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Praise for Billy Donovan’s steady competence

the Bulls aren’t back, but they’re not a joke

New Orleans Pelicans v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I’ve noticed that there hasn’t been much...or really any...coaching posts this season. That’s partly because I may not know much about basketball, but I try to know about buffoonery, and that was the Jim Boylen zone!

Though last year’s team was a slog to watch even during spasms of good play, one knew there was potential gold in every post-game presser where Boylen had to think on his feet and fell on his face.

It was striking heading into the All-Star break when new coach Billy Donovan was asked about the team’s record. (props to Stephen Noh for pointing this out)

First, here was Boylen right around this time last year when asked about the team’s record (20-38 at the time):

“It is a win-loss league, but that’s not the only thing that gets evaluated. Are we establishing a style of play? I think we have. Have we cleaned up our defense that needed to be cleaned up? I think we have. Have we established a shot profile that’s top five in the league? I think we’re three right now in the shots we get compared to other teams. So those are all positive things.”

“I’m not worried about my personal record or my win-loss record. I’ve been asked to establish a style of play, to have a disciplined approach and develop a young group of guys. And in my opinion, we are doing that.”

Now here is Billy Donovan heading into last weekend at 16-18:

“We have a losing record right now. The record to me is more about how we’re playing and are we making progress. I think this team has made incredible progress. These guys have been phenomenal. But at the same point we have a long way to go and I’m trying to not have them be satisfied and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other. They need to pull more out of me, I’ve got to pull more out of them. There’s more to give. There’s growth and there’s an opportunity to improve and get better.

It’s not even a huge difference in the overall message - that win/loss records are limited as a metric of overall ‘success’ - but the perspective and tone is just so much better with Donovan. And outright normal.

The Bulls went into this season with a new front office, but they haven’t done much to signify some grand new era.

But what they did in making the obvious move of sacking Boylen followed by the less obvious but still very solid choice of Donovan as a replacement, was make everything feel less chaotic and nonsensical.

Donovan’s Bulls this year have had weeks of good play. But Boylen’s Bulls did too. Both teams had outlier performances like Thad Young’s (Boylen did not have - probably due to his own coaching - superstar ascension like what Zach LaVine is doing), some clutch disasters, and a complete inability to beat good teams.

But it just feels different now. A Boylen Bulls’ success always seemed flukey whereas when Donovan’s teams win it’s backed by knowing he’s not a bumbling dumbass. The offense is better and the defense is worse, but the offense looks improved based on scheme rather than gimmick.

We’ll see if the record sustains. The schedule looks to be tougher in the second half, but they are already catching a huge break there with Embiid and Simmons missing the return game for the Sixers. I’m not sure in this season that schedule analysis is worth a damn: there is a ton of compression in games played, more players are missing games, and home court advantage has been rendered nonexistent. At this point I fully expect the Bulls to make the top 10 in the turd conference with a record two to four games under .500 yet having not a single quality victory.

There is then a follow-up issue of low expectations and if despite a play-in appearance questioning if the roster is anywhere close to good. But that is at a higher franchise level. From Donovan’s seat, he’s doing good work and that’s good enough.