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Billy Donovan isn't the problem with the Bulls' middling start

Timmy Samuelsson Avatar
November 16, 2022

It was only a matter of time.

Like clockwork, one of the oldest tropes in sports has reared its head.

‘Our friend’ in this instance is none other than Bulls coach Billy Donovan.

Am I shocked that (some) members of the Chicago Bulls fan base would turn their ire toward coach Billy Donovan after an embarrassing loss to the Denver Nuggets?


It was entirely predictable. Will Gottlieb and I knew this time would come. It’s not a surprise we’re here. Still, the ability to foresee this storyline doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to laying blame upon a coach. When warranted, I’ll be first in line, pitchfork in hand, profanities flying out of my mouth.

However, on the matter of Donovan, so much of this noise is misguided.

As of today, the Bulls have the seventh-best defense in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Ranking fourth in opponent turnover percentage and sixth in defensive rebound percentage, the Bulls’ robust defense has enabled the team to push transition frequency, a metric in which they rank 11th league-wide.

Let’s see if these numbers can sustain beyond 14 games. Nonetheless, that defense has been this good — in ways that many expected wasn’t possible without Lonzo Ball — are reasons enough to be heaping praise upon Donovan and his coaching staff.

Though the defense has been a pleasant surprise, ironically, the offensive struggles are equally unexpected. The Bulls currently rank 22nd in offense, according to Cleaning the Glass.

No reasonable person envisioned the offense performing this poorly. As such, valid criticism is warranted. But, as Rob Schaefer of NBC Chicago notes, the Bulls have implemented a systemic shift in ball movement. More passes per possession and, as a byproduct, a higher assist percentage, has been a focus for an often stagnant, isolation-heavy offense. This evolution in play style is, in part, a reason for the growing pains that the team is experiencing.

Moreover, while a 6-8 record is far from ideal, is it surprising given the caliber of opponents the Bulls have faced? As a result, the Bulls are -0.3 in point differential, a figure which is predictive of a 40-win team. Should the Bulls end the season hovering around .500, firmly competing in play-in territory, again, why are we surprised? This was always the most likely outcome in a much improved Eastern Conference!

Despite the numbers and explanations above, rational minds rarely rear their head after an insufferable loss. And so the noise surrounding Donovan has been amplified.

As noted, this was entirely predictable. So too is my reactionary angst.

Admittedly, I’m a big supporter of Donovan, his methods, and seemingly anything he does, both on and off the court. I will defend his honour with all the might and snark that my keyboard will allow. Which is why I have taken the time to respond to some of the typical nonsense that is cast upon my sweet, dear Billy.

This offense is too stagnant, there‘s too much ISO possessions!

I understand the sentiment here. Basketball purists won’t enjoy watching a player pound the ball whilst his teammates stand and watch. On some level, I’m with it. As are the Bulls, who, as noted above, are trying to address this issue.

That said, look at the design of this roster. It features two ball-dominant scorers who do their best work in isolation, typically as jump shooters. Thereafter, it’s a series of low-usage players who possess little-to-no gravitas as triple-threats. And so, at its core, despite the team trying to shift its offensive identity, at some point, it will always devolve back into a one-on-one procession.

It might not be the most appealing visual experience, but ISO-ball works. In fact, it may be the Bulls’ best source of offense.

DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine are among the most efficient isolation scorers in basketball. The former, in particular, is scoring 1.26 points per isolation possession. Comparing this figure to the team, who can only mustering 1.1 points per possession across all play types, one could easily make the argument that DeRozan and LaVine need more isolation touches.

In summary, the Bulls’ best two offensive weapons are prone to isolation possessions, and they’re worthy of consuming much of the offense — especially as other sources of offense seemingly are unreliable or, worse still, nonexistent.

Donovan allowing this to happen isn’t problematic. He’s exploiting the best avenues at his disposal. That’s good, smart coaching.

“Why doesn’t this team shoot more 3s?!”

OK, so this very similar to the above. You’re right to point out that the Bulls being 28th in 3-point attempt rate is very bad. I agree! But that’s not a coaching issue. Again, look at the roster. How many accurate, high volume 3-point shooters can you see? Your count won’t extend beyond three.

Naturally, the Bulls offense doesn’t shoot many threes because its players can’t. It really is that simple. This is a massive roster construction flaw. It’s a significant reason why the team ranks so low in offensive efficiency.

