If it is surprising that Billy Donovan is the new coach of the Chicago Bulls, it's because he chose this gig after five years with a Western Conference playoff team. Donovan parted ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder after perhaps his most impressive season, reportedly because they are heading into a full-fledged rebuild. Why then would Donovan jump to a team that went 22-43 this season?
One possible answer: That record isn't a true reflection of the talent on the roster.
About a year ago, at the Bulls' annual media day, they pledged this was the year they would return to the playoffs. And it didn't sound crazy.
Their free-agent signings had earned rave reviews: Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young would provide some offensive structure and defensive versatility, and stretch 5 Luke Kornet seemed like a possible steal. With development from Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen, they should take a step forward, and, in the Eastern Conference, sneaking into the postseason isn't that tough.
Last September, 538's RAPTOR forecast system gave Chicago a 57 percent chance of making the playoffs. (The same system gave Oklahoma City a 36 percent shot in the West.) Andrew Sharp made the case for the Bulls at Sports Illustrated, and ESPN's Zach Lowe pegged them as a borderline playoff team.
Those projections didn't pan out, but perhaps Donovan and Chicago's new front office, led by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, believe that they were sound at the time. None of that optimism accounted for Otto Porter missing virtually the entire season with a foot injury, Carter missing almost two months with an ankle sprain and Markkanen taking a puzzling step backward. It didn't account for coaching, either.
To his credit, Jim Boylen, fired in August, coaxed the ninth-best defense out of a relatively young team with an extremely aggressive scheme. On the other end of the floor, though, his Bulls were a disaster. They finished the season with the second-worst offense in the league, despite having the second-best shot profile -- in a broad sense, Chicago fit the mold of a modern NBA team, shooting almost exclusively 3s and layups, but it was no good at making them.
Coincidentally, The Athletic's Seth Partnow tweeted about this phenomenon just before the Donovan hiring: Shooting a lot of 3s and layups are the result of good offense, not the cause of it. In the case of the Bulls, Young was essentially reduced to a floor spacer, rendering his skill as a facilitator meaningless. Satoransky's 3-point percentage dropped because he had to shoot 3s more often and in less comfortable situations. Carter turned down open jumpers and generally struggled to find his place in the system.
Overall, Chicago had an alarming lack of flow, which manifest in a high turnover rate, a low free throw rate and poor accuracy from every area on the court. According to Cleaning The Glass, it barely avoided the distinction of having the NBA's worst halfcourt offense -- the New York Knicks scored 0.1 fewer points per 100 possessions.
The Bulls have some roster issues to sort out this offseason: Kris Dunn, an absolute menace on defense, is a restricted free agent; Markkanen is up for his rookie extension and the 25-year-old LaVine could sign an extension, too. (If LaVine doesn't, he'll be on an expiring contract and trade rumors will swirl.) Chicago has the No. 4 pick in the draft, and it can add another rotation player with the midlevel exception.
Even if the Bulls bring back a largely similar roster, though, there are reasons to believe that they can take a step forward. When their season stopped in March, Coby White, last year's No. 7 pick, was in the middle of a scoring binge, perhaps having improved more than anyone in his class over the course of five months. Donovan proved this season that he can adapt to his personnel, overseeing a Thunder team that not only exceeded expectations but played a completely different style than previous iterations -- and turned an unconventional, three-point-guard unit into the best lineup in the league.
The 2019-20 Bulls couldn't make a functional frontcourt out of their young and talented bigs, nor could they maximize the strengths of the veterans they thought would fill in the gaps. Boylen's failure to make a playoff team out of this mix, however, doesn't mean that the ingredients are all rotten. Maybe Donovan is the right coach to put it all together.