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Staying bought into the plan, even when adversity strikes

Will Gottlieb Avatar
October 25, 2023

Each of the last two seasons, the Bulls have come into the year with the understanding that they need to make structural changes to the offense in order to improve. Heading into the 2021-22 season, it was ‘randomness’ and playing more spontaneously. When things didn’t work, they resorted back to iso-ball.

This year, it’s spacing and paint touches. Billy Donovan has put together a plan he feels will work to unlock their offense and finally help this group reach its potential. And while there’s buy in for now, none of the season may quickly derail if they don’t stay committed to that plan when adversity inevitably hits.

“That’s everything right there,” Donovan said of commiting to the new offensive principles.

“Everything sounds good when you have a plan,” he continued. “And then all of a sudden, you’re being tested on your beliefs, values and how the game needs to be played. I think we have enough body of work of last year to see if we want to revert back to that, we’re going to get the same results.”

It can be easy for those three in particular to resort to what they know works for them. Zach LaVine is an incredibly gifted scorer at all three levels. DeMar DeRozan is a master of his individual craft, an automatic high-quality shot in the mid-range. Nikola Vucevic didn’t become a two-time All-Star without a versatile offensive skillset.

Those things may work for the individuals, but that didn’t translate to an efficient offense or a winning record. In spite of near career seasons from each of the big three, the Bulls still finished 24th in offense.

“We all want to win,” Coby White said. “We know what it takes to win. Some of that stuff’s not a recipe for winning, because obviously if it was we would have won last year.”

New year, new plan. This season, they want to emphasize paint touches. Getting into the paint will help address three of their biggest weaknesses: shots at the rim, threes and offensive boards. Attacking gaps and generating paint touches help to open up shots at the rim and fouls. If help slides over, it will open up opportunities for spray out threes or closeouts to continue putting pressure on the defense to keep up. That movement also opens up offensive boards — it’s much easier to crash the glass when the defense is scrambling back into place to box out rather than finding their man after watching one of DeRozan or LaVine take an isolation jumper.

That starts with improved spacing, which has to be addressed in a variety of ways, and it starts with shooting more threes. The Bulls brought in high level role shooters in Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig. They’ve moved White into the starting five to help in that arena as well.

“If you’ve got Steph Curry and Klay Thompson running around, there’s a lot of space. I get it. But the spacing part is also giving room to each other to be able to play,” Donovan explained.

Unfortunately for them, the Bulls don’t have those defense warpers. Can they really create the spacing they need without markedly changing the personnel? If not, will they have the requisite space they need to attack the paint the way they want to? You can’t decide how the defense guard you, so it remains to be seen. But they have plans for how to create space on the floor regardless.

“There may be somebody they’re not guarding on the perimeter,” Donovan went on. “When the ball finds that player, that player’s got to make a decision. Whether to shoot it or drive it or get off of it. But what we can’t do is when the ball gets thrown to him, that his space gets cramped and he can’t make the next play where he’s just caught having to shoot it instead of other options he could potentially look to attack.”

But what happens if those driving avenues don’t come? Or the shots don’t fall, even if they are generated “the right way”?

“It could be hit by missing shots, it could be hit by officials, it could be that we’re just struggling as a team,” Donovan explained. “But to me, that’s the true sign of your team is how you handle adversity and how you go through that. And they’ve got to do that together.”

Every team faces adversity over the course of a lengthy, draining, tumultuous 82 game season. What the Bulls cannot do is revert back to the tried and true scoring options if things go poorly. So one of the Bulls biggest challenges will be staying committed to the cause no matter how things go.

Hopeful their team bonding trip to Nashville can help their ability to communicate and hold each other accountable, the Bulls should be better equipped to problem solve on the fly.

“Just the mindset, having that mentality of staying bought in,” White said. “Having the mentality of trusting each other out there on the court, trusting the system, trusting the process.”

“We’ve got to hold each other accountable in those moments. Have that positive self talk, and that positive talk between each other,” White continued.

“The resiliency, the grit, the toughness, the embracing of adversity,” Donovan added. “All that stuff is uncomfortable. And you have to get really comfortable being uncomfortable. What these guys do for a job is abnormal and you need to have an abnormal mindset.”

The Bulls start the season with a brutal stretch, including the opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder. If they can stay the course and buy in to the style of play they believe will lead to winning, and more importantly, stay committed even when things don’t go their way, they’ll have a real chance to surprise the doubters.

“I can’t say right now because we haven’t been in it,” Donovan said of his team’s ability to manage adversity. “We’ll find out more about it. How well we can do it. Those are the challenges. What you want to do is meet the challenge. It doesn’t mean that if you meet the challenge, it’s always going to go your way.”

“But clearly, if we don’t even do the right things to meet the challenge, rest assured it’s not going to go our way,” he continued.

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