An unlikely candidate emerged in the midst of the Chicago Bulls’ coaching search, and the revamped front office didn’t want to drop the ball on this opportunity.
Once coach Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City Thunder mutually agreed to part ways after five seasons, Chicago’s Arturas Karnisovas immediately reached out.
“Once he became available, we were relentless in terms of trying to find ways to continue communication and kind of to prove to Billy that we are the spot for him, a landing spot next,” said Karnisovas, the Bulls’ executive vice president of basketball operations. “And we were able to do it.”
After a thorough interview process, which included multiple phone conversations and a lengthy in-person meeting, Donovan was sold.
On Thursday, during a video conference call, Chicago introduced him as the franchise’s new sideline leader.
“The history. The organization. What the Bulls have meant to the game of basketball and to basketball worldwide,” said Donovan, who was voted the National Basketball Coaches Association’s co-Coach of the Year with the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer for 2019-20.
“I mean, it’s an iconic franchise, and certainly to be a part of trying to help build it back up was certainly very, very appealing and exciting. I know it’s going to take a lot of work,” he continued.
Chicago players are currently taking part in in-market bubble workouts and scrimmages, dubbed the Advocate Bulls Minicamp. Donovan isn’t present; his recent hiring didn’t align with the strict protocols for entrance during the coronavirus pandemic. However, he has reached out to players via text and will begin studying film and brainstorming ways to begin player development.
In addition to hiring Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley, the Bulls let go of former coach Jim Boylen.
Chicago was 22-43 this season before the league suspended play because of the pandemic, not qualifying for the NBA restart in Orlando, Florida. The Bulls also haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.
After seeing Donovan’s track record of winning back-to-back national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2007 then continuing that success in OKC, reaching the NBA playoffs for five consecutive trips, the Bulls didn’t need much convincing.
“Beside the fact of what he was saying in our meetings, his record speaks for itself,” Karnisovas said. “So he didn’t have to prove it to us that he’s capable of building a program to make it successful. I think just looking at his résumé you can say that so it was more about us selling our vision.”
Relationships with players is big to the Bulls front office. That also aligns with Donovan’s principles as a coach.
Donovan is taking over a Bulls team that has struggled in recent seasons. They have recorded a .310 win percentage over the past three seasons, second worst in the NBA during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only the New York Knicks have been worse. The Thunder’s lowest win percentage under Donovan was .573 in 2016-17, but this challenge was too hard to resist.
“I’d like to keep my conversations in Oklahoma there. I’ve got great respect for everybody there. I think those were things that were put out there about how I felt about a rebuild or not a rebuild, or I was looking for a ready-made team — that was really never ever about it for me,” Donovan said. “It was a lot more important for me, knowing my time had ended there, what was going to be the environment and the situation going forward.
“I’ve never ever really talked about that at all. I do feel like Oklahoma City was incredibly open and honest with me, and we talked extensively, and I really appreciate that from the organization, and from [GM] Sam [Presti], and I really, really enjoyed the group of players that I worked with all five years.
“But I think those conversations probably need to stay where they are, and I’ve got very positive feelings there, but going forward it was about what I was looking for. We’ve got work ahead of us here in Chicago, there’s no question about that. I’m excited about that and look forward to that.”
Bulls star Zach LaVine has played for five head coaches in his first six seasons (Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg and Jim Boylen) so he’s looking for stability and consistency in Donovan.
In comparison, Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors, who was drafted the same year in 2014, has also had five different coaches in his first six seasons (Flip Saunders, Sam Mitchell, Tom Thibodeau, Ryan Saunders and Steve Kerr).
“For people like me, especially, when you want to be great, you want to be coached extremely well, too,” LaVine said. “So, I’m happy. I gave him a text right when I heard the news and I told him, ‘I’m ready to get after it and I’m just extremely excited.'”