Sam Smith: High basketball IQ shining through with preseason Bulls

With players like DeRozan, 32, Vucevic, 30, LaVine, 26, and even Caruso at 27, the Bulls have a core of veterans who are skilled and also accomplished.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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The Bulls are 3-0 in the preseason with the final exhibition game Friday in the United Center against the Memphis Grizzlies. That's not why many of us believe the Bulls will be not only much improved this season, but a seriously competitive team in the Eastern Conference.

In the team's three preseason games, the Bulls rank first in the NBA in scoring margin and first in defensive rating. Make that through 82 games and it means the seventh championship. This is when it's time for disclaimers.

The opposition has been somewhat uncompetitive and lacking playoff resumes, it's preseason and the Bulls have extended regulars to expedite their chemistry experiment.

Still, led by Zach LaVine at about 20 points per game in 28 minutes, all the Bulls regulars are averaging double figures scoring. The team ranks in the top five in the league in scoring, assists, steals and blocks. Which also is not the main reason many of us here—if not necessarily Vegas and various national voices—believe the Bulls will surprise observers and critics.

It's because for the first time in a long time the Bulls are dominated by basketball players, guys who simply know what to do and how to do it. Not that they don't need a coach. Organization and direction always are a vital part of any successful business.

Zach LaVine hits a reverse layup against the Cavaliers during a preseason exhibition.

Zach LaVine hits a reverse layup against the Cavaliers during a preseason exhibition.

But with the likes of All-Stars LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, and Lonzo Ball with Alex Caruso, these are people who know the game, who understand almost instinctively without being directed how and when to make plays because of their fundamental comprehension of the game's basics.

Like when critics questioned the signing of DeRozan. How would he play with LaVine, both considered ball dominant? What about his lack of three-point shooting? DeRozan scoffed when asked about it during pre-camp media day. If you believe that, he said, then you don't know basketball.

Because it's just basketball, which the modern microscopic study through analytics and tape analysis often has depicted as an esoteric science. Perhaps better to provide employment for scientists. But it's still an exercise played out by human beings. Who often make decisions based on situations and not prior decisions. The more they do, the more often it will seem random when presented with historical analysis.

For example, say DeRozan dribbles right nine times and shoots. So when he sees help coming from his right, he'll go left. Because he understands the tai chi of basketball, the reaction to opposing forces. It's not about what he'd done, but what he will do. The more experienced, the less predictable.

It's also become popular in game analysis in this era to show a play on video and thus to suggest it also represents a tendency. I was watching one of those when a player cut through the lane. It even had a name, a 45-cut. Obviously suggesting the geometric angle at which the player runs through to the other side of the floor. There were statistics showing the leaders in such cuts.

Which players like DeRozan know is just what you do, and why the Bulls nascent play has been so appealing. Players make cuts to try to get open and move the defense, to both supply alternatives and others more space. It's, you know, what you do in basketball. Since third grade. C'mon kid, cut!

It shouldn't be a science, lesson or revelation, though it seems to have become that these days. It shouldn't have to be charted. John Havlicek cut off the ball all the time. You know, in 1965.

This isn't a flight into nostalgia or one of those get-off-my-lawn rants—though I wish people would stay off my lawn—as much as an acknowledgment that pro basketball has changed, principally with it skewing so much younger with teenagers filling many rosters.

At one time you played high school basketball where you lived, and at times it was inequitable because there were many bad coaches. Thus many players endured an unproductive my-way-or-highway existence. But the trend toward open enrollments, recruiting and AAU amateur ball lessened the degree of teaching because if a top player didn't like his role he just moved on to another place.

I used to stop at the Venice Beach basketball courts to watch games when the Bulls were in Los Angeles.

Invariably the best player, some kid 6-7 and 250 pounds, would be standing outside firing threes off the dribble instead of dominating inside for putbacks. Because he wanted to. Because it was more fun and less physical. Who was telling him otherwise?

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So teaching became a necessary priority in the NBA. Though what if you have players who just know? LeBron James is a fantastic talent. But his teams generally are in the Finals for more than that. Who's generally in the latter stages of the NBA playoffs? It's teams dominated by such veterans. Great young talent is vital. Giannis, Kawhi, Durant, Duncan or Dirk in the draft gets you started. You begin to have a chance once you get one. But then also look what happens when you add someone like Chris Paul or Jrue Holiday or Kevin Garnett to the other guys. That's what they mean when they talk about knowing how to play.

Rebuilding through the draft is common practice in sports. Teams that do so, and just about everyone eventually tries it, often realize they need veterans to complement (and compliment) those young players who never were trained much because of sometimes nomadic high school existences and one-and-done collegiate years.

The young players who come into the NBA in this era, perhaps because of the financial rewards, are as communicative, intelligent and sophisticated as those from any era despite the lack of increased education. So they tend to be respectful of the veteran players. But it's more than just age. It's also beauty. If a team is bringing in veterans players for guidance, they better be superior to the kids. It's one thing to listen with deference. But you better also be able to outplay them to keep them off the court.

With players like DeRozan, 32, Vucevic, 30, LaVine, 26, and even Caruso at 27, the Bulls have a core of veterans who are skilled and also accomplished. All have been All-Stars, all-NBA or parts of a championship team. They get respect not by who they were, but by who they are and what they can do now.

Alex Caruso goes up for a layup in the teeth of Cleveland's defense during preseason.

Alex Caruso goes up for a layup in the teeth of Cleveland's defense during preseason.

And because they have experienced so much in basketball and the NBA, they just know.

They know about ball movement and cutting and transition because it's just basketball.

Stripping away all the mystery, it's what the triangle/triple post offense was all about, and why those championship Bulls teams in the 90s thrived with veterans. Players like Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Cliff Levingston and Jud Buechler weren't among the most talented. But they understood how basketball was to be played simply with movement.

It's why Tex Winter always counseled, "You win with men." And why the Bulls in the 90s tried to get rid of most of their first-round draft picks. One year they even cut their first rounder in the summer before training camp. Why every year there was added Bison Dele, Robert Parish, John Salley, James Edwards, Joe Kleine, Darrell Walker, Trent Tucker or Rodney McCray.

It always was about people who just knew how to play.

Which comes back to these Bulls, about whom they say:

DeRozan doesn't shoot threes and is in the mid range too much for this era.

Vucevic isn't such a big basket protector. Neither ranks high among defenders.

LaVine shoots often after a lot of dribbling.

Caruso wasn't even drafted and, my god, was in college for four years. What kind of a life is that?

But it's also why the Bulls pace and style of play looks so appealing even in this small sample. Because there's all this movement and passing and activity, and on defense as well, that is, well, just basketball.

They know this game.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

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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