So how about an encore?
That appeared to be the desire of Bulls players Thursday in close-of-season exit meetings with management. It's not their prerogative as employees in the funhouse mirror world of the NBA where the manpower generally earn more than the Man.
But with the promise of the beginning of this season and the experience of continuity and cohesion, the hope was they'd at least get another bite at the apple. Because the cherry on top of any season really is the championship that bears fruit without sugarcoating and the meat and potatoes of league success certainly is food for thought.
"They want to have continuity, that's for sure," Nikola Vucevic told media after his Thursday session with management. "They want to see how this thing looks and what it can do. As far as moves they can make, I don't really know that. That's their job. But I know they want to continue to build a team that can win and can compete to the highest level.
"Almost all the great teams, they're built over time," Vucevic explained. "Nothing happens overnight. You need to have that continuity. You need to give a team the chance to go through ups and downs, playoffs, tough moments, good moments, getting to build that chemistry. That was the message of what we talked about in exit meetings. I think the core guys we have here are really good players, I think they work well together, and now it's just about taking that next step forward. I do think we have the talent to match up with all the teams in the East. Obviously this year, it didn't go the way we wanted, but as a group you have to go through the ups and downs of the year, the successes, the failures. All that gives you an opportunity to grow and get better. For us I think that could really happen."
Which the players would require more redecorating than renovation, coherence being their ace in the hole.
"I've got the upmost trust and faith in the front office to do the job," said DeMar DeRozan. "Just like we're competitors, they are as well for the right reasons. Let them put the cards together and we''ll go out and play with the deck we have."
Not that anyone can plan for it, but health is a priority with this Bulls team after a season with so many absences that extended into the five-game playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that ended Wednesday with a third consecutive overwhelming loss. The most compelling absence was that of point guard Lonzo Ball, and there wasn't great news about that.
"I'm kind of at a standstill right now," Ball admitted about lingering issues following his knee surgery in January that was supposed to keep him out a maximum of two months. "I'm supposed to be going and meeting with another specialist next week to kind of figure some things out. I was going at it pretty hard trying to get back as fast as possible. Still have pain. So gotta get that figured out this summer for sure; whatever I gotta do to get my knee right.
"I'm not sure (about another surgery). Hopefully not," Ball admitted. "I wouldn't want to have another one. But if that's what it takes, then I pretty much have no choice at this point. It's been unfortunate for me my first couple years in the league. But hopefully I can turn it around next year. It's the same tear (as after his rookie season). This is the second time I tore it. So like I said, obviously, something needs to be addressed this summer. I'm going to work with the doctors and the strength coaches and do what I gotta do to get healthy. I would love to run it back (as a team). I was unhealthy this year. (Alex) Caruso went down. Pat (Williams) was pretty much out all the way until the playoffs. Everyone knows Zach (LaVine) was playing hurt pretty much this whole year. If everybody can get healthy and come back, I don't see why we couldn't run it back."
So here's a look at the roster the Bulls players, at least, hope management will give them another chance to prove they were the team of the first half and not the second.
He didn't meet with management Thursday because of Covid restrictions, but he still could address media later this week. He's the biggest question mark on the team as the only unrestricted free agent of importance (Troy Brown Jr., Matt Thomas, Derrick Jones Jr. and Tristan Thompson are the other free agents and not expected to return). LaVine is eligible for a big five-year contract as a two-time All-Star, Olympic gold medal winner and the veteran of this team who steered through several seasons of rebuilding. Despite accepting a secondary role to DeRozan this season and fighting off knee pain that likely will require some sort of procedure this summer, LaVine still averaged 24.4 points per game and led the team in three-point shooting among eligible players. And while his much speculated combination with DeRozan seemed to go smoothly, the sense was the team lost something the way LaVine was left to defer.
