One thing that became apparent during the final night of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament Group Stage was that the Chicago Bulls stink.
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They got thumped by 27 by the Celtics, who needed every point to advance into the quarterfinals. Bulls Billy Donovan might be a better X’s and O’s tactician than Joe Mazzulla — he’s certainly more accomplished — but it had to be dispiriting to realize this is what it’s come to. Despite the NBA’s attempt to create an NCAA Tournament-level atmosphere in November, Donovan can’t coach this team into contention.
Not every college coach who leaps to the pros is as fortunate as Celtics President Brad Stevens. Rick Pitino was previously the Patron Saint of get-back coaches. Not the sideline coach responsible for keeping the head coach off the field, but the College-to-Pros and Get-Back-to-College coaching pipeline. That’s probably the only time saint as a descriptor for Pitino has been used. Donovan’s impact on the pro game pales in comparison to his collegiate success. In nearly two decades as Florida’s head coach, Donovan reached three Final Fours, winning it all twice and was one of the sport’s premier coaches in an obscure location.
The past eight years have been a rollercoaster though and The Association’s digestive tract is spitting his distinguished career out as a carcass. NBA coaches come and go, but Donovan has an outlet option. We’re only 16 games into the Bulls season, but Donovan needs to begin putting his feelers out there on the college level. Even if Jerry Reinsdorf opts to bestow him with another contract extension out of pure apathy, he should turn it down. The Bulls have been mired in mediocrity for most of the millennium.
Throughout Donovan’s stint, they’ve been a middling team, at best, with a misfit roster led by DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso. At 5-14, they’re losing altitude fast leading up to what’s beginning to look like a lackluster draft. This rebuild is going to take a while. Given their sluggish start, Lavine’s impending free agency, the gloomy state of Lonzo Ball’s right knee and DeRozan’s advancing age, it’s becoming apparent that this iteration of the Bulls is heading for a natural expiration date.
As we learned from the end of his tenure in Oklahoma City, Donovan wants nothing to do with a rebuilding job, which is ironic given his background as a developmental coach. Unsurprisingly, abandoning Sam Presti and Co. for Chicago turned out to be a losing move in the long term. If Donovan had played the long game, he’d be coaching a super senior roster that is ascending to the top of the West at a prolific rate. Donovan has made major job-hunting mistakes before. In 2007, he backed out of a deal to become the Orlando Magic head coach and staved off the NBA for another eight years.
A return to college would allow him to regenerate his brand. The college game has changed dramatically since 2015 due to the transfer portal, as well as the influence of NIL and collectives. But as a basketball teacher, Donovan would still rank among the best. But when it comes to commanding professionals, he hasn’t cut it. The NBA ranks have created a graveyard of college coaches such as John Beilein, Pitino, Tim Floyd, Fred Hoiberg and a bevy of others who came, saw and returned to greener pastures. Donovan has stumbled at nearly every turn in the NBA, where he doesn’t control his own destiny. Who knows how differently his NBA career would have panned out if Kevin Durant hadn’t gone ice cold late in Games 5-7, and departed for Golden State in the offseason, but in Chicago, Donovan gets lost in the crowd.
Conversely, the number of high-level programs that would swoop in for Donovan’s services if he dipped his toes back into college hoops is longer than Zach Edney. He could lift another basketball program hiding in obscurity for a football school at Ohio State. Chris Holtmann could be on the hot seat after missing the Tournament last season and failing to escape the second round in six seasons.
Using Pitino as a launching point, Louisville adores coaches with Big Apple connections and is still stuck in the mud under Kenny Payne after enduring one of the worst debut seasons in recent history. That sort of move would be a win-win for Donovan. There’s only so much punishment Donovan can take before he takes the hint and realizes he deserves better.
Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex