At the end of his nearly 30-minute, end-of-season Zoom session that concluded late Sunday night, Billy Donovan told reporters how much he hoped he could deal with them in person next season.
The gesture underscored Donovan’s personal touch that resonated with players in his first season as Bulls coach. But it also served as a nod to his desire for a return to normalcy after a season that was anything but.
Beyond the challenges all teams dealt with involving daily testing for COVID-19, and players moving in and out of the league’s health and safety protocols, the Bulls completely changed their roster at the March 25 deadline. The addition of All-Star center Nikola Vučević and physical big man Daniel Theis changed the Bulls stylistically.
Between that shift, which occurred on the front end of a daunting West Coast trip, the inherent lack of practice time in such a challenging season and All-Star guard Zach LaVine missing 11 games following a positive test for COVID-19, the Bulls failed to make the play-in tournament.
A 31-41 record that might have, at season’s outset, been viewed as progress ultimately left question marks. Particularly since the Bulls own merely a 20.3 chance of moving into the top four picks following the June 22 draft lottery, which must happen for them not to convey the first-round selection to the Magic as part of the Vučević trade.
“I'm disappointed that we didn't get to the postseason. I don't think it has anything to do with the trades,” Donovan said. “I do think long term, it’s going to help us. I think in the short term, it was challenging.”
Donovan consistently pointed the finger inward, saying he always looks at himself and what he could’ve done better first when assessing a season.
Here are takeaways from Donovan’s standout comments from his season wrap session:
Quote: "This was a trade where immediately a guy comes in here and now he's unequivocally 1A or 1B. Right away. Those things don't normally happen in the NBA. Like, 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 Golden State, San Antonio, Phoenix, Utah.
"So, yes, it was hard to make that kind of trade and not get to postseason. But how many trades are there where a guy immediately elevated and was so good that you had to totally take advantage of his skill set? And doing that, it obviously impacted a lot of other guys on the team. You know, and I gotta look at that personally, just being honest, was that the right thing to do?
"I've got so much respect for Vooch and his game and what he did just seeing him in Orlando. And I got so much respect for Theis and Thad (Young). I'm just every day trying to figure out a way to make all the pieces and parts work together. Because a lot of times on our roster there wasn't this great separation. It's like, ‘Geez, we're not physical enough. Well, you’ve got Theis sitting over there. Put him in the game. Geez, we need a little bit more shooting here. Put Lauri in, he does that.' And I'm not making any excuses. 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 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. I'll take a deep dive and look at myself in terms of are there different things we could've done offensively or defensively? And maybe there's not. Maybe it’s just the fact that we didn't practice, and it was just too hard."
Takeaway: Vučević averaged 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 26 games. He and LaVine began 3-7 together but finished 7-8. The pairing didn’t pop initially because LaVine battled a gimpy ankle and, as Donovan cited, the team faced a difficult schedule stretch with little practice time.
Still, the fact the Bulls added talent at the deadline and ultimately moved from play-in contention to outside it is worrisome. Next season’s roster will look different. But in LaVine, Vučević and Coby White, three of the mainstays are offensive-minded. The Bulls ultimately finished 21st in offensive rating at 110.4, 12th in defensive rating at 111.5 and 20th in net rating. Aligning next season’s rotation to better reflect the team’s talents should be top of list.
Quote: "Zach has been a great guy to work with. I think he and I built a really good relationship. I really enjoy him as a person. I mean, his talent speaks for itself. People get a chance to see it every time he steps across the lines and plays. But he's even a better person. And I think he's trying to figure out the winning part. These are things that he's gonna have to take a deep dive into and a deep look at of how he can take another step. I did think he took a step this year. And that's coming from him; this is my first year being with him. But he felt like he got better. He felt like he learned a lot about the mental approach of things."
Takeaway: Barring something dramatic, next season will represent the first time LaVine has played two consecutive full seasons for the same coach. This stability should do wonders for LaVine’s game, which did, indeed, reach another level. Beyond his first All-Star selection, LaVine came six assists and one made free throw away from joining Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history to average 27 points, five assists and five rebounds on shooting splits of 50 percent, 40 percent from 3-point range and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
As it stood, LaVine posted career-high averages virtually across the board. His respect for Donovan and his staff played a significant part.
Quote: "Thad Young was awesome all year long. He was great. I look at his leadership in the locker room. I have basically spoke about this all year long with him. I mean even when the trade happened and his role changed. Just loves to compete. I love being around him. I love what he did for our young guys, I love what he did for our team. He was great, but the biggest thing for me I’m not privy to the contractual situations or what the money looks like and all those kinds of things going forward."
Takeaway: Donovan doesn’t show his hand when asked direct questions. In this instance, citing Donovan’s own words that he took this job in part because of the partnership he felt with management, Donovan wouldn’t fully bite on what he’d recommend to management regarding Young. The 14-year veteran carries a partial guarantee for next season, but he could be a salary-cap casualty if management chooses to try to create significant space.
It’s more likely, particularly after the phenomenal year that Young had, that he returns. And it’s clear by how much Donovan relied on Young that the coach would welcome that development.
Quote: "I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with Patrick (Williams) this offseason. Because I really want to hear from him what he's learned and what he’s experienced and how he views the year. I think a lot of times when you’re going and you’re dealing with a younger player who’s a rookie and you’re trying to get him ready for what’s getting ready to come, there’s nothing like going through an experience yourself. So this will be a big summer for Patrick. It will be a big summer for Coby. Really, it was an up-and-down for him this year. But I’ve always said this about him: He’s got great resolve. He’s got resiliency, and he’s got great bounce-back ability. I think after the trade was over with, I think he kind of found his footing and played really good basketball for us."
Takeaway: Williams and White are two core pieces who project to play significant roles next season, even if management is almost certain to address the point guard position.
Quote: "What was hard to overcome was the amount of games that we gave away. And some games against maybe — it’s the NBA, there are great players on every team — some teams that we really had opportunities to win. We just didn’t play at the level we needed to and there was a level of inconsistency. And I think as a coach you always look at that."
Takeaway: Here’s looking at you, overtime loss at Oklahoma City. Or maybe the road loss to the Timberwolves. Or the home loss to the Magic. Or... Too many losses crowd the team picture for worst of the season. It speaks to the Bulls’ penchant for fouling too much at inopportune times and turning the ball over too often. They finished 27th in the latter department.
Quote: "Every day for me with these guys was phenomenal. They were a great group. I don’t know if people know how hard it was for them to play every single day. Like 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 3 a.m. and having to go down and wait in line and get tested. These guys never complained."
Takeaway: Players raved about Donovan and his staff’s investment in them as people. Donovan is known as a players’ coach who is collaborative. He doesn’t criticize players publicly. But he holds them to a standard that creates accountability.