The Chicago Bulls’ overtime win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night was a reminder. They hired a top coach in the NBA, and even if it took time, he’s begun working the solution.
Head coach Billy Donovan was the Bulls’ lone “free agency splash” last offseason. Unless you count veteran guard Garrett Temple, who by all accounts is having a strong season for year 11.
But Donovan didn’t have the immediate impact most headline free agency acquisitions do. Chicago started out 4-8 and was looking like an easy cut from any Eastern Conference playoff projections.
Then, something clicked. Since, the Bulls have gone 11-8, and are 5-1 in their last six games. Zach LaVine has earned a spot on the All-Star team, and Chicago is preparing for its first playoff berth since 2017.
Donovan acknowledged the team’s effort and growth as a unit after Wednesday’s game, when speaking with reporters (via NBC Sports). But he also recognized that the team isn’t playing to their true potential just yet:
The one thing for me I think as a coach, you always try to look at a standard that you want to play to. I am by no means disappointed. I think any time you win, you make the corrections the next day, you celebrate the win. These guys have worked really, really hard. But I don’t think that we play to the level of the standard that we want to play to. And we’ve got to build those kind of habits to be able to do that on a consistent level.
Wednesday night marked the Bulls’ first game with 20 or more turnovers in over a month. When you factor in it was against a Timberwolves team sitting firmly in the twilight zone, it’s safe to understand Donovan’s cautious optimism. Small mistakes are what cost the team its 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.
At the same time, the win gave Chicago an above .500 record on the month, the team’s first since 2017.
Donovan’s having the impact on this team that the front office envisioned at the time of his hiring. It took some time, yes, but if Chicago knew all their waiting would get this result, it’s unlikely they’re complaining.
Billy Donovan has Earned the Trust of This Bulls Team
Nothing’s speaking louder to Donovan’s leadership than the players, both on and off the court. There’s a different tone in their voices when they speak to the media. They’re playing harder on both ends of the floor, and winning.
Donovan didn’t get that by strictly scheming and strategizing. This locker room respects, and trusts him.
That starts with your best player. LaVine and Donovan sang each other’s mutual praises when speaking to reporters (via NBC Sports) on Wednesday prior to the win over Minnesota:
Billy’s been great, man. Total 180 from what we had last year, because we pretty much have the same team. We’ve had our share of ups and downs, games we should’ve won and didn’t come out and play the right way. But our approach and my approach is just so different mentally.
A mentality shift has definitely occurred between last year and this one. All of Chicago’s youth appreciate their being in a winning environment finally, but also understand and recognize how much further they can go.
Second-year point guard Coby White spoke to that after Wednesday’s win:
I love it, man. Never satisfied. Like I’ve been saying since day one, he’s been challenging us on and on again. I got the sense that it’s never going to stop, no matter how good we are. I love it, man. Everybody on the team loves it. He keeps pushing us, he keeps challenging us, each and every day to become a better team. We still have a long way to go as a team, so he’s not going to quit until we get to where we want to. I don’t get annoyed by any means.
White’s having a career season too, in a new role that’s seen him play a lot more off-ball as opposed to the full-time ball-handler. His usage rate has gone down, and his assist percentage has gone up. White’s averaging 15.7 points, 5.2 assists, and 5 rebounds over the 31-game start.
What’s Next for Donovan and the Bulls?
One word: consistency.
It might be Donovan’s favorite word, mantra, policy, etc.
He spoke on the team’s need for that after the win over Minnesota:
…But we need to keep being more consistent in terms of playing to an identity. Because I think that’s what really good teams do. Regardless of who they’re playing against, they play to a certain standard, and that’s what you try to build, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
There’s no doubt that Chicago’s been up and down at times throughout the season, particularly in closing moments. They almost had an all too familiar mishap at the end of the fourth quarter on Wednesday, when White fouled Ricky Rubio and sent him to the line for three free throws that ultimately tied the game.
It was a controversial call by the officiating crew, but nonetheless. A higher level of focus and execution and the Bulls wouldn’t have had to play an extra five minutes on Wednesday night.
Billy Donovan and the Chicago Bulls are finding their way together, at the same pace. Now that they’ve reentered the Eastern Conference playoff race, some consistency wouldn’t be the worst thing.
Wednesday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves isn’t about how far they’ve come.
It’s about how far they can go from here.