In the midst of losing five-of-six games, the Bulls are facing a reality check. With Boston coming to Chicago on Monday ahead of a six-game road trip, pressure is starting to build just 15 games into the season.
“You can always talk as much as you want, but the actions have got to back up what the talk is,” Billy Donovan said before the Bulls tipped off against the Magic on Friday night.
Outside narratives are advocating a stylistic shift or a change to the starting lineup. But that is just sidestepping the issue. The Bulls big three needs to be better. Full stop.
“I’ve got like a lot of respect on a lot of levels for (Nikola Vucevic) and (DeMar DeRozan) and (Zach LaVine) of who they are as players,” Donovan said. “We’re never going to be as good as we can be as a team, you know until, in my opinion, those three guys really drive the opening part of the game.”
“It’s very, very easy to look at maybe Ayo being a young player, Patrick not being aggressive enough, “Hey, we’re going to throw a guy in there.” Those three guys are important to our team and if we’re working around them so to speak, like you’re talking about, I don’t think we’re going to get to where we need to go to. And I don’t mind saying this because I don’t look at it as pressure on them. It’s just what we’ve got to do as a basketball team. That’s the expectation, that’s the standard.”
Bulls lineups with the trio of LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic are -12.3 points per 100 possessions, the sixth percentile of the entire NBA. Not what you’re looking for given all the Bulls gave up to put this group together.
The Bulls have employed somewhat of a new offensive system so as to avoid falling into the trap of “nothing is working, hey DeMar, can you go get us a bucket.”
But the things they’ve added to the game plan come at the expense of the things they did well last year.
Getting more movement and transition means they’ll turn the ball over more when last year, they were an elite team when it came to taking care of the basketball. Lineups with the Bulls All-Star trio have gone from 93rd percentile in turnover percentage to 56th.
Taking the ball out of DeRozan’s hands mean the effective field goal percentage and free throw attempt volume that kept them afloat last year aren’t there to buoy them this season. Lineups with the Bulls All-Star trio have gone from 74th percentile in turnover percentage to 39th.
It would be worth the growing pains if it meant the transition offense was working. Lineups with the Bulls All-Star trio are in the 9th percentile in transition offense frequency.
It would be worth the growing pains if it meant the Bulls were shooting more threes to keep them in games. Lineups with the Bulls All-Star trio are in the 15th percentile when it comes to three point attempt frequency.
It would be worth the growing pains if it meant the Bulls were becoming an elite offensive rebounding team. Lineups with the Bulls All-Star trio are in the 1st percentile in offensive rebounding rate.
“They’re our leaders of our team,” Donovan said. “They’re guys that are veteran guys that have been in the league for a long time. They’ve got to basically drive, in my opinion, whatever it is. Defense, offense, everything.”
Donovan has been steadfast in his belief that the Bulls need to overcome adversity to be a good team. That starts with the Bulls big three playing like the All-Stars they are.
“For us to be the team we need to be, the starting point, those three guys need to raise it up,” Donovan said. “And I think they can.”
The state of the roster
The Bulls gave up Wendell Carter Jr. and three first round picks to acquire DeRozan and Vucevic and gave LaVine $215 million, so it’s understandable that frustration is bubbling up.
We’re almost 20 percent of the way through the season, but the Bulls still seem to be in data acquisition mode.
“The feeling we had, is based on what happened last year to our team, with all the injuries and those factors, and even with (Lonzo Ball) being still out right now, we just hadn’t seen enough with the group together.
“I think we both feel pretty confident in this group. And like I said, I’ve got a lot of confidence in (DeRozan) and (LaVine) and (Vucevic), in terms of being veteran, really, really good players. They’ve all been All-Star throughout their career. I’ve got a lot of trust in them.”
The question is, how much longer can they operate this way? Vucevic is an impending free agent. They’ll need to make a decision about how to manage Coby White’s upcoming restricted free agency and Patrick Williams’ extension.
“When Arturas and I have spoken, it’s been more about the optimism of these guys and where we think they can get to as a group and as a team. So we haven’t had any conversations of, “Oh my god, we’ve got to pull the ripcord.” There’s been nothing like that at all.”
The Bulls are 6-9 with a brutal road trip coming up. Things could get ugly real quick if they don’t start to turn things around.
Out a top-four protected pick this year, the Bulls may not be able to wait on Lonzo Ball to truly be able to evaluate their team.
Update on Lonzo Ball’s Progress
Ball’s second surgery to address his meniscus was September 28. With an initial timeline for check in being 4-6 weeks.
Updates since the initial four week checkpoint have been vague, and the latest doesn’t add much color either, but here it is:
“It’s going slow, but he’s doing more and he’s doing more and he’s doing more,” Donovan said. “He’s still not obviously running, but he’s different doing things he couldn’t doing before. Outside of that, until maybe he’s running or jumping or cutting, I just don’t how far away”
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