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Billy Donovan searching for answers that have eluded Bulls through a series of rebuilds

Billy Donovan's tenure as Bulls coach has been plagued by inconsistency.Steven Senne/Associated Press

He’s no longer Billy “the Kid” Donovan as he was during his years as a brilliant point guard at Providence College. He’s Billy “the weathered and beleaguered coach” Donovan after three-plus seasons with the Chicago Bulls that have included one playoff appearance and a poor start this season.

Before the Bulls took on the Celtics Tuesday, Donovan was left to explain why a team that includes former All-Stars DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and Nikola Vucevic and lottery picks Coby White and Patrick Williams is one of the worst in the Eastern Conference.

And then the Bulls lost by 27 points to the Celtics, who were without Kristaps Porzingis.


The story line from that game was the Celtics having to beat the Bulls by at least 23 points to advance to the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals. And Donovan took issue with Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla intentionally fouling putrid free throw shooter Andre Drummond in the fourth quarter to potentially extend the lead.

Donovan and Mazzulla had a conversation on the floor and Mazzulla explained the point differential, but that doesn’t explain why the Bulls sleepwalked through the game, trailing by 19 at halftime and 28 after three quarters.

And then without the injured DeRozan and LaVine, the Bulls rallied to beat the Bucks in overtime Thursday. Perhaps it’s an example of the team’s potential if it makes roster-clearing moves.

DeRozan, 34, is in the final year of his contract and could be sought-after at the trade deadline. LaVine just signed an extension but has contemplated going elsewhere in a rebuild.

Donovan tried addressing the team’s inconsistency.

“If you get caught into, ‘Here we go again,‘ that’s not a solution,” he said. “There is a combination of the understanding of there’s a run going on right now and what kind of shot do we have to generate? We don’t need to turn it over. Because when something happens that’s negative you still have to have a disposition to fight through it. Oh, we were just up 18 and now it’s a 6-point game. We’ve got to do something about it, too. And I think we have to look at why are those things happening? And how do we shut off runs?”


The Bulls had a team meeting after being trounced in the season opener against Oklahoma City. Communication was supposed to be an emphasis this season.

“I do think the conversations are good, when we’re watching film, it’s good,” Donovan said. “Those guys are comfortable talking to each other on a level of what they need from each other to perform and do their job.”

Bulls vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas told Chicago beat reporters this past week that he was disappointed, which could mean changes are in store. Donovan’s job appears to be safe. But there could be personnel changes.

“I’m not going to go to ownership, front office, or players [with complaints]. What do I need to do to better? What does our staff need to do better?” Donovan said. “Certainly there’s certain things we’ve got to be better at in trying to help the group. I take ownership in this too with what I’ve got to do. I’m not making the decisions that [management] is making and I’m not making the decisions that the players on the court are making, but what do I have control over? What’s my responsibility [in helping change matters]? Where can I improve? I always believe in doing that.


“I’m a big believer in you are what your record says you are. I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve had a couple of tough losses or we could be .500. No, this is what we are.”

It may be too late for this group. The Bulls have not reached the NBA Finals since Michael Jordan swiped away Bryon Russell and swished that midrange jumper in his last shot as a Bull. They have been through a series of rebuilds and believed pairing Vucevic and DeRozan with the rising LaVine would put them among the Eastern Conference elite.

But losing free agent signee Lonzo Ball for two years and counting with knee issues and the lack of development from Williams and White have the Bulls pondering major changes. Donovan is still trying to find answers.

“What are the things we have to address?” Donovan said. “I certainly take responsibility for where we’re at. There’s no question I do. I look at myself first. That’s my main focus. We’re all trying to put our heads together and figure out how can we help one another. Once you get past the disappointment, the next thing is solutions. I do think we’re trying to improve.”


Magic learning

how to win

The Magic’s rebuilding plan is officially over. They entered Friday winners of eight in a row and they have soared to second in the Eastern Conference behind the Celtics.


