Billy Donovan still learning his team as Bulls prepare for Thunder in preseason

The first of two preseason games against Oklahoma City takes place on Wednesday night.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

The potent 1-2 scoring punch of Zach LaVine and Coby White led the Bulls to their first preseason win over Houston. Their evolution as a duo looks to take another step in the positive direction as the Bulls head to Oklahoma City for their final pair of preseason contests.

Jerome Holtzman was a colleague, friend and basketball fan with whom I had the same argument annually. Once a season the legendary Chicago baseball writer with the Sun-Times and Tribune would join me at a Bulls game. Jerome then with The Tribune would write the same column, that Michael Jordan was shooting too much. Teams didn't win that way. Because that wasn't a team.

I'd take the position that this is what Jordan had to do, a variation of Jordan's more colorful explanation about making teammates better. That it was easier for Magic to make Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy better than it was for him to upgrade Elston Turner and Earl Cureton. So Jordan shot his way to the second highest season scoring average in NBA history and, at least, the Bulls began to become relevant. Eventually Phil Jackson helped direct Jordan toward more communal behavior, though it involved some personnel changes.

I've been thinking about that iteration of the mid-1980s promising Bulls and Jerome in watching these 2020-21 Bulls.

Coach Billy Donovan appears to be endorsing a Jacksonesque approach to the game, urging Wendell Carter Jr. with each miss to shoot more, encouraging Lauri Markkanen with facilitating duties, working rookie Patrick Williams into the offense. It's a responsible outlook.

"Just taking my shots," Carter told reporters Tuesday morning before the team left for Wednesday's game in Oklahoma City. "A difference I immediately saw from last year is I'm getting more shots. From my rookie year, I feel like I was definitely involved in the offense a lot. Last year it was kind of a different role for me. Now it's just me just getting comfortable. My second game I shot like 12 or 13 shots, which seems pretty ideal for me. It's gonna take the pressure off Zach (LaVine), Coby (White), Lauri, allow them to be able to take their shots. As long as I'm making my shots, it takes some of the stress off of them."

Wendell Carter Jr

Wendell Carter Jr. is being asked to take more perimeter shots under head coach Billy Donovan.

Carter hasn't made those shots yet, though it's just two games, a split with the Houston Rockets as Carter shot four of 18 and one of nine on threes. That will change. His shooting stroke is good and he was a 41 percent three-point shooter in college. Though the conundrum for Donovan may be similar to what Stan Albeck and Doug Collins faced. It's difficult to ignore your best players.

For the Bulls, it seems obvious that it's Zach LaVine and Coby White, the backcourt duo who effortlessly were the team's leading scorers and best shooters the first two games. They also seemed like the players the least deterred by lapses, both with good defensive efforts and consistent play as many around them staggered through parts of the games.

It's been a recurring theme with these young Bulls the last few years, which is why Otto Porter Jr., Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky were imported. Young and Satoransky aren't on this trip, Young injured and Satoransky with one of those common excused absences that will burden all NBA teams in this season of Covid-19. Six Bulls are not on the two-game trip to Oklahoma City along with free agent Garrett Temple recovering from Covid and injured Denzel Valentine.

"I think a lot of times because we have really good guys that want to do well and do the right thing, that I think sometimes they can get deflated." Donovan acknowledged. "We've got to understand that there's going to be a hundred possessions on offense and a hundred possessions on defense and not every possession is going to go well. We have to have a level of resiliency, mental toughness, mental fortitude to fight through difficulties. I think that's not the case for (only) our team; it's the case for any team playing in the most competitive basketball league in the world. You're going to have to deal with those things. I think it's an area in having a younger team; we've got to get better at those things and we've got to improve collectively as a group."

They are all NBA pros, but NBA pros aren't always equal.

All have been stars on the way to the NBA, but few become stars in the NBA. The top of the pyramid doesn't have a lot of room. It's a natural dichotomy independent of personal economics. Money doesn't make the ball go on. Not all competitors are made the same. LaVine and White seem to have that Jordan gene. Not to say either will ever match his output or effect. But both are natural scorers, the best and most confident offensive players the Bulls have. Which is the dilemma most coaches face. Do you feature the players more likely to light up the scoreboard? And likely lead to more wins for now? Or develop those players who perhaps also can help? Which is ideal, but do those players have the talent and resolve?

It's one thing to have the '70 Knicks who all could make a shot and were confident about doing so. Sometimes it's too much to ask of the supporting cast. Or at least immediately.

Zach LaVine and Coby White

Zach LaVine and Coby White at practice during Advocate Bulls Minicamp earlier this past offseason.

One of the comparisons for the LaVine/White backcourt in which neither is a true facilitator is the pairing of Damian Lillard with C.J. McCollum with the Portland Trailblazers, two high scoring combo guards who were good enough to shoot their team to the Western Conference finals a few years ago. The Trailblazers have begun to fill in around them and now are considered a contender again as Lillard and McCollum will continue to do the heavy lifting scoring.

Like LaVine and White did in the first two preseason games.

They both played fewer than 30 minutes per game, but both were the Bulls best and most consistent players, each averaging a team high 17.5 points. White shot 55 percent on threes and LaVine 45 percent. They combined for about nine assists per game. They shot with ease and efficiency as many around them had uncertain moments. Which was hardly unexpected or an indictment after nine months without a game. Which also demonstrated the excellence of LaVine and White the way they could adapt so quickly. Some are scorers and some are supporters. It's OK; a lot of life is like that.

Donovan said he might adjust his starting lineup for the Oklahoma City games, which probably is appropriate because these games are more for examining combinations than analyzing victories.

Jerome would write, an unpopular Chicago opinion at the time, that you couldn't win that way. I'd counter that perhaps you couldn't win a title that way, but you needed to win games first, at least get in line. Not skipping steps before it was a cliche. Jordan's scoring was the best transition; plus it enabled teammates to grow into their roles at their speed even if Jordan wasn't particularly patient.

Jordan never stopped scoring. But the responsibilities widened and became more comfortable. Jerome's advice was golden. Phil Jackson's alchemy led to the championship gold. I'm still taking the Jordan position for Zach and Coby. Let it fly, fellas. Donovan seems more measured and traditional with Holtzman-like depth. It remains to be seen how this version will play out. Watch this space.

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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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