By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
The cries of Chicago Bulls fans have finally reached the ears of the basketball Gods, and for their devotion and newfound faith in a damnable franchise they finally have a coach again that they can be proud of.
Yes, the atmosphere within the Windy City has shifted. Maybe the real change came with the hiring of new management. But having Arturas Karnisovas running things was a lot more complicated when Jim Boylen was still coach.
Thankfully, that’s no longer the case as AK made his first coaching hire as Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations on Tuesday, surprising many by reeling in an honest elite coach in legit program builder Billy Donovan.
A deep pool of coaching candidates was available at the Bulls’ leisure, but given their situation as a current basketball outpost seemingly under consistent rebuild this hiring seems like both an entirely aggressive move to compete and a hire coming from left field. Regardless of how you contextualize it, hiring Donovan is the best move for the Bulls’ current situation.
For once the Bulls are not looking at this team beyond the process of rebuilding, more towards retooling for the immediate future in a way that could potentially shape them as a playoff team within the next couple years.
Many critics were convinced that the Bulls were going to go with a rookie head coach that can grow along with this young team — most rumors of potential candidates tied into fresh-faced pro assistants — but we cannot overlook the successful resume that Donovan brings to the table.
In the Bulls’ first hire with actual pro experience since Scott Skiles, Chicago has a coach who touts a wholly successful career that features everything from back-to-back national championships at the University of Florida, where he creating many NBA players to his learning how to coach stars at the highest level and not having a losing record while maintaining a 60 percent winning percentage in five years with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Donovan has proven that no matter the level of competition, he is a winner and a developer of talent and culture.
This past season demonstrated best in his efforts helping the Thunder make the Western Conference semifinals after trading their long tenured franchise player in Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul, who himself revived his reputation as a supreme on-court general while working in tandem with the ever-improving Donovan to lead a mostly young team.
Aside from Donovan’s coaching efforts this past season with a retooled Thunder playoff team — ultimately making him a candidate for coach of the year — his experience and presence highlights the true components in developing this new culture the new Bulls management is emphasizing right away — the importance of developing young talent as well as maintaining positive growing relationships with its players.
The universal belief among Bulls fans and observers coming off last season is that the currently structured roster under-performed last season under a coach who wasn’t up for the challenge of developing them. Its just as clear now that Karnisovas feels the same way and maybe even that the Reinsdorf family does. At the least they trusted in AK to feel however he wants, and by bringing in Donovan he feels like building a coaching staff that caters to developing the talent.
As an offensive-minded coach, Donovan can work right away with players like Lauri Markanen and Wendell Carter Jr. (each arguably digressed in their progression under Jim Boylen) and give them confidence to excel around young rising stars Zach LaVine and Coby White to make the Bulls offense fuller and more balanced. The most exciting component of this hiring, however, caters to another big factor that new management is looking for within their new culture — the ability to recruit/attract free agents to the city.
Donovan is a widely respected coach amongst top-tier talent within the league. His pro experience put him in the same locker rooms as the likes of Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and most recently Paul, taking all of those players to the playoffs after winning seasons.
Going back to his legendary run at Florida, Donovan has also played a role in developing top NBA talent who he’s had lasting relationships with. Players like Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Bradley Beal all came up under the Florida Gator way and went on to excel in the league. Plus, you have the example of a still promising player like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who improved immensely throughout his second year in the league, averaging 19 points a game in the 2019-20 campaign, just over an eight point bump from his rookie campaign.
Having an experienced head coach that is widely respected throughout the league while also touting a successful resume in developing talent, creating a winning culture, deep playoff experience and a connection to All-Star/superstar talent drastically changes the projection of the once woeful operation that was handed over to Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley.
This hiring sends a strong message to the NBA that the Bulls are not planning to go through another five-year rebuild. As you read this they are putting together the pieces to truly attract top free agents on a competitive level, only leaving the task of creating the cap space needed to attract top available talents as soon as 2021.
Players should want to play for Karnisovas and for Donovan. Finally the Bulls not only can have a seat at the recruiting table with the top talent across the league, but they can have as many as they like.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media