Third-year coach Jamahl Mosley has guided a roster of young players mixed with a couple of veterans to success behind the league’s best defense. The Magic went for size in recent drafts with Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, and Jonathan Isaac to go along with a crew of gifted guards in Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, and Markelle Fultz.

The Magic have lived in the lottery for several years after they struggled to recover after Dwight Howard and other standouts departed. But Mosley has built a solid foundation behind defense, physical play, and timely scoring.

Mosley said he had to encourage his younger players not to get accustomed to losing after taking their lumps his first two seasons. The Magic showed signs of growth last season, beating the Celtics three times, including twice in Boston. This year, despite injuries to Wendell Carter Jr. and Fultz, they have blossomed.

“Since we’ve gotten here, it’s been about growth, it’s been about development,” Mosley said. “It’s been about how do you help this group mature. The reason why you bring a group back that has listened to your message for 2½, three years is to see what they’ve learned. Now you’re seeing the fruits of that and what the coaches have done. How [the front office] has drafted, understanding basketball IQ is important, understand that guys that love to defend and wanting to sit down and guard is important.

“All of those pieces play a part in what you see these guys doing now and it’s the growth factor, it’s the maturity factor. It’s the belief factor as you understand you’ve been in these situations almost going on 2½ years now.”


On Nov. 24, the Magic weren’t intimidated by the Celtics and rallied to pull away despite falling behind by 12 points. The postgame celebration may have been a bit excessive, but it was a sign that the Magic will be a factor in the Eastern Conference.

“It’s just continued growth,” Mosley added. “They’re embracing challenges. Whatever’s presented to them, they’re willing to take it on. It’s going to continue to be done by committee.”

The Magic’s defense stiffened in the second half and forced the Celtics into below-average shots. Isaac, who missed two seasons with a torn ACL, has become a staunch defender off the bench and helped contain Jayson Tatum in the second half. Mosley has been able to convince his young guys to play particular roles without altering team chemistry.

“Being in these situations, I think we’ve been down at halftime before, we’ve been up at halftime before. But them recognizing what the scenarios are,” Mosley said. “When you know you’re down, you know you have to play better. We turned it over, we fouled. All those little things they were paying attention to. You know we got ourselves out of pocket a little bit worrying about the wrong things. Part of that is just being able to control what you can control and that’s what we did in the second half.”

The next step for Mosley is quieting the hype. Teams will no longer overlook the Magic. They eventually will be the hunted, which is a difficult transition.

“I love the way we’re just taking it one game at a time,” he said. “You know, there’s going to be a lot of noise and talk about this is what you all are doing. That’s great! You know, embrace that as well. Whether they’re saying it’s good or whether they’re saying it’s bad. You continue to do what we’ve been doing. And that’s defending at a high clip. Sharing and moving the basketball. Playing the way that we know how to play. A defensive team first and foremost. And then we get out and run.”

Banchero, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is scoring a bit less because of the team’s depth, but he has improved as a 3-point shooter and distributor, emerging as one of the league’s more versatile forwards.

“I think [maturity] just comes with the season going along,” Banchero said. “We had some early — you could call it second-half struggles in the start of the season, but that’s what the start of the season is for. To work through those problems. I think we’ve been doing a great job the past three or four games and I think we figured it out. Just staying aggressive, keep running our stuff, but also being mindful of taking care of the ball and doing all the little things right. I think we’ve been able to mold those things together and really be effective in the second half.”


Not much reason

for hope in Detroit

The Pistons entered the weekend having lost 16 consecutive games, a franchise record. Even more distressing is Detroit’s young prospects aren’t improving.

The Pistons have lived in the draft lottery for the past decade and essentially have nothing to show for it. Their roster is filled with high draft picks, players who were considered potential cornerstones, and there is no sign of hope.

By comparison, the Thunder went through a similar rebuild and reached the Play-In Tournament with their young core last season and are likely to get a top-six seed in the Western Conference this season. Generally, teams build through the lottery, with some of those picks turning into stars and the franchise turning into a winner. It happened in Sacramento. It happened in Philadelphia. It’s finally happening in Minnesota.

