Bulls hire Billy Donovan as their head coach, landing one of the biggest names available on the market

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CHICAGO — The Chicago Bulls landed one of the biggest names and most experienced coaches available Tuesday when they announced the hiring of Billy Donovan to fill their head coaching vacancy.

The move represents a shift for the Bulls, who rarely have hired coaches with prior NBA head coaching experience and especially not one as accomplished as Donovan, 55, who spent the last five seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

During his time in Oklahoma City, Donovan went 243-157 (.608) — the fourth-highest winning percentage among active NBA coaches — and guided the team to the playoffs all five years, including an appearance in the Western Conference finals in his first season.

“The success that he has sustained over the course of his coaching career puts him on a different level,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said in a statement. “We feel his ability to help his players reach their potential, both individually and collectively, will mesh well with our roster. Whether as a player or as a coach, he has won everywhere his career has taken him, and we hope that will continue here in Chicago.”

Donovan is coming off arguably his most impressive coaching job this season. The Thunder exceeded expectations in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, making the playoffs before losing in Game 7 of the first round against the Houston Rockets.

Although it was their fourth consecutive first-round exit, it still came as a surprise that he and the Thunder could not agree on a new contract. When the sides mutually agreed to part ways, it was seen as a sign that the Thunder were headed for a rebuild Donovan wanted no part of.

Yet Karnisovas was able to lure Donovan, who won two NCAA championships as Florida’s coach, to Chicago for one of the biggest coaching splashes in team history.

The Bulls had not hired a coach with previous NBA head coaching experience since Scott Skiles in 2003, and most of the known candidates they reportedly targeted were well-regarded assistants around the league.

“I want to thank Jerry (Reinsdorf), Michael (Reinsdorf), Arturas and Marc (Eversley) for the opportunity to coach the Chicago Bulls,” Donovan said in a statement the team released. “I also want to thank them for the time and effort they put into this hiring process. I’m excited to partner with Arturas as we work together on behalf of this historic franchise.”

The hire comes just as the Bulls are scheduled to begin voluntary workouts this week at the Advocate Center, their first team activities since March. The team did not clarify when Donovan would make it to Chicago to join his new team, and it’s uncertain when he will coach his first game next season. Earlier on Tuesday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Bob Costas on CNN that his “best guess” is the league won’t begin the next season until sometime in 2021.

Donovan becomes the latest piece of a franchise overhaul over the last six months that has injected life into a rebuild that had grown stagnant.

First the Bulls hired Karnisovas as their top basketball executive in April, replacing John Paxson after 17 years in charge. Karnisovas quickly moved on from Gar Forman as general manager and replaced him with Eversley while making a few additional hires to build out the front office.

Last month the Bulls fired coach Jim Boylen after two forgettable seasons at the helm, and now they have installed a coach who gives them instant credibility around the league.

During his tenure in Oklahoma City, Donovan coached stars such as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Chris Paul and helped nurture young players such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Domantas Sabonis and Lu Dort, all while avoiding major clashes with his players. Despite the evolution of his roster during his time with the Thunder, Donovan adapted and his teams often overachieved in the regular season.

Questions have lingered about his ability to make adjustments during a playoff series, but the Bulls, who have missed the postseason the last three years, have some time before they have to worry about that.

Hiring Donovan made the kind of statement the Bulls so rarely have done, even though they play in one of the biggest markets in the NBA with a championship pedigree matched by few other franchises. They have a young core that is talented if unproven, they hold the No. 4 pick in this year’s draft and they grabbed one of the most coveted coaches on the market.

“Oh, damn, we got Billy Donovan as our next coach,” Bulls guard Zach LaVine said as he discovered the news while playing a video game on a livestream. “Wow. That’ll be good … really good coach.”

Before taking the Thunder job in April 2015, Donovan spent 19 seasons at Florida, taking the Gators to the NCAA Tournament 14 times — including four Final Fours, three championship games and back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.

After the second of those titles, Donovan accepted a job in June 2007 to be the Orlando Magic’s head coach, only to change his mind the day after his introductory news conference. He and the Magic reached an agreement to release him from his contract so he could return to Florida.

A native of Rockville Centre, N.Y., on Long Island, Donovan played for Rick Pitino at Providence, where he was the star point guard on the 1987 team that reached the Final Four as a No. 6 seed. He was an assistant under Pitino at Kentucky from 1989 to 1994, then became head coach at Marshall for two seasons before landing the Florida job.


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