Bulls' Billy Donovan: "We are going to have to play faster."

Billy Donovan and Arturas Karnisovas addressed the media on Monday ahead of Bulls training camp.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

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Arturas Karnisovas and Billy Donovan sat side by side Monday in a United Center club for the annual training camp media day. They smiled and seemed pleased. So much so they greeted media members fondly after a year of Zoom conference calls. Talk about preseason optimism. After all, the Bulls 2021 reboot no longer inchoate has mostly met community approval. If not excitement quite yet without any wins, there's certainly ebullience.

"We are optimistic and we believe in this group," said Karnisovas. "The pitch this summer to free agents was we're building something and we want to win. Two All-Stars already on the roster. I think that helped. We were pleasantly surprised that a lot of guys wanted to play in Chicago. It obviously says a lot about building a new staff. It says a lot about players like Zach (LaVine) and Vooch (Nikola Vucevic) and players wanting to play with them. We believe in Billy. I think we have a lot of positivity going into the season."

In other words, ‘Hey Billy, now it's your turn."

Karnisovas didn't exactly say that; and he probably wouldn't. He's known as a supportive boss who eagerly navigates the trenches and remains in lockstep with his staff. But it's been an audacious off season for the Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations and his staff. They acquired, technically through sign-and-trade transactions, two of the most sought after free agents of the summer, Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan. Karnisovas persuaded supersub Alex Caruso not only to leave LeBron and his title contenders, but spend the winter in Chicago instead of Los Angeles. Forget the NBA, the UN needs that guy!

We'll know in perhaps six months how righteous was Karnisovas' template for the Bulls. Whether it is fortuitous or combustible, however, will depend much on Donovan. Which the seventh year NBA coach understands. Promise at this time in the NBA season remains an enigma. Perhaps the pieces are there, but the puzzle doesn't make sense unless they are in the correct spaces.

"I am excited about this, but at the same point, too, I think the challenge for us is going to be how well we can gel and mesh together throughout training camp," Donovan conceded. "I understand that when you turn the roster over as much as we did, there are going to be some ups and downs. I think (the players) understand that's going to be a challenge. Something that is equally important (is) how well do we all come together as a team and how well can we fulfill roles and play to our roles and can we continue to play to an identity or style that is going to be conducive to the group? The work really starts (Tuesday). I am excited to get to work with these guys. I'm excited about the opportunity that is in front of us, but I still feel at the same point because we've never, as Arturas mentioned, practiced or played a game together. To sit there and speculate how smooth the transition is going to be, I really don't know. But I do feel pretty confident about the quality people that are in the locker room."

Now to make it familiar enough on the basketball court that it will occur regularly and routinely.

Because it's not a very big Bulls team, especially with presumptive starting power forward Patrick Williams probably out until November with a sprained ankle. It's a team, Donovan says, that needs to play faster after slowing down last season because of the additions of Vucevic and Daniel Theis with Lauri Markkanen still occupying space. Especially to take advantage of the transition talents of Ball, though without the size to be a classically good rebounding team.

And how, so many have wondered, the scoring of LaVine and DeRozan can be integrated. While pretty much forgetting about Vucevic and his scoring. Vucevic averaged more shots per game last season than either LaVine and DeRozan.

Oh, and a starting lineup of players generally not known for a defensive ethos.

Which Donovan believes separates the good from the great.

"I'm not one of those guys who sits here and says because Zach LaVine is a really good scorer and so is DeMar, so is Vooch, we'll just be able to score," said Donovan. "I think that's going to be a work in progress. But we are going to have to every day put the physical work into defending because if you look at whether it's the rebounding or our ability to guard from the post or the perimeter, we are going to have to make an incredible investment defensively. It starts at the point of the ball and I do think Lonzo and DeMar and Zach have the ability to be really good on ball defenders and I do think with a guy like Patrick Williams, he has the versatility that we can switch a little bit more than we did in the past. But I do think how well we get back in transition, how well we guard the basketball one on one will be critical. There's got to be a real strong investment made there because this team should have really good potential offensively as they hopefully get more and more acquainted with each other. But if you look at any good team they are really good on both ends of the floor. For us, you look at the team and say, ‘Well, these guys are scorers, scoring is going to be easy.' I still say they have to learn to play with each other. But to the other point, we really have to make a commitment defensively."

Part of that commitment is what the coaches say is finishing the defense, which is rebounding. Vucevic has good rebounding statistics, but is not, especially going on 31 next month, a top level athletic player. Williams is out for now, which may require a musical chairs of replacements depending upon matchups and rotations.

