There’s a simple reason why Zach LaVine and Billy Donovan have connected so seamlessly and professionally.
“Man, we’ve just been really honest with each other,” LaVine said following Friday’s Chicago Bulls practice at the Advocate Center.
Of course, developing respectful relationships, particularly in a star-driven league like the NBA, is more complex than that. But that’s a solid foundational aspect.
“I'm a straight-up guy, and he's been straight up with me,” LaVine said. “Good, bad, ugly, pretty, whatever word you want to put it. We talk every day. We talk about the offense and defense. And when somebody cares for you, you can tell.
“I've had a way of feeling out a bunch of different coaches in my career, and I can tell when somebody isn't real with you just from experiences. Billy's a great guy, first off. Everybody's a grown man and nobody wants to be talked down too. He comes about it the right way, and it’s all from a place of putting the team first and trying to get you better. You can't do anything but respect somebody that comes at you that way.”
Donovan quickly achieved a harmonious relationship with LaVine and, in their half-season together, with Nikola Vučević. Now he must do the same with DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.
So how does Donovan approach that task? Time and talk. When the sign-and-trades happened, he spent time with Ball and Caruso in Chicago and again with Ball at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. He also connected with DeRozan also in Las Vegas, and with DeRozan and LaVine at shared California workouts.
Genuine, direct communication is critical.
“You just have to invest time and get to know them,” he said.
Entering his seventh NBA season, Donovan has coached multiple A-list superstars, players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. Stars of that ilk are often more coachable than the common perception and are driven by a burning desire to get better. To win.
Still, a relationship with the person calling the shots has to form. Or a toxic environment can develop and linger, torpedoing even the best intentions for a season.
Through five seasons with the Thunder and one with the Bulls, not to mention his longtime successful collegiate coaching career, Donovan has developed a reputation as a players coach. He is known as someone who holds players accountable while walking the fine line between being confrontational without being combative.
“I think sometimes words like discipline and accountability have such a negative connotation. And it’s not negative at all,” Donovan said Friday. “I think the accountability piece is a standard that everybody has agreed to try to live up to, myself as a coach. And what you want to do when you’re not meeting it.
“I think players also need to try to help each other: ‘C’mon, you’re better than that. I’ve seen you do this.’ It’s not necessarily a bad thing, the confrontational piece. I just think when you’re in a team sport, there’s going to be a lot of confrontation. I think people think or expect confrontation that there’s yelling and screaming. Sometimes it does get heated voices. But it doesn’t need to be that. It’s just confronting the standard on a regular basis.
“These guys are pros. They’re veterans, especially the guys we’ve got now on our team. They know. And I think a lot of those guys respect the honesty of saying, ‘Listen, he’s expecting me to be better than I was.’ Or, ‘He’s created a role for me and this is what I have to do to help the team.’ I think you have those dialogues.
“But to me, the film and the game has never, ever been personal. It’s just not. It’s just we all have a job to do and a responsibility to each other.”
A big part of Donovan’s coaching philosophy is creating a two-way street of communication.
“It has to be that way,” he said. “Listen, guys like Vooch and DeMar and Zach, if you just take the number of games that they’ve played, it’s a lot of games. There are certain things they see on the court that I don’t think coaches are able to see. So sometimes you want to be able to collaborate and work together to be able to come up with solutions and ideas and the best ways to solve problems.
“I think a big part of an 82-game schedule, especially with us this year, will be our ability to solve problems. Can we solve problems together? There will be frustration. There will be ups and downs. There will be disappointments that we’ll have to solve. If we all work together, we’ll solve them. If it gets into frustration or not working together, I don’t think you can be as good as you want to be.”
Asked if he believes star players should be treated differently than role players, Donovan didn’t hesitate.
“I think everybody is treated fairly. But it may not necessarily always be equal,” he said. “For someone like DeMar, who has made deep playoff runs in Toronto and has been in San Antonio and has had a lot of different experiences as a player, 'Hey, what can I learn from him?'
“And a lot of times, it may be me doing the same thing with DeMar with Coby White and Patrick Williams. ‘DeMar, I need you to spend time with these guys on A, B and C. I need you to talk to them about your experiences.’ And DeMar is great at that kind of stuff. So is Zach and so is Vooch.
“But I would expect everyone on our team to show up to the plane on time. I would expect everyone to come to practice and work hard and have a good attitude and be professional. But you’re going to treat some of the veteran guys different than a rookie or second-year player just because those guys haven’t earned it. These (veteran) guys already know. It’s not so much you treat them different as human beings. It’s just a wealth of more experience that they have than younger players.”
Donovan also isn’t afraid to point the finger at himself, to take the blame if it’s warranted. He comes across as someone who is comfortable in his own skin. And players sense that.
“He's not a yeller or a screamer, but then when he wants to be heard, we all pay attention,” LaVine said. “I think he goes about it the right way by being respectful but getting his point across.”
That’s the job, as far as Donovan is concerned.
“I believe my responsibility as a coach is to be direct and honest as I possibly can. And sometimes those conversations can be uncomfortable. But I think that’s my job,” Donovan said. “I think there’s a way to do that in a dignified way or in a professional way out of respect to what these guys do.
“I want them to be the best players they can be. I want them to be able to talk to me about areas I can be better to help the team... I think that’s healthy. I think you do that with your friends and people you care about in relationships that you have. Listen, if we’re all working together, we all gotta be honest with each other.”