Bulls coach Billy Donovan holds himself accountable for team’s performance
In a one-on-one with the Sun-Times, not only did Donovan explain his coaching philosophy as far as accountability, but also what needs to happen moving forward with this group — going into the playoffs and beyond.
The volume was turned up, and the F-bombs were flowing.
As one Bulls player told it, ‘‘Billy wasn’t [bleeping] around.’’
Bulls coach Billy Donovan was born and raised in Rockville Centre on Long Island, and his players were getting the full New York experience in the home locker room at the United Center.
After that blowout loss to the Hornets, however, Donovan came into the media room and, rather than pointing fingers at his players, beating his chest about how he got after guys at the half or just going with the usual coachspeak, fell on the sword himself.
‘‘Some of the struggles that took place in the first quarter were things that we really tried to cover today at shootaround,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘And, to be quite honest with you, I didn’t do a good enough job of creating maybe enough clarity for them on those situations.’’
It was a simple answer with a lot of layers left for interpretation.
Was Donovan merely playing the role of martyr and protecting his players? Was he being passive/aggressive and actually putting it on his players by taking that approach?
Then there was the bigger picture. Did Donovan put a target on his back for the Bulls’ front office by accepting responsibility for a lack of communication, or was he so comfortable with his four-year, $24 million deal — as well as with his relationship with executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley — that he felt empowered to say exactly what was on his mind?
The Bulls and their fan base have seen a parade of coaches since the Phil Jackson dynasty. Even the three before Donovan were completely different in the way they went about their business.
Tom Thibodeau was smarter than the front office, which led to an in-house civil war. Fred Hoiberg wasn’t prepared for the backstabbing and sniping from his players and assistant coaches. And Jim Boylen was the ultimate survivor, often manipulating the message to fall in his favor.
But with the Bulls about to make their first playoff appearance since 2017 this weekend, here’s a little secret about Donovan: He doesn’t operate with an agenda.
Well, that’s not exactly true. There’s one thing: He wants a good night’s sleep.
‘‘The way I look at it is, I want to be able to put my head on the pillow at night and I want to be true to who I am,’’ Donovan said in an interview with the Sun-Times. ‘‘I think that when you’re coaching, I’m never going to be coaching 82 games and 48 minutes every night and not look back and say, ‘Geez, I made a mistake here, I made a mistake there.’ I’ve been someone that’s always looked at myself first.
‘‘What I’m not going to do is when [the media] asks me these questions, if I feel like it’s on me, I’m not going to come up with something else. I do that, then how can I be honest with the players? How can I be truthful with myself?’’
That mentality was why Donovan had no problem coming out during a then-eight-game winning streak and admitting the Bulls were headed the wrong way if the defense didn’t improve. Then he came out of the All-Star break, with the Bulls in first place in the Eastern Conference, and insisted their play ‘‘just wasn’t good enough.’’
He was right both times. But how much of that falls on him?
The Bulls have gone from a seeming contender in the East to a team with more questions than answers, crawling into a first-round showdown against the defending NBA champion Bucks.
Donovan wasn’t hiding from any of that.
‘‘I’ll always say, ‘What could I have done better on the things that we had control over?’ ’’ he said. ‘‘And also, ‘What are the things I need to look at and try to get better from?’ You start there as a coach and then work your way out.
‘‘The other thing, too, is I’m not a guy through the course of a season trying to pick out these bright spots, like, ‘Oh, we’re in the playoffs for the first time in five years,’ or, ‘But we’ve got this many more wins from last year.’ I’m not into self-promotion. But even more than that, where are we at right now? You want to play your best basketball going into this time of the year, and we’re not.’’
That’s what this week is about for Donovan: trying to fix that to the best of his ability. How the fans or his bosses view the job he has done falls into the category of things Donovan can’t control.
There’s a reason Donovan never has been fired from any coaching position: He doesn’t need to coach; he wants to. Need often makes guys try to manipulate the narrative or be a self-promoter.
‘‘If there are repercussions because of how I am, I’m fine with that,’’ Donovan said.
By all accounts, Karnisovas is thrilled with the job Donovan has done. Even if he isn’t, however, he knows the type of guy he hired, no matter how the rest of this season plays out.
‘‘That locker room, to me, is really, really sacred,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘When you stand up in front of your team to talk to them, I want them to feel like: ‘This guy is telling us what he really thinks. He’s not out here trying to manipulate, trying to spin things.’
‘‘No, I can’t. I get the idea that being accountable opens you up to things in this position, but you have to be true to how you feel. That’s the only way I can be.’’