"You could theoretically move DeMar to the power forward spot," speculated Donovan in mad scientist mode. "You could move Caruso into the starting lineup. You can take some guys that are in camp, see what a guy like Stanley Johnson can do. He's been in the league awhile. He was a high draft pick. In some of these preseason games, based on where Patrick is at, maybe see what he looks like out there. Derrick Jones Jr. is another guy you can throw out there. I do think we have some versatility and flexibility to use if we want to play with four guards. Or if it's not four guards, maybe it's three guards and a forward. The key is how these guys look playing together."

So, no, it's not quite that finished product yet. The Bucks can relax a bit.

"We're probably going to be a little undersized at that (power forward) position," Donovan admitted. "But when you look around the league in those positions, a lot of those guys have been incredibly versatile. I think we have the flexibility with our roster to move different guys down there. How big we can play, I'm not sure. But last year we were so big in that position that I thought we needed to be a little bit smaller. Overall, I think it's going to have to be done rebounding by committee. We just can't rely on Vooch or our power forward; we have to do it collectively as a group.

"Lonzo has been a really good rebounding guard and he's got size, DeMar has got size, Zach has got size and length," noted Donovan. "Patrick has always been a guy who will continue to be a very very good rebounder both offensively and defensively. But we are going to have to do it committee wise. There are going to be nights where that's going to be a challenge for us. I think every team has different challenges to face; that's got to be a collective priority for our team of limiting teams to one shot. But with the way the game has gone and the number of threes that have gone up, it's not so much the normal rebounds you come to expect where a shot goes up and guys just physically knock you out of the way and come down with it and lay it in. So many of the rebounds now you get are long rebounds and our guards, I think, have been pretty good defensive rebounders; we'll need that from them with our team."

Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine, and DeMar DeRozan pose during Bulls Media Day on Monday

Lonzo Ball, Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine, and DeMar DeRozan pose during Bulls Media Day on Monday

The plan, assuming those guards get those long rebounds, is to speed up the play. The Bulls' pace slowed after last season's trades. Every coach in training camp talks about playing faster. But then everyone gets back in transition. Half court offense dominates the NBA game. Which has been Vucevic and DeRozan much of their careers. They are the plus-30s in the starting lineup. It seems like they better be in good condition (ironically, though, Donovan said it was the team's youngest player, Williams, who lacked the conditioning last season. That's been another project, but put on hold for now with his ankle sprain).

"We are going to have to play faster," Donovan reiterated. "I think DeMar and Zach are two players in the open floor and open space who are really, really terrific offensive players. And when you look at the point guard spot, Coby (White, out until November with a shoulder injury) played there last year. Certainly Lonzo, and even Alex Caruso. Lonzo to me is as good as an advanced passer as there is. In order to play to his strengths, we've got to get out to enable him to get his passing into the game. He is really, really good in getting it up the floor. To play to his strengths is going to require the other four guys to get out running. We have to be better than we were a year ago because we probably changed stylistically after that trade deadline. I think going into training camp the emphasis has to be on us playing faster."

Well, there is Zach and Lonzo.

But what Donovan says he especially likes is it's a serious, high character group with veterans who know how to play. It makes his job easier. It sounds good to have a young quarterback. Until you need to make a play.

"AK and his staff put a premium on basketball IQ," said Donovan. "DeRozan is a very high IQ player. I think Lonzo is a very high IQ player; Caruso is a high IQ player. Getting a chance to work with Vooch last year, high IQ player. I think we have guys who have a really, really good feel on how to play. I do think last year there was a lot on Zach's plate from ball handling and creating and generating points and offense for us that I think we've now created a situation where we have multiple handlers, multiple guys who can put the ball on the floor. Listen, I think on any team there is going to have to be sacrifice and I would just say this: Zach was as good and as efficient of a scorer as anyone in the league last year. But you are also bringing in Vooch and DeMar; those guys can score, too. So how do we best function where we are efficient? That may require some guys not scoring as many points as maybe they did if it is going to benefit the team and the team is going to be better because of that. I feel confident because of the IQ. I think it's going to be how quickly can these guys coexist playing with each other. All of them gelling and meshing together with Lonzo with Alex Caruso, with Patrick; that's going to be the biggest thing. There is going to be a lot of work in front of us, but the quality of people we have, they'll stay to it and keep working to continue to improve and get better.

"It's hard to sit there and make predictions or project what is or is not going to happen," Donovan added. "I just know we have a lot of work ahead of us. The expectation is you want to compete at the highest level. You want to be able to make deep runs in the playoffs. I think we're continually trying to build and get better from one year to the next. But with all these new faces, outside of Patrick and Zach and Coby, nobody on our team last year started and finished the season. And two of those three guys are injured right now. I'm excited about it because there's a lot of potential and I think a positivity to what we can become. I'm excited about the work because I'm excited about the guys. But I think for us right now, we're going to have to see."

At least it should be a pleasing sight this time.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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