Furthermore, it’s actually incredible to consider how efficient DeRozan and LaVine have been as isolation scorers given the limited spacing around them. Where would their conversion rate sit if they were flanked with numerous shooters? One can only imagine it would be even higher, which is absurd to think about given how good they already are.

The Bulls need more distance shooting attempts. Donovan could help this some by having average-to-bad shooters force up more shots. Sure, that would help lift volume numbers. But for the Bulls to diversify their offense, adding legitimate shooters is the responsibility of Artūras Karnišovas, not the coach.

Why isn’t [insert player] in the game?!

This critique can have merit. Even I, a Donovan sycophant, will sparingly question a lineup decision. But let’s take a step back for a moment. Have we all not done this with every single coach who has ever been on the sideline? Do you think Phil Jackson was immune to such criticism? Perhaps after six titles, he was. What about the great coaches of today?

Take, for example, one of Jackson’s proteges, Steve Kerr. The man has four titles in Golden State. And yet, that fan base is always questioning his lineup choices. Remember when Gregg Popovich didn’t have Tim Duncan in the game to defend and rebound during the dying moments of Game 6 in the 2013 Finals?

If the best and most successful coaches in the league can’t evade second guessing of their lineup decisions, neither will Donovan.


Can we just take a moment to acknowledge that Donovan isn’t being dealt a perfect hand?

Case in point: the Bulls’ most recent game against the New Orleans Pelicans. As the game drew to a close, with only a basket separating both teams, many pondered why Donovan chose not to have Patrick Williams in the game to guard Brandon Ingram, who seemingly had no issue shooting over the extended arms of Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso. No doubt, given his frame and length, Williams is better placed to alter a jumper at its peak than his smaller teammates. And maybe he should have been in the game. But it’s not as simple as a decision as some suggest.

Williams wasn’t in the closing game because Donovan opted for offense. As such, Goran Dragic, the renaissance man, was needed as an additional ball-handler to fuel a less-than-impressive offense.

Remember those critiques about the offense being too stagnant and prone to isolation? What about the complaints of spacing and 3-point shooting around DeRozan and LaVine? Yeah, that’s why Dragic was in the game!

By opting for his veteran point guard, Donovan was left with only one more choice: inserting Caruso or Williams to act as the perimeter wing defender. He opted for the former. Given Caruso’s all-world ability on defense, this is a justifiable choice.

The point here is, no matter which 5-man unit Donovan opts for, it will be lacking something. Because of this, his rotational choices will always be susceptible to criticism.

Ideally, instead of having to choose between several players who have specific skill sets, Donovan could rely on one player who can shoot, defend and play-make. Say, someone like Lonzo Ball?

This is where his absence hurts. By committee, the Bulls have done a good job of replicating Ball’s best traits. In high-leverage moments, having one player who can add these small, important elements is crucial. Instead, Donovan is searching. He’s forced into managing this across several options, on a possession-by-possession basis. Trouble is, it’s not possible to change his 5-man units after every possession.

And therein lies the problem. The Bulls need Dragic’s steadiness and creation. Williams’ physical tools are necessary, as is Caruso’s defensive acumen. Every Bulls lineup is a series of imperfect solutions.

That’s the reality of the situation.

“This team plays with no urgency or effort!”

In the midst of a blowout loss, would it make you feel more whole if Donovan was pacing along the sidelines, chunks of his own hair in hand, barking at his players?

Rather than eloquent and thoughtful post-game media availabilities, is your preference to have the coach spew up tiresome platitudes which feature ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and ‘Bulls across the chest’?

Apologies for invoking dark thoughts from yesteryear. I lashed out as I’ve never been one to have a certain thirst for a coach to be a demonstrative dictator. Moreover, why is it the responsibility of the coach for his players to give a shit? This is yet another trope that infuriates me.

Donovan, ever the good, accountable soldier, took his share of blame for the Bulls’ poor showing against the Nuggets. Of course he did. Donovan never lumps it all on his players. It’s why they love him. He always takes ownership.

Even though he does, I’m not sure he should.

That the players on this team need a rah-rah speech in order to show basic levels of desire and fight is far more telling of the temperament of this playing group, not the coaches.

Is it Donovan’s fault that his starters are a -4.4 points against opponents? Should Donovan be blamed for his veteran players — many of whom have poor defensive reputations — continuously making erroneous defensive reads that lead to opponent scoring binges?

Perhaps you think so. And you’re welcome to this perspective. Just know that I will be here, in the background, shaking my damn head at the reactionary and embarrassingly misplaced angst.

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