"Sometimes he was trying to facilitate to others too much instead of just being himself and playing off his instinct, playing to his aggressiveness," said Vucevic. "I know it came from a good place for him, trying to be unselfish in the game. But we always told him throughout the year, ‘You have to be you, you have to go attack, be aggressive, and then you'll make the right read at the right moment.' So that was the only thing I would tell him because he's so talented offensively he just has to be who he is and we have to play off of him.''
Once Ball was injured the Bulls became a slower, half court team dedicated to the offense of DeRozan. That it worked so spectacularly so often erased the stagnation of others at times, especially LaVine. DeRozan will move the ball against pressure like Milwaukee showed, but usually after looking for his shot. Without Ball to push the ball out of the backcourt, the Bulls became more of a walk-it-up offense. And then if DeRozan got attention, there often was a late pass without a chance to swing the ball a few times. LaVine worked his way into that mix effectively, but it led at times to end-of-clock isolation.
DeRozan flourished thanks to the defense that couldn't afford to leave LaVine and his dynamic play, and the two genuinely seemed to enjoy playing together. LaVine is better in transition, so it hurt him not being to play with Ball. Management has prominently expressed interest in working out a new contract, but LaVine still as an unrestricted free agent can choose his destination. The Bulls, however, can offer the most money.
He unexpectedly has become the face of the franchise even with the excellence and accomplishments of LaVine. Though he dearly missed a full-Zach when knee issues and Covid limited LaVine in the playoffs and the defense could force the ball from DeRozan. His mid range shooting game has been a joy to watch along with his natural feel for the game. Though he tends to stop the ball at times on offense dribbling into his shooting spot and isn't a top defender. That none among DeRozan, LaVine and Vucevic is considered a primary defender made the absences of Ball and Alex Caruso more significant.
Teammates, meanwhile, have been inspired by his habits and preparation.
"He doesn't let a lot affect him mentally, whether it's missing shots or making shots," noticed Patrick Williams. "I think you saw that Game 1 and 2 (in Milwaukee). Just coming out and having a bad shooting night and then the next night going for 40 or whatever he had. I think mentally nothing can faze him. I'm not sure what it is that got him to that point. But I think that is something I can pick up from him. And then just the work that he puts in. I think that also goes into not being able to be fazed mentally. I think that goes into the confidence we have in him and the confidence he has in himself. He's in here every night, every afternoon. I don't think a lot of people know that. If it's not a game day, he's in here. Whether it's cold tub, whether it's getting shots up, he's in here every night. So I kind of started to do that as well later on in the season, him and Zach and Javonte (Green) are always in here in the afternoons. so I would come in here too. When you see great players, you see what they do, you kind of start to pick up on it as well."
Going on 33 this summer, DeRozan remarkably had the highest scoring season of his career and was a legitimate league MVP candidate into the All-Star break. And with two years left on his Bulls contract he says he is hardly slowing down. He led the team in minutes played (fourth in the league) and games started and was second in most games played by one to leader Ayo Dosunmu, a decade younger.
"One of my goals is always to try to play the majority of the season," said DeRozan. "I did that and it felt good. It's a big privilege for me to make it through a season. I hate that we had to deal with injuries, but for the oldest guy on the team to make it through was good. If LeBron (James) still is doing what he's doing (at 37) I got hope. I'm going to be 33; I got some years.
"I don't look at it like I'm getting older, I'm getting slower," said DeRozan. "At the end of the day, I look at it like I'm getting smarter, I'm getting more of a will to keep being better. I don't look at age too much. Maybe when I'm 38 or something. Just taking care of myself physically, mentally is a big part to this whole thing. I've been blessed to mostly stay healthy throughout my career. As long as I can go out and play, I'm going to figure out a way to get better."
The big man whom the Bulls invested in last year to begin their rebuilding dropped off somewhat offensively, especially shooting, though still averaged a double-double and by player efficiency stats was the Bulls best playoff performer. The two-time All-Star also has been one of the most productive centers in franchise history despite being tasked with a delicate assimilation since his trade from Orlando.
