Billy Donovan has seen both sides of it.
He’s coached a team with elite star power named Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in his early Oklahoma City days, and then he also coached talented players that weren’t necessarily considered the best of the best talent-wise, but were hell-bent on beating anyone, anytime, pick-up games included.
His 2020 Thunder team was like that, but the Joakim Noah Florida Gators championship teams were the perfect model of that mentality.
Yes, they had talent at the college level, but their sixth man was the chip that they all carried on their shoulders from game-to-game, with the focus being destroying whatever was in front of them.
So what does Donovan feel he has with this current Bulls roster? He’s still obviously sifting through that, but he definitely feels there’s something sustainable come playoff time.
The 2021-22 Bulls play defense, and they definitely wear that disrespect chip well.
DeMar DeRozan feels like the league put him in a missing ad on a milk carton while he was in San Antonio, Zach LaVine is chasing max contract respect, Lonzo Ball is on his third team in five seasons, Ayo Dosunmu thought he was a first-round talent that slid to the second round … go right down the list.
A blend of talent and proving the league wrong.
“I do think this is sustainable, but listen once you get into the playoffs and are fortunate to play in the postseason, it’s like one team versus one team, and that’s all you’re focused on,’’ Donovan told the Sun-Times. “Trying to find baskets is hard to come by. There’s no secrets, there’s no tricks. You try putting in some new ATOs [After Time Out sets] and things like that, but the familiarity over two and three games is incredible. But I do think this group can sustain our edge.’’
Donovan doesn’t like talking about big picture very often. Like most coaches, he wants the focus to be the next game and only the next game.
The fact that the Bulls also woke up on Monday with 10 players in the league’s health and safety protocol after Alize Johnson tested positive is atop the priority list, but even that could be a blessing for Donovan.
The coach admitted that he hasn’t loved the minutes LaVine and Ball have been forced to play throughout November.
According to Donovan, players like Nikola Vucevic missing seven games last month, and however many games DeRozan and LaVine have to miss, “could pay dividends’’ come postseason.
Not that there aren’t concerns.
Vucevic obviously has to find consistency, the Bulls foul too much, which superstar players will expose in the playoffs, and scoring in transition won’t be as easy in playoff basketball, so the Bulls need to improve their offensive patience when the opposing team is in a set defense.
Then there’s also the reality of the league.
There are still teams in the Eastern Conference with superstar talent that are fine with easing into the postseason, rather than winning each day. A team like Philadelphia with Joel Embiid could earn a lower seed and go on a run.
Some players know how to flip that switch, some just leave the switch on.
Donovan knows that and wants his team prepared for whichever scenario plays out.
“What happens in pressure situations is most teams revert back to your habits,’’ Donovan said. “It gets to the end of the year and we don’t have good habits, it’s hard to say in a timeout, ‘Hey, let’s block-out and rebound better.’ You haven’t been doing that the whole entire year. There’s certain things you have to do habitually every single night that the game needs you to do. That’s what we need to continue building.
“Our veteran guys understand that, and that’s a good thing.’’