Bulls Insider

Presenting the case for each known Bulls coaching candidate

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Bulls Insider

You don’t have to look much past the Bulls’ recent history to know that hiring a longtime assistant coach looking for his or her first big break can be a roll of the dice.

For every Tom Thibodeau, there’s a Jim Boylen.

The former won Coach of the Year in his first season. The latter was fired after just 123 games last month.

It’s possible Artūras Karnišovas hires Kenny Atkinson or someone else with previous NBA head coaching experience. Nevertheless, most of the names on his interview list are longtime assistants looking for their first chance.

Here’s a short assessment of each of the 10 known candidates, including those with previous experience:

Billy Donovan

He’s the most decorated of the group, winning over 60 percent of his regular-season games in five seasons with the Thunder and coming within a game of the 2016 NBA Finals. That he drew some of his highest praise for this past season, which the Thunder navigated after trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, speaks volumes.

There has been little linkage, though, between him and the Bulls since the night he and the Thunder mutually agreed to part ways.

Kenny Atkinson

Players ranging from Kyle Korver to Spencer Dinwiddie have praised his development skills. His positivity and work ethic helped transform the fortunes of the Nets, which led to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant choosing the once-forgotten franchise in free agency. His resignation led to widespread speculation over those players’ role in his departure. But presiding over a 22-win improvement in three seasons headlines his resume.


Philadelphia 76ers assistant Ime Udoka

There’s a reason Philadelphia reportedly made him the highest-paid assistant coach in the league when they hired him away from the Spurs. His seven years under Gregg Popovich and his reputation as a substantive leader as a role player has made him a hot coaching candidate. His defensive work under recently fired Brett Brown led to some second-guessing. But his ties to Bulls general manager Marc Eversley are undeniable.

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Denver Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr.

Trust typically goes a long way when executives make their first head coaching hire as the person sitting atop the basketball operations masthead. Unseld has worked the longest with Karnišovas. But his candidacy moves beyond that. He has helped toughen the Nuggets’ defense. And he has drawn praise for his temperament and ability to connect with players while maintaining respect. There’s a reason he interviewed for the Cavaliers’ job that went to John Beilein.

Dallas Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas

He has certainly paid his dues, accruing almost two decades on the bench for various franchises. That included a month-plus head coaching stint when he filled in for Steve Clifford when the then-Hornets coach took a health-related leave. Stephen not only has the bloodlines as the son of Paul Silas, but has an association with Karnišovas dating back to the 2011 adidas EuroCamp in Italy.

Dallas Mavericks assistant Jamahl Mosley

He has honed his defensive coaching chops working for Rick Carlisle, one of the best in the business. He has led Dallas’ summer-league entry the past three seasons. And he got his start in player development, working for the Nuggets well before Karnišovas arrived.

Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham

His player development roots include a stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, where both Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol sang his praises. He has worked for Mike Budenholzer for two 60-win teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee. And he’s known for being a straight shooter. For what it’s worth, one longtime, respected head coach told NBC Sports Chicago that Ham would make “a home run hire.”

Miami Heat’s Dan Craig

You can do worse than follow paths tread by Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra, both of whom have won NBA titles. Like Nurse, Craig earned G League Coach of the Year honors. Like Spolestra, he started in the video room and has longstanding exposure to the vaunted “Heat culture.”

Bulls assistant Chris Fleming

He owns extensive head coaching experience in Germany and a trust factor with Karnišovas from their shared days working for the Nuggets. He’s known to favor the read-and-react offensive system that Karnišovas prefers. And he already has strong relationships with several important players on the Bulls’ roster.


Minnesota Timberwolves assistant David Vanterpool

When Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum vouch for you, that’s a solid start. Vanterpool spent seven seasons with the former and six with the latter in Portland before landing the associate head coaching job for Ryan Saunders on the MinnesotaTimberwolves’ staff. Karnišovas has cited player development as primary focus for his hire, and Vanterpool owns a strong reputation in that department.