"This year took me some time, longer than I thought it would," Vucevic admitted. "I was trying to find myself, find my spots and things like that. As the season went on it was better and better. So overall good season, learning experience for me, new situation, new role, and I'm just going to look to build on it. Outside the start that was not up to my standard, that actually made me a better player and I was able to figure other ways to be effective and play overall a good season and hopefully be better next year.
"Just new teammates, new style of play," explained Vucevic. "I had players around me that were obviously really great players, so just finding my way playing with my new teammates, a new style. When I was in Orlando everything was built around me and the way we played was based around me, so just that adjustment. We had much more firepower on this team than I previously had, so sometimes you don't get the same amount of shots you're used to. It was just an adjustment. Sometimes it happens quickly, sometimes it takes a little while.
"I never really got to the point where I was consistently shooting the ball the way I can," Vucevic insisted. "Maybe I was over thinking a little bit when I didn't start shooting the way I wanted to. I felt like at times I was trying to space too much (shooting threes) and not thinking of other things I can do. I know I can shoot the ball really well, I know how effective I can be from there.''
Without the offense running through him like it was in Orlando, perhaps no one suffered more—other than the overall offense—than Vucevic without a point guard. Actually, rookie Dosunmu was best finding him with a nice inside passing game. But Dosunmu didn't have point guard instincts beyond that and often was too cautious with the ball. The pattern became, understandably, giving it to DeRozan or LaVine to operate. The result was too few pick-and-roll opportunities to the basket for Vucevic and the failure to take advantage of the mismatches. The guards tended to hold the ball themselves on ball screens when seeing the big switch onto them. It often left Vucevic in this nether world middle ground of finding space like being the only one on the offense running the triangle. He remarkably failed to shoot a free throw the last four playoff games. Milwaukee did pack in the lane and he did post often, but movement would stop, leaving him to back in without enough options. Having Ball return and a more experienced veteran facilitator would greatly benefit his play.
The perplexing 20-year-old big man appears to be the hope and anticipation of the veterans in being able to make that so called next step for the team. Williams missed most of the season after wrist surgery in October, and led the team in scoring in the Game 5 loss close out game after 20 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4. Which came after one point and zero field goals in Game 3. His impressive size and easy grace projects to brilliance, but then collides with seeming indifference or hesitance. He's filled in as starting power forward for next season, but when he had 23 points in Game 5 he had one rebound, and just on a second shot.
"I think the last two games were big for me in terms of seeing that I could do it, in terms of, defensively, offensively, feeling myself more present in the game, whether it was scoring or not," said Williams. "Rebounding, I think I could have done a better job of that. All over the court just kind of making my presence known in the game. The last two games I kind of felt more confident. I knew the spots. I knew how they were playing DeMar. Even though Zach was out the last game, I knew how they were playing Zach, I knew how they were playing Vooch. So it's kind of like, when I catch it, I kind of know what I'm going to. DeMar, Zach and Vooch are at the top of every team's scouting report. So when I catch the ball, I think it's more of me being aggressive, me knowing my spots, knowing when I catch the ball this is what I can get to, this is a move that I can make. Being aggressive whenever I catch it."
It's what everyone perhaps unfairly has been yelling at Williams since he was drafted as an 18-year-old sixth man in college. But so far he's only been able to play like that and display that attitude when veterans were out.
"Us as veterans, the main guys on the team going into next year, we have to find a way to implement Pat into our game and use him the right way so that he can be who he is and excel because he can be a huge part of what we want to do," said Vucevic.
The muscled up 6-7 Williams seems more comfortable being deferential. He's taken some baby steps with a fake and step in, but mostly has preferred to take only a wide open shot or pass when there's any defensive contest. The Bulls have been urging him otherwise. So no one knows if that's who he is. Or if that's just who he has been to start. In any case, DeRozan says he has made it his offseason project to awake the project.
