Evaluating Billy Donovan's first Bulls season using his goals

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Evaluating Donovan's first Bulls year using preseason goals originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

After conducting double-digit interviews with mostly assistant coaches looking for their first head-coaching opportunity, Artūras Karnišovas aggressively pivoted to pursue, and ultimately landed, Billy Donovan last September.

Donovan talked then about the appeal of a partnership. Given that Karnišovas on Monday called it “a blessing” to work with Donovan and his staff on a daily basis, it’s clear Donovan is in good standing with his boss.

But what about his players? And how did Donovan fare reaching general goals and philosophies he said upon his hiring that he wanted to establish?

Here’s a look at some of the bigger ones:

Build culture

This is something specific that Donovan cited as a major appeal of the job. When he arrived in Oklahoma City, that culture had been set, in large part by general manager Sam Presti and decorated players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Arriving in Chicago on the ground floor with Karnišovas and general manager Marc Eversley, Donovan called this opportunity “a blank canvas.”

Garrett Temple is an 11-year NBA veteran who has played in 10 organizations. He has plenty of experience and comparison points.

“I think the leadership, AK, Marc, (vice president of player personnel) Pat (Connelly) and then the coaching staff that they brought in with Billy has done a great job of starting to set a culture here. And culture, it’s a cliché word, but it’s something that actually does happen if you want to become a good team,” Temple said. “And it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years to create that. So I think it’s definitely going in the right direction. I was pleasantly surprised by the organization, by the coaching. It was really good. It’s a bright future.”

Set a style of play

Donovan consistently talked about player and ball movement, about being a strong cutting team. His offensive philosophy centered on players reading and reacting to turn a good shot into a better one.

Before the trade deadline, the Bulls posted an offensive rating of 110.6, 18th in the league, and assisted on 61.4 percent of their made baskets, 11th. Their effective field goal (55.1) and true shooting (58.2) percentages ranked eighth, as did their pace of 101.07 possessions per game.

Donovan ran plenty of offense through Thad Young in the high post and used a near-historic season of offensive efficiency from Zach LaVine to create an aesthetically pleasing brand.

When Karnišovas got busy on trade deadline day, he changed.

The additions of Nikola Vučević and Daniel Theis made the Bulls frontcourt heavy and more physical. Donovan played more through Vučević, particularly when LaVine landed in the league’s health and safety protocols, and placed Coby White in more catch-and-shoot situations.

In the 29 games following the trade deadline, the Bulls posted an offensive rating of 110.0, 22nd in the league, and assisted on 66.6 percent of their made baskets, third. Their effective field goal (54) and true shooting (56.4) dropped to 17th and 21st, respectively. So did their pace, down to 97.36, which ranked 25th.

That Donovan pivoted to fit personnel is similar to his time in Oklahoma City, where he moved from playing through Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to utilizing a three-guard lineup and running some offense through Steven Adams in his final season there.

Vučević averaged 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 26 games.

The way he used me, we talked about a lot of stuff,” Vučević said. “When I got here, the way the team was already playing fit with my skill set and the way I like to play. Sort of an adjustment, but that was all fine. Billy put me in position to be successful and for me to play at a high level.”

Holding players accountable

During his introductory news conference, Donovan declined to reveal many specifics about how he planned to utilize players. The reason? He hadn’t met any of them yet.

This detail strikes to the core of Donovan’s approach regarding accountability.

“There has to be trust built up and you build that trust by working on the relationship piece of it,” he said then.

Former Bull Joakim Noah called his college coach at Florida the best he has ever seen at holding players accountable because of the strong relationships he builds. LaVine gave Donovan high marks as well.

“We’ve built a really good relationship, and I’m actually really excited to work with him again next year and many years to come hopefully,” LaVine said. “It’s always good when you meet somebody and they invest into you and they give you support. And that’s what he’s done with me.

“We have a lot of talks, a lot of hours spent watching different film and just talking about not even basketball but just life and how you can be better as a person and as a man.”

Temple said it has become harder in the modern NBA for coaches to hold players accountable because players make so much more than coaches do. But he called Donovan’s pre- and postgame addresses “probably the best I’ve heard in terms of being able to get guys ready.”

Even after victories, Temple said, Donovan would impart the importance of setting the right tone and striving to play to a standard and identity.

And I think Artūras and Marc deserve a lot of credit in giving him the autonomy to be able to coach and him using that autonomy in a way that he coaches the right way in my opinion,” Temple said. “He holds guys accountable, lets them know that this is their role and this is what he expects. This is what the team needs and then holding people to that standard. He did a really good job of that.”

Player development

Donovan consistently terms Rick Pitino, his college coach at Providence and longtime coaching mentor, one of the best player development coaches in history.

And like Pitino, Donovan said he takes a broad view of player development.

“Yes, there’s the on-court,” he said. “But I do think a large part of player development is a player developing confidence in his role.”

This extends to off-court matters like shared film sessions and stressing the importance of sleep, diet and recovery. It extends to emphasizing the importance of extra individual work outside the context of team practices.

“I think they’re receptive. Receptive to things that we want to do as players,” Young said of Donovan and his staff. “They want to continue to help guys grow and get better. But they’re coming each day with a winning mindset. And the only thing they believe in is winning. There’s no, ‘Oh, we’re just developing.’ There’s, ‘No, we’re trying to win games. And we’re trying to kick people’s butt each night.’ I love that about Billy and his staff.”

The results on the floor were mixed. On the positive end, White showed marked growth in his final 18 games as a starter after a turbulent beginning to his point guard education, and Patrick Williams' promise — albeit fleeting at times — jumped off the screen. As for negatives, Lauri Markkanen continued to regress (spot-up shooting aside) and Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford ended the season in different uniforms than they started.

Perhaps Donovan’s most notable trait is his ability to look inward and own mistakes. His season-ending news conference bordered on self-flagellation at times. He vowed to perform a deep dive, including film study, to try to ascertain why the Bulls failed to perform in the stretch of multiple winnable games, games that ultimately cost the Bulls a play-in shot.

Not finishing in the top ten of a middling Eastern Conference is a failure. Donovan, Karnišovas and players admitted to that. But they also believe a foundation for success is being created.

“He’s a true leader. He really is,” LaVine said. “He can really speak to the team and bring everybody together. I think that’s something we all can learn from.”

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