Since Phil Jackson’s dramatic departure from Chicagoland in the summer of 1998, there have been 12 head coaches in 22 years. Statistically, the closest to Jackson was Tom Thibodeau, who in his inaugural year won 62 games for the Bulls. That was followed by 50 games. Both were good enough for 1st place finishes in the division.
Thibodeau’s last three years were second-place division finishes, the best of which was 50 wins in 2014-15. Thibs nurtured Derrick Rose and then Jimmy Butler. His defense was ranked 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 9th in consecutive seasons. Thibs won Coach of the Year in 2011, But he had the misfortune to run into LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. It didn’t go well for him.
Coaches are always compared to the last person who occupied their seat and who had the brilliance to take their team to the playoffs. Tom Thibodeau was compared to Vinny Del Negro. Vinny took a very young team to the playoffs twice. Del Negro was compared to Scott Skiles who actually got the Bulls to the second round.
And so it goes. Billy Donovan, the new Bulls head coach, will be compared to Tom Thibodeau. It’s not fair because a young Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler have left the building. But that’s not what Donovan signed up for when he agreed to coach the Bulls. Fairness is irrelevant particularly since coaching is about perception as much as it is about wins and losses.
My hometown of Chicago will be a piece of cake compared to when Donovan first got the OKC gig in 2015. The pressure was intense because Kevin Durant’s future was iffy. Would he stay? Would he go?
If small market OKC could keep Durant they would maintain their profit margins and relevancy. If not, chaos. Donovan then was walking into a tempest not of his own making. Someone else controlled the optics. Donovan was charged with keeping things normal which meant a playoff run; he couldn’t screw that up. And he had to make sure Kevin Durant was happy.
As with all things that have steep consequences, it came down to something simple. A game 7. The Thunder had built a 3-1 lead and now they were tied. Game 7’s are often struggles because the pressure rises and players feel the moment. The Warriors were defending champions playing at home but the Thunder were confident. For Billy Donovan, this was baptism by fire. If he dethroned the champions, in effect, rerouting a dynasty, he would have canceled the doubters who said it was going to be a hard transition from college to the pros. If he lost a 3-1 lead then most likely Kevin Durant was gone.
As for the game. The Thunder dominated the first quarter and had the lead, and despite a very average bench, they led at halftime. But midway through the third, the energy changed. Steph Curry made a three to give the Warriors the lead and after a Durant layup, the Thunder wouldn’t make a shot the rest of the quarter. Add in two Russell Westbrook turnovers and by the end of the quarter, the Warriors were up by 11. Donovan’s first year ended in disaster.
In OKC, Billy Donovan won 55 games, 47 games, 48 games, 49 games, and 44 games in the bubble year. His defenses consistently ranked in the top-10 and his offense was always a blur with Russell Westbrook as the brain. Without Kevin Durant, the Thunder were still relevant and Donovan, who takes his share of criticism for not holding Westbrook accountable, is responsible for the Thunder achievement. Donovan successfully quieted his critics who wondered if he had it in him to be an NBA head coach.
In the year 2019-20 Billy Donovan finished third in Coach of the Year voting; what he did was brilliant. In a rebuilding lottery year, the addition of Chris Paul had an energizing effect on the young Thunder players and on Donovan, as Paul was the coach on the floor and he and Donovan had obvious chemistry. Paul embraced being in Oklahoma and took his job more seriously than mentorship. He was an example, not of professionalism, but of how to compete. How to win NBA games.
Considering how terrible the Thunder were at offensive rebounding and assists, and how pedestrian they were at scoring points, and how spectacular they were at defending the three and overall defense, it’s surprising/not surprising they competed until the very end, a game 7 in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. The loss pulled the Chris Paul project off the table as the Thunder officially entered rebuilding. The Durant/Westbrook years are really over now. The last link to either All-Star has changed teams like Durant and Westbrook changed teams.
But will Donovan succeed in Chicago? That’s what everyone wonders. On the plus side, Donovan has a perfect mix of nurturing and toughness so he’ll win the city over. The Long Island native has a historical resume when you consider he is one of four who have been to the Final Four as a player and who won a title as a college coach. Dean Smith, Bobby Knight, Joe B. Hall are the others.
Known as Billy the Kid when he played for Rick Pitino at Providence, Donovan was a tough hardnosed guard. Years later, Pitino gave Donovan, whose father is the third leading scorer in Boston College history, the ultimate compliment. Pitino said he never had a player who worked as hard at improving than Billy the Kid.
Donovan worked for Pitino at Kentucky where he moved up to lead assistant. He took the Florida job and nearly was the coach of the Orlando Magic but backed out of the deal. He stayed at Florida another eight years then took the jump to the NBA and Oklahoma City.
Chicago is a unique situation for Billy Donovan because he has never had a coaching job where he was in the eye of the storm. Florida was a good job but it wasn’t Duke or UNC. OKC brought its own benefits but it wasn’t the Lakers, Celtics, or universe LeBron. Chicago is a major market with major expectations. They haven’t won since Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson left them high and dry, precipitating this unholy desert of failure. The Bulls coaching carousel has been mostly miserable. Their talent is a bunch of question marks.
In 2017, the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night for Lauri Markkanen who has shown flashes but hasn’t exhibited the developmental growth the Bulls had hoped for when they made the trade. Year 3 when Markkanen was supposed to make an exponential improvement has been average; he scored less but rebounded more. Markkanen is not a shot-maker, only 42% this season, and his stretch four capabilities are mostly non-existent because he can’t make threes consistently. What does Markkanen do really well? His offensive rating is 108 and his defensive rating is 110. So the answer is not much.
Then there is Zach LaVine. Incredible shot maker but a ball hog who needs to expand his game, particularly how to make players better. Months after coaching Chris Paul, Donovan can teach LaVine how to be a basketball player instead of how to dominate as an athlete. (See Jamal Murray) Wendall Carter Jr. is a rebounder with not much of an offensive game but Coby White has the potential, with patience, to develop as a scorer. Otto Porter is a placeholder, someone to use to get something back.
For the first time in Billy Donovan’s coaching career, the cupboard isn’t full or even close to that. Last season, the Bulls won 22 games. Donovan is a better coach than Jim Boylen but how much better?
Can he get more from the sum of these wildly inconsistent parts? Will we remember Donovan’s name five years from now? Or will Billy Donovan suffer the same fate as Tim Floyd, Bill Cartwright, Scott Skiles, and Fred Hoiberg? Memorable in a short-lived moment. Will Billy Donovan outlive his number in the queue?
Number 12 after Phil Jackson.