It seemed fitting that the Bulls beat the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night, moving into the East’s sixth seed behind Zach LaVine’s 35 points on the day after LaVine earned his first All-Star selection.
But not for the reason you might think.
Yes, the Bulls acquired LaVine from the Timberwolves when the previous management regime decided to plunge into a full rebuild and trade Jimmy Butler in June 2017. And, yes, LaVine is the first Bulls’ All-Star since Butler in that same year.
But it’s more for this reason: The Timberwolves arrived Wednesday night with Chris Finch coaching his second game since replacing the fired Ryan Saunders. That’s three coaches -- Tom Thibodeau, Saunders, Finch -- in four years since LaVine left town.
Such turnover is commonplace for LaVine, who, in Billy Donovan, is playing for his sixth coach in his seventh NBA season. Flip Saunders, Sam Michell, Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg, Jim Boylen, Donovan.
But this is why LaVine’s ascension to All-Star status in Donovan’s first season with the Bulls is so important. Donovan isn’t going anywhere. Word around the league is that LaVine isn’t either.
And so a partnership that is off to a strong, respect-filled start should only strengthen and grow.
It’s another reason why it makes sense for the Bulls to extend LaVine, whether that happens this offseason or next. Just think about what he can achieve with some coaching stability, particularly one of Donovan’s stature?
"Billy's been great, man," LaVine said. "Total 180 from what we had last year, because we pretty much have the same team. We've had our share of ups and downs, games we should've won and didn't come out and play the right way. But our approach and my approach is just so much different mentally.
"I've been saying this the whole time: (Donovan) challenges you and he’s so respected and goes about it the right way. Obviously, we were all bought in from the beginning. We were ready to fight for this guy.”
Donovan uses equally complimentary language when asked about LaVine.
“My little time with Zach, I’ll say this: It’s unfortunate in a lot of ways that people don’t get a chance to see behind the scenes who he is as a person. He’s an incredible teammate and a great guy, and I think that display, what you were talking about with his teammates, goes to the heart of how they feel about him personally,” Donovan said, when asked about teammates’ genuine joy over LaVine’s All-Star selection. “I would say as great of a player as he is and as well as he has played, he’s even a better person than that. I’ve got great respect for his game and what he’s done and the way he’s worked and tried to improve and get better, but he’s always been incredibly approachable. He’s been incredibly open-minded.
“He’s the same guy every day. I think consistency is a big part for a player. As talented and gifted as he is, he’s the same guy personality-wise every day. I always ask him, ‘How you doing?’ He’s says, ‘I’m good. I’m always good.’ I think it speaks to him. Guys enjoy being around him, and guys enjoy his company.”
This coachability trait has been noted by other coaches who have coached LaVine. But this Donovan-LaVine partnership oozes potential.
LaVine’s commitment to wanting to become a two-way player -- a process that former coach Jim Boylen, maligned as he has been, began by challenging him -- fits perfectly with Donovan’s no-nonsense approach to accountability.
It’s clear LaVine is responding to Donovan. He has said he respects how directly Donovan challenges you. But when he says “he goes about it the right way,” this is what LaVine means: Donovan does so without seeking credit. He empowers the player even as he holds that player to a high standard.
“Zach was the one that made those decisions, that he really wanted to focus on becoming a two-way player, that he wanted to focus on winning. It came from him,” Donovan said. “Now obviously when you have a player in that place, I think as a coach you try to put things on his plate that are going to put him in a position where he’s challenged to confront some of the things that he wants to confront. ‘OK, you want to be a two-way player? This is what it takes, this is what it looks like. This is what you need to do. You want to be a guy that wants to be a leader? Well, you have to come in and be the hardest-working guy. If you want to be able to hold your teammates accountable, you have to hold yourself accountable first.’ You can’t be the kind of guy that’s not doing it and say, ‘Listen, do as I say, not as I do.
“I think for him, it’s been a learning process. Because I do think because he’s so gifted, a lot of it has been, ‘Give me the ball, and I’ll just try to take us home and win the game.’ And I think he’s realized that’s not working. So I do think there are things that he’s learned over the six years that he’s been in the league, I think there are thing he learned from last year that have made him a better player. I think myself coming as a coach, I’ve tried to challenge him just to be better in the areas that he wanted to be better at. And to be honest with you, I totally agreed with him watching film when we sat down and spoke about areas that he wanted to improve upon. And I think he’s been really, really good about cooperating and listening to the message from me.”
The messaging completely connects when it comes to desire to win. Donovan and LaVine share it equally and passionately. It’s a relationship at its front end, the possibilities seemingly endless as long as stability remains in play.