There’s a consistency to Billy Donovan that his players are embracing.
Even in the Bulls’ 128-124 loss to the host Sacramento Kings on Wednesday, there were no doubts about the game plan like there had been in the past.
Most NBA coaches like to preach about being “teachers,’’ but Donovan actually is one.
He’s teaching his veterans the importance of being mentors, he’s teaching a core roster of seemingly soft players the importance of toughness and he’s teaching a collection of players that had grown accustomed to losing basketball for far too long how to play winning basketball.
Obviously, it’s still a work in progress.
But this might be Donovan’s most important lesson: Coaches matter in the NBA.
They’re not disposable for cheaper options. They’re not replaceable because they don’t always see eye to eye with the front office. When a team lands a good one, you cherish it and make the relationship work.
Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas understood that when he took the job, and, to the credit of Bulls president Michael Reinsdorf, who has gained more and more say the last five years, ownership finally moved out of the way and brought in a knowledgeable basketball mind to land an upper-echelon coach.
The sample size is small, but the differences are noticeable already in this opening month of the regular season.
Down by 20 in the first quarter to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday night, that would have been a mail-it-in game since the rebuild started in 2017.
It especially would have been the case last season, when, for a number of reasons, the players just didn’t believe or fight for former coach Jim Boylen.
So when Zach LaVine was asked after the comeback victory if they would have won a game like this last season, he said no without hesitation.
“I agree with [Zach] just simply because last year we would have gotten down 20 points, the morale of the team would have shifted, went down,’’ veteran forward Thad Young said. “This year, we’re in a completely different mindset. Billy’s done a great job of just building up guys’ confidence and letting the vets be vets. Me, [Otto Porter Jr.], Garrett [Temple], we go out there and play, but we are also able to go out and help these guys and keep guys’ confidence and spirits up throughout the course of the game.’’
Obviously, there’s a honeymoon period, but teaching winning basketball is a skill not all NBA coaches possess. Even if Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf hasn’t always appreciated that, it’s being understood now.
The ball doesn’t lie.
‘‘[Donovan] challenges us,’’ LaVine said. “[After that first quarter in Portland], he told us, ‘You guys got to fight. There are swings in the NBA that happen. You can’t die from this right now.’ I think that’s the main thing. He challenged us to get back in the game.’’
That’s the thing about Donovan, he’s not afraid to challenge players and has a résumé that they can’t help but respect.
So when LaVine says that he agrees with Donovan, who says he has to be a better defender, he’s just not spewing player-speak to pacify his coaches and Bulls fans. He is actually trying to be a better defender.
Just as Coby White is working on being a better all-around point guard, especially with his decision-making.
“[Donovan’s] demeanor never really changes,’’ White said. “He’s not really a big-time yeller. He just controls the room, controls the huddle, and we all listen, and we’re all locked in.’’
Now it’s about staying in locked-in mode every game rather than every other game.
In crunch time against the Kings. LaVine pulled the Bulls to within a point with a free throw, and after Richaun Holmes’ miss with 1:10 left, it was hero time. The problem is, LaVine wanted hero time to happen quickly, launching a 26-footer just 10 seconds after Holmes’ miss.
Donovan didn’t have a problem with the shot, reiterating that LaVine has the green light.
The dagger came from Kings guard Buddy Hield, who nailed a three and was fouled by Garrett Temple for a four-point play. Donovan credited Sacramento for the late clutch shooting.
“They made three threes coming down the stretch,’’ Donovan said. “One was a four-point play, and I thought all three were pretty well contested.’’