thunder were a playoff team in the rugged Western Conference when Donovan left them.

The Bulls are far from a playoff team.

Assuming this happened during the interview process, it would have been fascinating to hear the shared conversations between Donovan and Karnišovas about Bulls personnel. That’s the next step: Where does the roster go from here? Donovan wouldn’t have taken the job if he wasn’t comfortable with that direction.

But no matter who the roster features, it will be guided by a coach who checks all the boxes Karnišovas laid out for his hiring prerequisite. Donovan is known as a strong communicator who holds players accountable while cultivating respectful relationships. His player development skills were on display this season.

After all, in voting by his peers from the National Basketball Coaches Association, Donovan won co-Coach of the Year honors along with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer.

It’s a new era in Bulls basketball. It didn’t arrive cheaply, and it hasn’t won anything but news conferences yet.

But Karnišovas, general manager Marc Eversley and Donovan all come from winning programs. It’s a start.

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