Bulls enter 2021-22 regular season confident and energized

None of the starters are injured and no one's been suspended. There's no speculation about job security, trades and the draft lottery. Everyone seems to like one another. The confidence seems earnest and authentic.

Yes, this is a story about the Bulls.

"The sky's the limit, man," Zach LaVine was saying following practice, not so much about the champion WNBA team but the Bulls' season and Wednesday's season opening game in Detroit. "You don't want to put a cap on anything before you've even played a game. I'm not sitting here saying we want to be in the first round of the playoffs or we want to be... you go out there and have championship expectations; that's what it is. I haven't made the playoffs; some of these guys haven't made the playoffs. If you go out there are put a cap on yourself before you've even played, what are you doing? I think we're practicing the way we see ourselves being; we want to be on that level to compete for championships."

Not that many are wagering on that. But this time opening the 2021-22 NBA season, the league's 75th anniversary, the Bulls are at least back in the conversation.

Though not projected among the presumed elite like the Lakers, Nets, Jazz and Bucks, the Bulls for the first time in five years are expected to be a playoff team. Since all the sports leagues now are in partnership with gambling services, it's acceptable to reference odds and possibilities and say in the locker room, ‘I'll betcha.'

The Bulls Las Vegas summer over/under protection at 42.5 went up to 43.5 for the official opening games Tuesday. The Bulls championship odds of 100-1 in July shrunk to 40-1 (get your money down before it changes after this week). According to BetOnline, the Bulls are among the top five teams receiving the most wagering attention.

This is not what we are accustomed to.

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There was training camp 2017-18 immediately after the Jimmy Butler trade and the commitment to rebuild through the draft: Bobby Portis fighting—we didn't mean it literally until then—for the final rotation spot at power forward with Nikola Mirotic, slugged Mirotic in practice. Mirotic's face was broken and, in effect, his Bulls career was over, traded later that season after being out into December; Portis was suspended. Rookie Lauri Markkanen scheduled to come along slowly became a starter. Zach LaVine, the prize of the Butler trade, remained out rehabbing an ACL injury. Fellow trade treasure Kris Dunn suffered a severe finger dislocation and missed most of training camp and the first few weeks of the season. Jerian Grant "won" the starting job.

There was training camp 2018-19 when virtually minutes into camp first team All-Rookie Markkanen, then considered on the same level as fellow second year pros Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum, suffered a severe elbow injury and was out into December and not recovered until into January. Coach Fred Hoiberg was under pressure and fired less than two months into the season.

There was training camp 2019-20 when also just into the start of camp for Jim Boylen's first full season, Wendell Carter Jr. coming off summer surgery suffered a sprained ankle, Daniel Gafford a hyperextended elbow and Chandler Hutchison a strained hamstring. Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young were added as steadying veterans, but Young couldn't crack the starting lineup and fell into a minor role.

There was training camp 2020-21 with another new coach and new management and players auditioning for roles with the team. Among 22 players who played in games for the Bulls last season, only six remain, LaVine, White, Patrick Williams, Nikola Vucevic, Javonte Green, and Troy Brown Jr.

So in training camp 2021-22, there was the same coach in consecutive years for the first time in four years, no one added to the injury list with White out since June with surgery and retrained but reasonable optimism for the first time since there were guys around named Rose, Noah, Deng and Butler.

"You'd like to win every game, but 82-0 is not reasonable," said Alex Caruso. "That's just not realistic."

Great! Thanks for ruining the season!

Well, there actually are some potential flaws. Though the Bulls—not that anyone would admit it—get a break from the schedule makers to start with a pair of games against expected last place Detroit sandwiched around the Friday home opener against New Orleans without Zion Williamson.

Billy Donovan enters his second season as Bulls head coach.

"I think as a coach you never feel like you're ready," said Billy Donovan. "You always want a few more days of practice. It's good it's here. We need to play. It's obviously different than the preseason just with the number of guys that are playing. But I'm sure there's going to be plenty of things coming out of the Detroit game we'll need to get better at. It's obviously one of 82, and I think for us and our team we've just got to keep improving and getting better.

"I've always tried to be realistic and honest when I'm talking to you (media) guys," Donovan added. "I'm not trying to downplay or overhype anything. I think our guys did do a good job. But it was preseason. It was four games (4-0 and best offense and defense in the league). The other teams had some guys who didn't play. We felt the need to play our guys, build out minutes with the main guys. I'm excited about the group. But as a coach, as you're looking at things that are going to get in the way of where we want to get to, we've all got to address them and confront them. There's a lot we're going to have to overcome. I'm excited about that because of the character of the guys we have. But there are still realistic challenges that we're going to have to handle."