"Starting preparation of being a better a team than we were this year," said DeRozan. "I'm planning on having a lot of guys to come out L.A., work with me, put them through a lot of the hell I put myself through in the offseason, especially Pat. I'm looking forward to having him get up at 4 o'clock in the morning, kind of breaking them down and whoever else wants to on the team. I plan on spending a lot of time with these guys getting ready for next year."
DeRozan said he modeled his offseason program on one he learned from Kobe Bryant.
"Pat is my main big one," DeRozan said.
Look, if he were that good as the Bulls talk about with his absences he'd be the MVP of the league. He is more important to the Bulls, perhaps, than other teams because the Bulls hoped to offset the obvious offseason lack of size with speed and defensive disruption with he and Caruso. The Bulls were 27-13 and just a few days since falling out of first in the Eastern Conference when Ball went out for the season January 24. He was leading the team in three-point shooting at 42 percent.
"I felt like their (Milwaukee) defense was kind of pack the paint in and load up on guys. I feel like my shooting could've for sure helped," Ball said.
Ball came to the Bulls with a reputation as an improved shooter, but a point guard who didn't like to drive to the basket much. He averaged more than seven threes for the Bulls, but fewer than one free throw attempt per game. His style was more open court to look ahead and produce transition, which also wasn't ideal for Vucevic, who had to become more of a trail three-point shooter. Then that changed when Ball went out.
If the Bulls, as the players said they preferred, keep the main core in tact, one of the needs would seem to be an experienced reserve point guard who can penetrate and facilitate, like a Ricky Rubio type. The Bulls also would seem to most need, also off the bench, an athletic big man so Vucevic could occasionally move to power forward. A Mitchell Robinson or JaVale McGee type, and a solid spot up shooter like half the players on the Miami Heat roster.
Though the most important equation for the Bulls and Ball is his knee and its connections to the correct pieces.
Reckless is good. It got 6-4, 180-pound Alex Caruso into the NBA, where he wasn't supposed to be. It helped make him a crucial part of a championship team and a big reason LeBron James is now a playoff spectator. It's also why he only got in half the Bulls games this season and averaged about 10 missed games the previous seasons. Also why he's so valuable to the Bulls with his defense and hustle that can be the difference in games in which he might score six points.
But it also exposes him to injury with his body size. He missed the last playoff game with a concussion and had back problems. His broken wrist was hardly his fault, but he was trying a highlight/motivational dunk on the run. He plays without fear and it rouses emotions.
So he says he'll do what he can this this summer for strength and endurance, make sure those hamstrings and such are tight and resilient. Still, he has to be who he is.
"I wish I could have played more games, wish we could have played longer into the post season, but we're in a better spot than when we started the year; hopefully I can say that again next year," Caruso said. "I don't know if we got to see our full potential, big pieces (injured) that hurt the symmetry, chemistry, ability to build habits. I think we are a really good team with good pieces that has a chance to be really special. I want to make sure I can be out there for my team to build the habits we need to and being a better complement to some of our star guys on offense."
For him now, Caruso said it's "playing golf, basketball, watching my dog, work out, see some buddies, hang out with family, back in Texas a lot, here in Chicago. I'm a pretty simple guy."
Not so much on the basketball court; but also how often can he be?
It's seemed like a tough season for the third-year guard, but he had his best three-point shooting year despite constantly changing roles from starter to reserve, point guard to shooting guard. He's something of a tweener as a player, not quite a spot up shooter and not quite the penetrating finisher. His confusion is the Bulls ask him to do both at times. He came off shoulder surgery when he couldn't work out all summer and began the season late, but he's always seemed like one of the most positive and upbeat people on the team. He's eligible for an extension but unlikely to be offered with his position still uncertain and the emergence of rookie Dosunmu and the need for a classic catch-and-shoot.
He's capable of offensive bursts like a 20-point average over six games in February with 55 percent three-point shooting averaging eight attempts per game. But then he can be bullied on defense as he was at times against the Bucks. He knows his limitations, but remains confident and positive.
