Hiring of Billy Donovan as coach is a strange choice


The Chicago Bulls settled on a new head coach on Tuesday, hiring Billy Donovan to replace the recently departed Jim Boylen.

Finally, the Chicago Bulls have completed their refreshed front office and head coaching team. On Tuesday evening, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Bulls had hired Billy Donovan as their new coach, replacing the recently fired Jim Boylen.

Donovan was the head coach of the OKC Thunder for the last five years before leaving after the team was eliminated from the playoffs in the NBA bubble by the Houston Rockets. He had been offered an extension but declined, ostensibly because he wasn’t interested in the rebuild project that the Thunder are expected to undergo.

It’s one thing to coach Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari as he did this season, but it’s another to sign on to lead an unknown group of mostly youngsters into the future. Clearly, that idea did not appeal to Donovan.

However, that makes this hiring all the more curious. Donovan didn’t want to rebuild in OKC, but there’s no doubt that he’s about to take the reins of indeed another rebuild in Chicago. The Bulls haven’t been to the NBA playoffs since 2016-17, and they have a young and inexperienced team under contract going forward, meaning another playoff opportunity isn’t likely coming soon (even in the weaker Eastern Conference).

While Donovan might not want a young group that is likely to struggle in the early days, that might be the best fit for him after all. He’s no playoff tactician and he’s struggled to get buy-in from dominant personalities like Russell Westbrook in the past, so maybe a team without a proven alpha dog is the ideal spot for him at this point in his career.

When Donovan was hired by the Thunder, he took over a fully-formed team from previous coach Scott Brooks. That roster had already been largely developed and had their own identities, and Donovan wasn’t going to do much to change that for either better or worse. With the Bulls, only Zach LaVine has any claim on being a top guy on an NBA team, and there’s plenty of room to mold and develop the 25 year old star in the making.

Billy Donovan gets a rebuild whether he wants one or not with the Chicago Bulls

The Bulls could be the team that brings the best out of Donovan and vice versa, although there isn’t much evidence yet to state that clearly. He coached the University of Florida’s basketball program to championship success, but that’s vastly different from even a young NBA team’s development arc.

For better or worse, a young team that doesn’t have much in the way of short-term playoff prospects might be the best fit for Billy Donovan, whether he knows it or not.

Without a doubt, he’ll be a fantastic upgrade over his predecessor Jim Boylen. New executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas dismissed Boylen in mid-August, and there’s no way Donovan could do worse. However, that’s not a high bar to clear. While Donovan is a certain upgrade on Boylen, is he the best upgrade?

Maybe not.

The final verdict on this hire is that the Bulls and Donovan both did fine. Nobody should be excited, nobody should be distressed. This is a classic “meh, whatever” hire but the Chicago Bulls could have done better with an exciting class of up-and-coming assistant coaches around the NBA like Ime Udoka of the Philadelphia 76ers, Adrian Griffin of the Toronto Raptors and Becky Hammons of the San Antonio Spurs.

Billy Donovan won’t get a new executive into any hot water, but going out on a limb for an unproven assistant might. For a first move from Karnisovas, this one leaves a hint of mild cowardice in the air.

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