Saturday and Sunday were uncharted waters for Bulls coach Billy Donovan.
Since leaving Florida for the NBA and the Thunder in 2015, he didn’t know what it was like not to be in the coaching chair for postseason basketball.
The Bulls now have given him a crash course.
”It’s definitely the first time I’ve gone through it,” Donovan said before the Bulls’ 118-112 victory Sunday against the Bucks in their season finale at the United Center. ”I’ve been in some situations in college where you probably knew you were not going to make the NCAA Tournament, and it came down to your conference tournament. A lot of times in those situations, it was having to win four games in four days, which was really challenging. But, listen, it’s hard. I’m happy we didn’t have to play 15 games like this. Two is enough for me. It comes with the territory. I think we still have a job to do.”
And a big one at that.
While it’s Donovan’s first time missing the playoffs as an NBA coach, it has become commonplace around the United Center. The Bulls have missed the playoffs in four consecutive seasons, testing the patience of a fan base that has been as loyal as they come.
And while executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley brought sweeping changes to the coaching offices and developmental staff, the results are the results.
Even with their victory against the Bucks — a game in which both teams sat much of their major personnel — the Bulls’ 31-41 finish was underwhelming, especially in the wake of a trade-deadline deal in March that brought over a second All-Star in center Nikola Vucevic, who was supposed to be the perfect partner for guard Zach LaVine.
But there were growing pains because of a lack of practice time and a positive coronavirus test for LaVine. And after 11 games without him, the Bulls were in too deep a hole to claw out of in pursuit of a play-in spot in the East.
”There’s clearly a lot of things that we have to do better,” Donovan said. ”I look at it more from that perspective. Is that to say that we didn’t do anything well? No, I wouldn’t agree with that. But we certainly didn’t do enough well.”
That’s especially true defensively. While the numbers improved from the start of the season, the Bulls still fouled too much and lacked physicality too often. There were just far too many nights in which opponents were allowed to get shots wherever they wanted on the floor.
That has to change, in Donovan’s mind. And it likely will because the roster is going to change.
Center Cristiano Felicio comes off the books, and key rotation players such as guard Garrett Temple and forward Daniel Theis will be free agents. Then there’s forward Lauri Markkanen, who will be a restricted free agent. The Bulls can match any offer he gets, but they also might go the sign-and-trade route.
Whomever Donovan has to coach after the Bulls get through the draft and free agency, he wants to make sure the group can establish an identity more easily than this group did. He liked the chemistry on the roster, but now it needs some more toughness.
”Defense is something that . . . you’ve got to be able to do it a lot more than we were able to do it this year to develop that kind of chemistry and habits, fundamentals,” Donovan said. ”That was something that was lacking. I do think guys made some strides there.”