"(Management said to) work on my ball handling, continue to make strides in the weight room; it will help me defensively," White said Thursday after his exit session. "Up and down (season), role after role. But it was a fun, exciting season comparing it to the first two years in the aspect that we were winning. It was fun for me being out there with those guys and being able to win and make the playoffs was an amazing accomplishment for myself and for the team. I know who I can be and I know who I am now.
"I feel like I can do a lot of different things on the court," White insists. "Billy (Donovan) said it multiple times, that I'm not just a shooter. I can get downhill and create, play in pick-and-roll. Like I said, I've got a long ways to go and I've got a lot of different things I can work on this offseason, so I'm just excited and look forward to that. Probably, if we're being realistic, that's my biggest knock, being able to guard. We're being real. I'm not 6-7 with a 7-2 wingspan. I don't strike you with the measurables. So I've got to go the extra mile, especially on that end of the court to guard because I'm not those type of guys that can make up for mistakes. I have no room for error on the defensive end, so for me it's just being super locked in every possession and super locked in on the details. There were times when I looked really good, but there were also times where I struggled. You've got to acknowledge those moments, too."
The local rookie has become perhaps the team's most popular player not named DeRozan—and not just because it's so much fun to say Ayo—but because of the way he's filled in. It may have hurt his development, but with the injury losses of Caruso and Ball, White not as adept at point guard and LaVine with his knee issues, Dosunmu became the emergency starter. It probably was too soon for the fifth most starts on the team. He would have benefited from some G-league experience like the Warriors' emergent Jordan Poole to improve his shot and develop more offensive force into the paint.
Dosunmu was excellent defensively at times with his long arms and aggressive play on that end, but some early season opponent defensive pressure tempered his thrust on offense and the Bulls transitioned into much less transition. That evolution helped lead to DeRozan's offensive dominance and record setting, but by late season and playoff time Dosunmu's effect became more limited. As he also noted, opponents started noticing. They went under screens to cut off his driving lanes, ran him off shots and he began to give up the ball too quickly. Williams finally began to occasionally step through the contest and shoot instead of passing. Dosunmu never quite got there.
But he's such a willing learner and made big strides since an is-this-guy-even-a-second-rounder Summer League, that going into the last year of his rookie contract he suddenly becomes a priority. He said he'd love to give Summer League another twirl.
"(Management said) I had a good season and they are proud of how I took the opportunities that came and just tried to get better each and every game and they are excited for this summer work for me to continue to get better," said Dosunmu. "Of course, at the end of the day everyone wants to be the last team standing. But personally, myself, I would say I had a pretty, pretty good season. Definitely more work to be done, more to accomplish, more room for improvement."
Dosunmu was one of the better shooters among all NBA rookies, though mostly from a standing position.
"I want to get stronger," Dosunmu said. "I think I have a good body in terms of how I am built. So I just want to get stronger, get my legs stronger, and that's the main goal because I think the stronger I get the better I will be able to do more moves on the court. And, of course, continue to work on my shot and get that better. Pretty much work on everything in my game, closeouts defensively, everything to make myself a more well rounded player."
Javonte Green and others:
Green ended up starting 45 games, mostly at power forward with Williams' injury and more than everyone but LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic. His hustle was contagious with Ball and Caruso and he threw down the highlight dunks. He has a year left on his contract along with Tony Bradley, the latter who rarely played and then lost whatever time he had when Tristan Thompson was signed. Green seems a valuable reserve who should defend guards, though the Bulls size issues had him against much taller players. It would be tough keeping Bradley since he's used so infrequently. Simonovic certainly needs another season in the G-league as he doesn't appear physically ready to play in the NBA. Two-way players Tyler Cook and Malcolm Hill didn't see much playing time after early season emergency injury duty.
Editor's note: Sam's "Ask Sam" mailbag will continue on Monday, May 2.