So not 82-0?

What's with these guys?

It is the first time the five starters, three of whom are considered All-Star level talents, are playing together along with the addition of point guard prodigy Lonzo Ball. And pubescent Williams, who just turned 20, is coming off an ankle injury and could be limited in playing time after being in one preseason game.

One issue to watch for Donovan and the players will be speed versus size.

Donovan has urged an expedited style of play to address as many have doubted the team's defensive potential (the Bulls forced double digit turnovers every preseason game). And to take advantage of Ball's thrust and the scoring abilities of LaVine and DeMar DeRozan in transition.

"I have a good understanding of everybody's game right now and I'm excited to play (Wednesday)," said Ball. "For guys like DeMar and Zach, if they can get ahead and have one-on-one situations it's going to work all day.''

Though the four preseason games were mostly against inferior and undermanned competition, the Bulls looked best playing smaller lineups with players like Green and Alize Johnson at power forward or even center.

"I think last year they posted up a little bit more," noted Caruso. "But this year (we're) really trying to space it out to make sure their talents are used in the right way. I think we're off to a good start."

One concern about the team's makeup is that lack of size. And while the NBA leans toward three-point shooting these days without much center post scoring, the lack of rebounding potentially inhibits fast break play. You need rebounds to run. Perhaps we can see 82-0 probably is not likely.

"We may get into some situations where we may be undersized at that (power forward) position," said Donovan. "We'll see how we'll have to work out with Patrick or Derrick (Jones) or Javonte."

Donovan also raised the possibility of Williams playing some center, which is not uncommon the way so many teams downsize their lineups. In addition, the Bulls believe they can match up well because their core players are all about 6-5 to 6-6 with good reach. Switching on pick and rolls has become an integral part of top NBA defenses. Which Donovan has pointed to with a team like the recent champion Golden State Warriors, who especially to close games didn't use a center.

The Bulls looked impressive both offensively and defensively during their four-game preseason campaign.

Like those Golden State teams—and no on is making any precise comparisons—the Bulls feel confident with an active and professional second team led by former Laker Caruso with White still sidelined. DeRozan indicated without demeaning anyone in another NBA jersey that the scrimmages perhaps were more competitive than the games.

"Getting pushed by the second group, the white team kicking our ass," DeRozan said when asked about what he's noticed with his new teammates. "So when we go out in games we try to take it out on other teams. Everybody from top to bottom (has) a very competitive spirit. That's what you want every time we step on the court; we've been competing and I definitely like that. I expected to play with very talented players, very unselfish players and players that have a chip on their shoulders. It's been that plus some. It's very exciting to come to work every single day, work with these guys. We push each other, motivate each other, uplift each other. That's just great to have within the team.

"We find ourself being too unselfish at times," DeRozan admitted. "That's a good part about it. We're going to continue to get better with it. It's not going to just happen in preseason. We're still going to have learning curves throughout the season. But for the most part, the elements that need to be there are there."

Even if there are still some doubts around the neighborhood.

"When we played in the preseason we tried to take it as real as we can to get ourselves more time to gel with this team," said LaVine. "It's a new team. So we know it's not going to be that easy. We are going to have adversity, we are going to have ups and downs throughout the season. The preseason showed the potential we have and the room to grow we have. It's on us to go out there and prove people wrong. I've been trying to do that my whole career. At the end of the day, I feel everyone has their own opinion. At the end of the day that's what it is, their own opinion. I go out there and show people what I'm about."

Which is becoming pretty special with his first All-Star game appearance last February, and now an Olympic gold medal after the USA win in Tokyo. Are we now on Bulls time?

"That first squad with ‘Zo, DeMar, Zach and Pat and Vooch, that's a pretty good starting five of high talent, high caliber players," noted Caruso, who played a crucial role for the 2020 Lakers champions. "For me and the (reserve) group coming in and competing against them every day is going to make us better and obviously is going to push them to be better. That's where winning comes from, that's where culture comes from. If you can push each other in practice to be competitive to try to win to be better, that's ultimately what you want.

"We're mostly just excited to stop practicing against each other," Caruso said. "Get to play some real games that count for your win loss record. We've got a long way to go. I'll say it again: no team is where they want to be on game one on opening night. The future of where they want to be (is) the 82nd game leading into the postseason. The plan for us is to keep competing and win games and try to get better, If we can win games while we get better, that's ideal. Obviously there's going to be a little bit of a learning curve for every new team. But I think we're well positioned."

This time they have reason to mean it.