On September 22, 2020 the Chicago Bulls made Billy Donovan the ninth highest-paid coach in the NBA. He was given a four-year, $24 million deal. This move came as a surprise to many Bulls fans. A lot of different names were being speculated at the time, but Donovan was flying under the radar. On that day in September, a lot of Bulls fans were shocked, but most seemed to agree that this was a positive sign for the future of the franchise.
Donovan has the coaching pedigree, but still young enough in his coaching career to grow with this young Bulls squad. He was one of the best coaches in college basketball in his years with the University of Florida. Then, he came onto a Thunder team that featured two of the best players in the league, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. After Durant left, leaving the team with Westbrook and not much else. With this team, he was still able to lead them into the playoffs each and every season as head coach. He has had a great history of regular-season success which is what the Bulls need right now. After his first season as head coach of the Bulls, it is fair to evaluate the changes he has made.
New Offensive Schemes
Donovan believes in allowing his players to play to their strengths and what they are comfortable with. In his NBA head coaching career he has had the privilege of coaching arguably the greatest scorer of all time, Durant, and other great offensive talents like Westbrook, Paul George, and now Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. He employed an a lot more open scheme. Like most NBA offenses it included a lot of pick and rolls and isolations from the most talented offensive players.
This resulted in the Bulls finishing with a 111.1 offensive rating. A team’s offensive rating is the estimate of how many points a team would score per 100 possessions. This number was still right below league average, but it is a major improvement. The Bulls had a 106.7 offensive rating the season prior, which resulted in 27th in the league. This season they finished 18th in the league. While it still might be below league average, it is a major jump from a team that’s offense has been inept for years now.
Letting Zach Play
What made his offensive systems so great was his ability to get the most out of his offensive superstar Zach LaVine. Donovan gave LaVine the confidence to play the game that he wanted. This was not the case under the Bulls formed head coach, Jim Boylen. There was a lot of animosity between Boylen and LaVine. A lot had to do with Boylen believing that LaVine was not putting in as much effort on the defensive end. The constant focus on LaVine’s below-average play on the defensive end did not give him the confidence he needed to always show his greatness on the offensive end. Boylen believed in corner threes and layups, and not much else.
On the other hand, Donovan came in and encouraged LaVine to take the shots he believes he could make. This led to LaVine’s first All-Star appearance with some absurd statistics. LaVine had his career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game. He finished with a 63.4% true shooting percentage. To put that stat into perspective, he was second in all guards, only behind Steph Curry.
Adaptability on Defense
Donovan deserves a lot of credit for his work with the team on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense does not seem to get the same credit. Last year under Jim Boylen the Bulls finished with a 109.8 defensive rating, which put them at 13th in the league. This past season the Bulls finished with a much higher 112 rating, but it was better in terms of comparing it to the rest of the league, finishing 11th in the league.
Under Jim Boylen last year, the Bulls ran a blitz-heavy scheme. They attacked pick-and-roll ball handlers every chance they got. This system led to a solid defense, but it left a lot of the players with little energy to do something on the offensive end. Donovan came in and changed the whole system. He had them defending differently each game. It all depended on the matchups. Some games they would bring back that blitz. Some games they would play some drop coverage, or even switch most things. Donovan believed that there is no one right way to defend in this league based on how different each NBA team operates.
These changes on both offense and defense were not the most intricate of changes, but they were effective. Looking solely at the offensive and defensive rating, this team looks as if it should have been a playoff team. The key here is their execution down the stretch in close games. The team for the most part is still super young and just needs more time to grow. There should be excitement from this Bulls team though and Donovan is the right person to get them back on track.