But in Detroit? Nothing but losing, despite owner Tom Gores paying Monty Williams $72 million over six seasons to be the coach that leads the Pistons out of the abyss. The 16-game losing streak is now on his résumé and there are questions as to whether Gores should have invested so much in a coach that had just been fired by the Suns and had previously been fired in New Orleans. But then again, this is the same franchise that gave the keys to Stan Van Gundy to be coach and general manager.

The Pistons have been considered a team on the rise for the past few years as they amassed lottery picks. They selected Cade Cunningham first overall in 2021 and he’s been a solid player but missed most of last season with a calf injury and may not have enough talent and versatility to be a centerpiece.

Jaden Ivey, who was drafted fifth last season and an All-Rookie selection after averaging 16.3 points, appeared to be a great choice. But after starting 73 games last season, Ivey has been banished to the bench, his numbers have suffered across the board, and he’s lost confidence. The question is whether Ivey and Cunningham, both shooting guards, can exist in the same backcourt.

Point guard was supposed to be filled by 2020 seventh overall pick Killian Hayes. The problem is Hayes’s inability to shoot or be a consistent offensive threat. The Pistons are hoping he improves and he’s been a solid distributor, but is years from being a high-caliber guard.

General manager Troy Weaver then took flyers on two castoffs in former second overall picks James Wiseman and Marvin Bagley III‚ who was taken ahead of Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Wiseman, once considered the Warriors’ center of the future, has been buried on the bench because 2022 lottery pick Jalen Duren has developed into a potential star.

Bagley has battled injuries but has become a reliable backup, yet the Pistons likely were expecting more.

With all of these young players, coupled with sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic yet to play this season because of injury, the Pistons have suffered. They are 27th in the NBA in scoring and 24th in points allowed.

Williams needs time as he tries to rebuild a proud franchise that hasn’t had success in more than a decade. Weaver may need to sacrifice young talent for veteran help to win in the short term. The Pistons hosted the Cavaliers on Saturday with a 2-17 record and the second-worst point differential in the NBA.

The question is whether the Pistons prepare for another draft lottery and top-five pick and begin tanking — that won’t be difficult — or try to regain a semblance of respect by moving some of their young talent that hasn’t developed. It’s a difficult situation.

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There was optimism in San Antonio when the Spurs began the season 3-2 and Victor Wembanyama looked like a combination of Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. A few weeks later, the Spurs have lost 13 straight and look to be in lottery mode despite spending the past few seasons lining their roster with young prospects. The problem? The Spurs are 21st in scoring and 28th in points allowed. They are porous on both sides of the ball, despite Wembanyama leading the team in scoring and rebounding. He’s a sensation and Rookie of the Year candidate, but the Spurs are getting pounded on a nightly basis, with a league-worst point differential of minus-12.3. The Spurs relied on the draft the past few years with Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan, and Malaki Branham, but they’ve yet to take a step forward. Gregg Popovich signed a five-year extension to remain coach until age 80, but the question is whether he’ll hang around long enough for this rebuild to come to fruition, especially when it remains at the beginning steps. Popovich decided to use Sochan, a forward, at point guard instead of Tre Jones. And it appears Johnson, a member of the 2020 United States Olympic team and a potential rising star, has suffered the most from Wembanyama’s presence. While his shooting percentages, rebounding, and assist numbers are up, Johnson is averaging 6 fewer points because his attempts are down. The Spurs have five players averaging in double figures, but the nonexistent defense doesn’t give them a chance to win. It’s going to be another long season and the Spurs will be lined up for another top-five pick next summer . . . If the Celtics lose Monday at Indiana in the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals, they’ll play a home game Friday against the loser of the quarterfinal between the Bucks and Knicks. The other 22 teams that didn’t advance to the quarterfinals play Wednesday and Friday, with each team playing one home game and one road game. The only teams that will play 83 games during the season will be the In-Season Tournament finalists. There will be an exclusive window for Thursday’s semifinals and Sunday’s final in Las Vegas, with the first semifinal between the Eastern Conference teams beginning at 5 p.m.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.