One of Billy Donovan’s more endearing qualities as Chicago Bulls coach is his willingness to say what he believes instead of always reverting to “coachspeak” when times are tough.
When the Bulls got off to a great start in November and early December, Donovan warned against complacency, pointing out they needed improvement in several areas.
Donovan was forced to start reserves Javonte Green and Ayo Dosunmu in place of unavailable regulars Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso in the Bulls’ season-ending 116-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. And he didn’t try to sugarcoat the difficulties of the task at hand.
Before the game, Donovan pointed to the Bulls’ first game in Milwaukee back on Jan. 21, when they played without LaVine and still were in the game in the final minute, and to other stretches they played without Lonzo Ball, Caruso or Nikola Vučević. A win with an undermanned team was not out of the question.
“At times maybe we have not been quite talented enough to get over the hump, but I do like the spirit of our guys in terms of the fact that they’ve kept themselves ready,” Donovan said before Game 5. “And, listen, stranger things have happened.”
Donovan added that he wanted his players to “at least walk off the floor and go, ‘We got beat tonight,’ rather than, ‘Woe is me,’ or ‘How are we going to do this with Alex out and Zach out?’”
Not many coaches would go into an elimination game stating the obvious. But Donovan is comfortable in his own skin.
The Bulls went down in Game 5 as expected, and now it’s time for the autopsy. Should Bulls fans focus on the progress more than the ending?
“I don’t know,” Donovan said. “You have to look at the season’s totality. I know with our schedule the way it was on the back end, after the All-Star break was really challenging and difficult. I think it made us better, although we absorbed a lot of losses, and going into this series playing against the defending champions, I don’t think that can do anything but help you get better.
“But we’ll never know what our team would have really looked like with what we had to endure, and that’s the part I appreciate the most about these guys. Because it would’ve been very easy for them to make excuses, complain, get frustrated, get down, and they never did that. They always kept their spirit up and came to work.”
It was a roller-coaster season that in the end was rewarding for the individual moments, if not the ending.
“We had a lot of ups and downs,” DeMar DeRozan said. “It was a hell of a ride. It’s going to be something I’m pretty sure I’m going to look back on in a couple of weeks and start to miss it even more. It don’t always play out how you want, but you learn so much from it.”
It’s true the Bulls played over their heads at times this season and the talent level was lacking. They never addressed their size disadvantage, which became more glaring when Patrick Williams suffered a wrist injury in a fall against the New York Knicks in the fifth game of the season. Instead of a trade-deadline move, they took a flier on Tristan Thompson, who didn’t work out.
Green and Dosunmu, a second-round pick, started 45 and 40 games, respectively. Unproven players Alfonzo McKinnie and Malcolm Hill were brought in during the season and given minutes because of injuries, a COVID-19 outbreak and a lack of depth.
It was one thing after another.
And when the Bulls finally regressed and lost 15 of 21 games from Feb. 26 to April 10 to fall from first to sixth in the Eastern Conference race, Donovan rested his starters for the regular-season finale in Minnesota, where the reserves pulled out a meaningless win over the Timberwolves.
Still, the Bulls won 46 games, a fact that gets lost in the late season collapse that remained fresh in our minds. Since Phil Jackson departed after the sixth title in 1997-98, the Bulls have had eight coaches, not including interims. Only Donovan, Tom Thibodeau and Scott Skiles have won 46 or more games in a season.
The Bulls need veteran help, and free agents such as Victor Oladipo, who played under Donovan in Oklahoma City, will be available.
DeRozan said he’s fine with talking to players this summer about what it’s like playing in Chicago.
“Yeah, I’m all with wanting to compete and win,” he said. “Not just compete in the regular season. Compete for a championship. That’s my only goal right now. Whatever it is I can do, or if I can try to help to do that, definitely.”
DeRozan said he never has been asked to recruit, but “for the most part, if guys reach out and there’s an opportunity for me to have conversations with guys that would like to join, why not?”
Donovan also should be able to draw some players to Chicago. He has faced adversity throughout his professional coaching career but nothing like this season guiding the Bulls.
He came to Chicago with a stellar record in Oklahoma City, where his .608 winning percentage ranked 11th among coaches with five or more years of experience. But after Kevin Durant helped lead the Thunder to the 2016 Western Conference finals before losing to the Golden State Warriors — and then joined the Warriors as a free agent — Donovan’s Thunder teams lost in the first round four straight seasons.
After mutually agreeing to part after that season, Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas quickly swooped in and signed Donovan to a deal reportedly worth $24 million over four years.
Halfway in, Donovan has a .500 record (77-77), though he had no chance to win last season with a rebuilding team.
So how should Donovan be judged?
There’s little doubt the Bulls players are in Donovan’s corner. He always has been known as a player’s coach and is respected by his peers.
“I think Billy Donovan could coach on Mars,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, adding: “He’s universally adored by people that know him and work for him.”
There wasn’t much Donovan could do in this series, and he said the Bulls will “have to work harder” next season just to get back to the playoffs.
“Just because we got to this point, there’s nothing guaranteed next year,” he said. “What our approach and mentality is going to be like this offseason and going into training camp is going to be critically important for us to build off of some of the positive things that happened this year.”
There was little doubt the Bulls made progress in 2021-22 and provided moments that will last for years.
Whether the regression took some of the shine off the season is a question for Karnišovas to answer.