Chicago Bulls: Donovan-Fleming could be match made in heaven

Coby White, Chris Fleming, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Coby White, Chris Fleming, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

What could be one of the better head coach-assistant coach duos in the Eastern Conference next season lies right here with the Chicago Bulls.

The retooling of the Chicago Bulls coaching staff appears to be a process that is now well underway. Under the direction of recently hired former Oklahoma City Thunder and Florida Gators hoops head coach Billy Donovan, the Bulls look to have more confidence and energy instilled into this rebuild. Heading into the fourth year of the rebuild, Donovan could be the right guy to replace former head coach Jim Boylen and lead the Bulls to a more prominent place in the Eastern Conference in the near future.

During his five years coaching up the Thunder, Donovan registered a record of 243-157 (.609 winning percentage) in the regular season. And he registered a playoff record of 18-23 (.439 winning percentage). The Thunder parted ways with Donovan after he was a Coach of the Year award finalist this year, and led them to a surprisingly solid five-seed in the playoffs in the Western Conference.

Most counted out the Thunder as a playoff contender in the deep and competitive West during the 2019-20 season. But Donovan got the best out of the likes of veteran star point guard Chris Paul and potential rising star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to make the Thunder one of the more competitive teams out West.

The Bulls have to be hoping he can do the same heading into next season with what could be an improved roster, front office, coaching staff, and scouting department. It really appears that the Bulls are trying to improve this organization over the course of this offseason from the top-down.

And we have reached the point of the offseason where Donovan is looking to retool his coaching staff. On Oct. 12, Donovan parted ways with four assistant coaches that were on staff under the likes of Boylen, and some even under former head coaches Fred Hoiberg and Tom Thibodeau.

The four assistants that Donovan parted ways with included Roy Rogers, Nate Loenser, Dean Cooper, and Karen Stack Umlauf. The one name that didn’t show up on the list of assistants that saw the door this week in the Windy City was Chris Fleming.

Former assistant coach under Kenny Atkinson with the Brooklyn Nets, and the German national team head coach, Fleming is a rising star in the NBA coaching ranks as it appears in the last few years.

His coaching run in the NBA started back during the 2015-16 season with the Denver Nuggets (so there is a connection back with executive vice president of basketball operations/ex-Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas). Fleming served as an assistant coach for the Nuggets during that one season.

Then, he took the job under former Nets head coach Atkinson heading into the 2016-17 season, all the way through the 2018-19 campaign. He was a very solid addition to the Bulls coaching staff last offseason to become one of their more promising assistants.

Fleming was even interviewed this offseason for a few head coach openings around the NBA, including with the Nets and New York Knicks. That just goes to show how highly thought of Fleming is around the NBA.

But now that Fleming is on staff with a proven winner and promising head coaching hire in Donovan with the Bulls, the results could be really special. Adding Fleming to the Bulls staff last offseason helped to improve the team’s offensive rating by about two points.

And the offensive rating of the Nets improved each and every year that Fleming was at the helm in Brooklyn. It started out at 103.2 the season prior to him getting hired on staff, and rounded out at 109.6 in his final year at the helm. In fact, the Nets ranked outside of the bottom 10 teams in the NBA in offensive rating for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign during the 2018-19 season.

After Fleming departed the Nets staff last offseason, they dipped back among the bottom eight teams in the NBA in offensive rating (108.9).

The impact that Fleming’s offensive system can have on various struggling NBA offenses is clear between his time with the Nets and Bulls. The change that Fleming had to the Bulls offensive system during the 2019-20 season was evident.

His offensive scheme is really predicated on a handful of foundational principals that help build out the rest of the system. The pick-and-roll system is a heavy favorite for Fleming, but the position of the other players on the floor is a bit different than you would usually see with this traditional play call. He believes that four players should be out on the perimeter at all times to allow for open space on the floor.

If the Bulls can get a more proficient facilitator of the offense working the first and second units than Zach LaVine trying to do everything himself or Coby White missing too many shots, then this system could work well.

Where Donovan comes into play here is with his better personnel usage than Fleming had with Boylen. Donovan was able to keep the backcourt pairing of CP3 and SGA as one of the best in the West during the 2019-20 season. There’s the potential that the Bulls could have a very proficient backcourt between the likes of White and LaVine if the rookie point guard continues his hot scoring and facilitating streak heading into his second year in the NBA.

Boylen would run weird three-guard lineups that created gaps in rebounding and driving when plays broke down in the Fleming offense for the Bulls during the 2019-20 season. The Bulls also just didn’t give Boylen that much help, and started getting bit hard by the injury bug again down the stretch in the season that was.

All in all, the Bulls could be looking at something really special in the head-assistant coaching duo with Donovan and Fleming. If the latter of those two sticks around for a while in the Windy City, then we could see one of the most continuously progressing offenses in the NBA over the course of the next two or three seasons.

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Fleming ran the Bulls voluntary group workouts that lasted for about three weeks at the Advocate Center in September and early October. And there were a few encouraging signs from the highlights we saw and what he heard coming out of the Bulls camp from workouts. It sounds like a lot of the key pieces of this young core are really buying into where this rebuild is headed starting in the 2020-21 season.