Bulls' Billy Donovan extension emblematic of bond with Artūras Karnišovas
Donovan extension emblematic of bond with Karnišovas originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Billy Donovan didn’t know Artūras Karnišovas when he welcomed him and Marc Eversley into his Florida home as the Chicago Bulls’ new management team worked to hire its replacement for Jim Boylen in September 2020.
Donovan and Karnišovas had several mutual friends from their shared Big East connections, but their initial meeting represented their first face-to-face conversation.
Right away, both men felt a connection, an opportunity to form a partnership with someone who saw the game similarly and desired open, transparent communication.
“I felt like Artūras was a guy I really wanted to work with and work for,” Donovan once told NBC Sports Chicago. “I felt we could hopefully make each other better, work well together and build something. It’s kind of like a blank canvas to try to create a culture. And your culture is basically the people you’re working with on a regular basis.”
If anything, the connection between Donovan and Karnišovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations, only has strengthened since that initial meeting. That’s why the Bulls’ media relations staff confirming a report from The Athletic that Donovan signed a multi-year extension before this season on a deal originally set to expire after 2023-24 is no surprise.
Karnišovas valued Donovan’s role in presiding over a quick turnaround from the 2019-20 team that amassed a .338 winning percentage under Boylen in the pandemic-shortened, 65-game season to the 2021-22 team that snapped a four-year playoff drought with a .561 winning percentage.
Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.
And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.
But Karnišovas not only thinks continuity is important for a roster that, when fully healthy, led the Eastern Conference for a good portion of last season. Continuity for Donovan’s and his staff’s leadership voice is important too.
Beyond his strong communication, another word often associated with Donovan is consistency. Players routinely cite this trait about the veteran coach, who left his powerhouse program at Florida to make the jump to the NBA and spend five seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder before landing in Chicago.
Asked about that trait recently, Donovan revealed his philosophy behind the approach.
“I think it’s important I’m consistent every day so the players know who they’re getting each day as a person,” Donovan said. “I’m not sitting here saying there are days I don’t come in here and I’m not mad and upset and angry and there are other days I’m happy. But I’m not up and down when I come in here.
“But I also think it’s important I’m consistent with what the standard is and what we level we need to play to with our energy. And when it’s not there, I think it needs to be called out. It’s not one person that’s dragging us down. I always look at it as ‘we’ — coaching staff, players, all of us. We have to respond better in those moments than we did.”
For some critics’ talk about Donovan not being big on adjustments when it comes to strategy or Xs and Os, Donovan actually has made several this season. He changed the offense in an attempt not to be so reliant on isolation. He changed the rotation to feature Zach LaVine staggered with the second unit instead of DeMar DeRozan. And he placed an emphasis on paint touches and corner 3-pointers for Nikola Vučević, among other moves.
Donovan also called out DeRozan, LaVine and Vučević to be better leaders and play more like stars when asked a benign question about the team’s penchant for slow starts. And he benched LaVine for the closing minutes of a home loss to the Orlando Magic, a move that irked LaVine and one whose lingering ramifications may call for further monitoring.
But Donovan isn’t going anywhere. Like LaVine, who signed a five-year, maximum contract extension last offseason, Donovan has long-term security.
Donovan also has expectations. Remember when Karnišovas said the following at his news conference on the eve of training camp in late September?
“We’ve talked to Billy and obviously the last year, we were not surprised we made the playoffs. A lot of people were surprised. Nor should we be surprised to make the playoffs this year. But we want to see is obviously improvement,” Karnišovas said then.
“Once you get to the playoffs and you have healthy bodies, a lot of things can happen. We have to do better than last year. And when you get to the playoffs, as always, things happen. Certain teams missing one or two key players, you can get by a round. Those are the expectations.”
The first four words of the quote are the most crucial. Of course management had talked to Donovan, who not only has long-term job security but also the internal expectation of improvement.
The Bulls are mindful of their improved, early-season showings against elite teams — they’ve defeated the Celtics twice and the Bucks once — and hoping Ball can make an impact. Merely making the playoffs no longer is enough.
Donovan is as competitive as they come. And he’s been rewarded to try to make improvement happen.
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