Artūras Karnišovas hired Billy Donovan with the promise of a “partnership” between executive vice president and head coach.
How’s that going as their first season working together approaches the midpoint?
“One of the true blessings of being here is the relationship with him,” said Donovan.
“I’m thankful to have him around,” said Karnišovas.
Parroting platitudes is easy to do at a post-hiring press conference, or even speaking to reporters amid a season in which your roster has overachieved in the eyes of most and featured multiple players posting career seasons.
But it’s hard to fake the level of synergy the two spoke with on a night Karnišovas made his first comments to reporters since the start of the season. And, to hear them tell it, it’s hard to fake their constant communication, which Karnišovas called “unbelievable.”
“The relationship part of it has been great, and obviously I really trust him basketball-wise, just his background as a player, his patience, the communication. He has been absolutely terrific to work with,” Donovan said. “We talk a lot about the games, we talk a lot about practices, we talk a lot about how to help the guys get better.”
COVID-19 has broken up the normal beats of relationship-building -- e.g. going out to dinner, hanging outside of the Advocate Center -- but neither Donovan nor Karnišovas seemed to mind their conversations revolving primarily around basketball. Every day, Donovan said, either Karnišovas will pop into his office or he’ll venture to Karnišovas’ to talk through opinions on a given game, practice session or player development conundrum.
“We talk before every practice, we spend time during practices, talk after practices, before games, after games. So the communication is always there,” Karnišovas said. “There’s no misunderstandings from my side or his side. There’s always a clear understanding.”
More times than not, they seem to land on the same page. Karnišovas praised the job Donovan has done at the helm so far, and in assessing the Bulls’ performance, actually hit on two of Donovan’s most-lamented points of consternation: turnovers and over-fouling. In advance of an organizational meeting to discuss trade deadline strategy, both expressed confidence in the team the Bulls currently have and centered the focus on continuing to improve it.
That doesn’t mean they see exactly eye-to-eye on every issue. But the beauty of the partnership, Donovan said, is that the mutual respect and trust requisite to having healthy back-and-forth is already cemented.
“The thing that's been really good is I really appreciate the fact that I can speak honestly and he can speak honestly. And I think the biggest thing in any relationship, there's got to be transparency and there's got to be openness,” Donovan said. “Regardless of whatever happens, we're going to end up being unified, because ultimately there's going to have to be some decisions that he's going to have to make in the position he's in and I'm going to totally support him. Then obviously as a coach, there's decisions I'm having to make that I believe he's going to be behind me 100 percent too.
“But I think the one thing about it is, I like the fact that I can use him as a resource. What are you seeing here? What do you think about this? How are we utilizing this guy? What about this offense, this defense? I like listening to him, and there's things that he will bring to my attention that maybe I haven’t thought about or gives me a different way of looking at it.
“I think the one thing you want to be able to do when you're working with people is you want to make the people you're working with think. And he makes me think and I like that because it allows you to come at things from a different standpoint. Like, are we going to agree on everything all the time? No, but I think the biggest thing is that we can openly and speak honestly and I think that's a really, really good starting place because I believe when I'm talking to him I'm getting straightforward and honest direct feedback and dialogue.”
Indeed, just over five months after his hiring, Donovan speaks like a colleague that has successfully worked with Karnišovas for decades. Watching their relationship unfold, it’s easy to see why Karnišovas quickly pivoted his extensive search to pursue the former Oklahoma City Thunder coach full-bore when Donovan became available after the conclusion of his 2019-20 season. And it’s easy to see why his hiring came together so quickly.
“This short period of time, coming here, end of October, beginning of November and being here on a consistent basis, trying to get moved into a home, those kinds of things, it's been extremely natural,” Donovan said of building that bond with Karnišovas. “It's been great, it really has been. I'm really totally comfortable with him. I totally trust him. It's part of the reason why I wanted to come (to the Bulls). I didn't really know any of the players, but I think the way we talked for the two or three days leading up to me being hired, those things were really important to me.
“You're not going to always see eye to eye, but it's just the honesty, the integrity, the truthfulness, all of that stuff is really really important to me. And I also want to be able to speak openly and honestly too. Doesn't mean I'm always going to be right, but I can at least come across and express how I'm feeling. That part of it was really natural for me, fit-wise right from the get-go.”
And it’s not all serious. Karnišovas’ reputation as a people person has shone through as well, from friendly ribbing over their rival alma maters (Karnišovas played ball for Seton Hall in the early 1990s, while Donovan played for Providence years earlier) to light-hearted workout sessions.
“I think a lot of times, you guys see Artūras, he's very very stoic. But he's very very funny,” Donovan said. “He's got an incredible sense of humor. He's a great guy to be around. I love to workout, he works out all the time. We're in the weight room upstairs on the cardiovascular machines, we see each other. But he's a great personality as you get to know him. When you're working with people as much as you work, you want to be able to have fun and a few laughs, and we have some laughs together which is great.”
Don’t underestimate the value of that to a franchise that has seen fractured relationships aplenty between the front office and coaching staff. Big decisions loom, from the upcoming trade deadline to an offseason that will give the Bulls another opportunity to shake up their roster after mostly holding pat to this point.
“Once you do that (establish trust), you get the cards on the table, then we both know, we're going to row the boat in the same direction,” Donovan said. “We've got to row it in the same direction organizationally, and we will. And I think when you have maybe some difference of opinions or philosophies or whatever it is, you've got to then put your heads together to figure out which is the best way to move forward.”