Billy Donovan Hired as the Chicago Bulls Head Coach
After another disappointing season, the Chicago Bulls began their head coaching search on August 14th when they fired Jim Boylen after two seasons and a porous 39-84 record. Boylen was brought in as the interim head coach after Fred Hoiberg was fired. It was evident that he was never going to be a feasible long term replacement from the get-go. Not only did he have questionable decision making (to put it nicely) but he never really gelled with the players on the team, specifically Zach LaVine. Chicago was abysmal on offense this past season and while some of this can be pinned on the hero ball LaVine plays late in games, or the lack of consistent scoring options, I believe the biggest reason for the trouble on the offensive end comes from Boylen’s ineptitude as a head coach.
Lauri Markkanen took a significant step back in his development this past season after a promising sophomore campaign. He never really looked comfortable on this team and it affected his contribution, going from over 18 PPG in 2018-2019 to 14.7 PPG this season. It was clear that Boylen and his coaching style was not productive for Markkanen, who was clearly growing frustrated with the way things were going for the organization. The Bulls have an exciting young team who need a coach that will help develop them into the players that will bring success to a team that has underperformed for quite some time. Boylen was pretty stuck in his ways during his time in Chicago, and it was not conducive for a young core that didn’t fit with the vision he had. It was clear to players and fans alike that a change was necessary, the only question was who would the team acquire to replace Boylen.
After just over a month of searching, the Chicago Bulls found the answer to their prayers. On Tuesday, the Bulls announced they would be bringing in Billy Donovan, the former Thunder coach, to replace Boylen. This move comes on the heels of Donovan and Oklahoma City mutually agreeing to part ways after an unexpected playoff bid that had the Thunder pushing the Rockets to the brink of elimination. While they were unable to get the job done in the playoffs, Donovan and the Thunder received tremendous praise and respect from around the league after the team was heavily written off in the preseason. They lost both Russell Westbrook and Paul George and it seemed as if Chris Paul’s stay with the team would be turbulent and short lived. However, not only did the team exceed expectations, but they finished 5th in a competitive western conference with a 44-28 record and Donovan finished third in the coach of the year race, behind Toronto’s Nick Nurse and Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer.
Yes, there are question marks surrounding Donovan. Despite an abundance of talent, the Thunder haven’t been able to get past the first round of the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. He also has made some questionable decisions in the playoffs that have led to him being at least partially responsible for the underachieving nature of the Thunder of late. He was the head coach during the 3-1 series collapse that drove Kevin Durant to the Warriors, and he received criticism for his defensive tactics against Damian Lillard, who torched the Thunder and sent them packing during the first round of last year’s playoffs. He is by no means a perfect coach, but he is the perfect hire for the Bulls at this moment in time.
Before Donovan parted ways with the Thunder, the Bulls were eying a handful of assistant coaches and former Nets coach, Kenny Atkinson, to fill their coaching vacancy. While none of these options were necessarily bad, they came with much more question marks than Donovan does. Assistant coaches are exciting prospects, but until they have full control of a team, it is hard to tell how they will transition to having the spotlight on them. Sometimes it works out, like when Nick Nurse took the reins of the Toronto organization, but this Chicago team is in a much different position, and needs a proven and respected head coach. I’m not sure they would have had that with Kenny Atkinson either.
Atkinson did lead the Nets to a playoff bid last season, but he had an overall record of 118-190 during his three and a half seasons with the Nets, and was out coached by his replacement, Jacques Vaughn, who led the team to a solid bubble performance despite not having many of the team’s key contributors. The Bulls’ have had some questionable hirings as of late, going from former Iowa State head coach, Fred Hoiberg to Jim Boylen, and taking another gamble with hiring an unproven coach could have completely destroyed a team that has solid potential for the coming years.
Despite Donovan’s issues with getting it done in the playoffs… he still reached the playoffs every season as the Thunder’s head coach. Even this season, when his prospects looked grim, he delivered a consistent and impressive coaching performance that put the league on notice. He was put in an impossible situation in Oklahoma City, losing both of his stars in one off-season and having to continue producing on a team that was very clearly heading towards a rebuild at full steam. This much needed rebuild is the reason for the mutual parting of ways between the coach and the organization, but he at least eased the transition from consistent title contender to rebuilding with a season that made Thunder fans proud. This type of flexibility and his ability to work with what he’s got will bode well Donovan with the Bulls, a team that hasn’t had those qualities in a coach since the Thibodeau era ended in 2015. On top of this, Donovan is an especially good hire for such a young team.
Before his NBA career took off, the new Bulls’ head coach spent 19 seasons with the Florida Gators, and took the program to incredible heights, including back to back championships in 2006 and 2007. During his time at Florida, he produced NBA talent year in and year out, from Jason Williams to Bradley Beal. This type of player development is crucial to a young team, like Chicago. Donovan continued to show his ability to develop players when he transitioned to the NBA as well. Under his watch, players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort emerged and developed into Solid NBA contributors. Yes, he did have like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, which makes winning much easier, but this team didn’t miss a beat this year after losing all of its stars, and Donovan’s player development is a big reason why.
This is a young team that needs that type of development after having the past two seasons wasted away by Boylen. Players like Markkanen, Wendell Carter and Coby White will benefit tremendously from a coach that will value their development. Add this development to a rising star in LaVine and solid role players like Kris Dun, Otto Porter and Thad Young and the right coach can build this team into something solid. They also will be adding in the fourth pick of this year’s draft, which allows the team to add another scoring threat to a roster that could use one. The Bulls absolutely make the right decision with this hiring and fans should be very excited, as I believe it ushers in a new era for an organization that has lost its way in recent years.