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Billy Donovan Has A Lot To Fix With The Bulls, But At Least He Isn’t Jim Boylen

Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts against the Houston Rockets during the fourth quarter in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 24, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls hired Billy Donovan as their head coach on Tuesday. Donovan recently sprang free from the Oklahoma City Thunder after five straight playoff appearances, and was quickly grabbed up by a new Bulls front office determined to wipe clean the mess left behind by the previous regime. They haven’t gutted Chicago’s underwhelming roster—that’s as tricky to do as it’s ever been with the NBA in an indefinite COVID-inspired retraction—but Donovan at least gives them a credible head coach for the first time since Tom Thibodeau left town five years ago.

One guy who sounds moderately enthused, if slightly distracted by sweet video game loot, is Bulls gunner Zach LaVine, who learned of the hire while on a Call of Duty stream:

This will be a different coaching challenge for Donovan. In 2015 he inherited a Thunder team that had won at least 45 games over six consecutive seasons, built around two All-NBA players, one a former league MVP and the other a future league MVP. The core of that team didn’t last long into Donovan’s tenure—Kevin Durant skedaddled to Golden State after the 2015–16 season, knocking the Thunder out of immediate title contention—but Donovan still got to coach Russell Westbrook through his prime, with a two-year cameo from perennial all-star Paul George thrown in for flavor. When it came time to bust up that nucleus and shuffle the roster, all the Thunder got back in return is one of the greatest hauls of future draft assets in NBA history, plus all-time great point guard Chris Paul. OKC hasn’t been a real championship contender since Donovan’s first season, but he also never coached a Thunder team that did not have at least one All-NBA performer. It was a very sweet gig.

The Bulls team he’s taking over is extremely, extremely not that, at least not on paper. They’ve won 31 percent of their games over the last three seasons, the second-lowest rate in the NBA, ahead of only the putrid Knicks. It’s tricky to wrap your brain around Donovan’s new gig, because when he and the Thunder parted amicably this month after yet another first-round playoff exit, the word was that the parties took a realistic look at the team’s positioning and Donovan decided he didn’t want a part of what comes next, which appears to be a period of rebuilding. But there’s a case to be made that OKC’s core young players—the portion of its roster that would be considered the foundation of this rebuild—are already closer to playoff contention than Chicago, despite the Bulls being several years into a stalled rebuilding process of their own. If Donovan is hoping to avoid the misery and obscurity of coaching a bottom-dweller, he could hardly have picked a worse landing spot.

Then you remember who Donovan’s replacing, and a ray of sunshine breaks through the clouds. Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic, in proud beat reporter tradition, recently let it all out on departed head coach Jim Boylen, after newly installed Bulls president Arturas Karnisovas cleaned house back in August. It’s an exhilarating read, and a dizzying summary of the self-defeating dysfunction Chicago’s players endured for 123 games under Boylen’s stewardship. Boylen alienated his players at every step of the process: with wind-sprints and pushups during intense practices held immediately after back-to-backs; with antagonistic, tone-deaf media sessions; with cheesy and infantilizing locker room gimmicks; with confusing and backfiring tactical swerves; with a bizarre fixation on late-game timeouts during blowout losses; with injury mismanagement; and with petty tantrums that undermined his presentation as a no-nonsense hoops obsessive singularly focused on winning.

My favorite anecdote from Mayberry’s notebook cleansing has to do with Boylen responding to frustration by lashing out at, of all things, the team’s television broadcast crew:

As the team flopped and criticism grew louder, however, Boylen developed a habit of blocking his own television broadcasters’ view of games while coaching from the sidelines. It was the most subtle micro-aggression imaginable.

Darnell Mayberry, The Athletic

It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that just being out from under Boylen will make the Bulls a dramatically better team, even if they replaced him with a child blowing into a vuvuzela. The Bulls were struggling under Fred Hoiberg, the man Boylen was tapped to replace, but they were in open revolt within hours of Boylen taking over the job. There was not a two-week period under Boylen when the Bulls were not in some sort of on- or off-court crisis. The situation was bad enough to finally take down Chicago’s long-embattled front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson, something Bulls lifers had resigned themselves to never witnessing in this lifetime. Boylen was promoted to inspire Chicago’s young players to get more serious about winning, and instead he inspired Chicago’s ownership to finally get more serious about building a respectable basketball operation.

The cupboard’s not exactly bare in Chicago. LaVine can fill it up, even if he’s one of the worst defensive players in basketball. Lauri Markkanen regressed badly this past season when Boylen decided to use the 7-footer as essentially a guard, but he’s got skills and pedigree that suggest he could be a fine offensive player. Boylen never seemed real clear on how to use the talented Wendell Carter Jr., who at least in theory gives the Bulls an interior defensive anchor. No combination of their current players especially inspires hope that there’s a hidden giant to be unleashed, but it’ll at least be fun to learn what these guys are capable of with a competent coach like Donovan finally working the levers.