Bulls forming their new identity on the fly, going for third-straight win

The newly-formed Bulls team is starting to click on the floor as they'll go for a third-straight win on Thursday against the Raptors.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Billy Donovan and the Bulls have been changing the way they play on the fly since the NBA Trade Deadline that significantly changed the identity of the team. But after losing their first four games post deadline, the Bulls (21-28) have won two straight. They'll go for their third straight victory on Thursday night when they take on the Toronto Raptors (20-31).

It's often said that it's never too late to fall in love. I'll admit it. I love Billy Donovan.

Perhaps not as much for the New York accent and the hairstyle I think I copied from Dobie Gillis in sixth grade. But Billy and the Bulls may just be saving basketball, and that makes my heart skip a beat.

The love affair continues in Tampa Friday against Toronto in a makeup game.

The Bulls, especially since the Nikola Vucevic trade and massive roster overhaul that basically turned a young team excuse into a veteran team answer, have become throwbacks, a big strong rebounding team that shares the ball effectively and efficiently, utilizes all places on the floor to score and rides its stars.

I remember that. What did we call it? Wait, wait, oh right, basketball.

Not pop-a-shot, spread sheet mathematics. Using the talent you have the best way possible. How quaint.

Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine.

But will it work? After all, the last two wins were against severely depleted teams. And maybe the NBA isn't watching yet with the Bulls in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. If the Bulls don't advance farther it may not matter. But maybe everyone should be watching. Because the Bulls, likely out of necessity considering the personnel, are testing the conventional wisdom of how a team can succeed in the NBA.

It's two consecutive wins since the four straight losses after the March 25 trade. Maybe it doesn't have to be from 30 feet away.

This is either a challenge to the soul of the game. Or maybe I'm just overexcited on an off day.

But heck, Donovan the Daring is even risking the wrath of Nerd World.

It wasn't the first time, but Donovan again the other day actually said out loud analytics isn't that important.

Fortunately he doesn't use Twitter. Or maybe know what it is.

"I've said this before about the analytics," eased Donovan into that mathematical minefield.

"I like the analytics," he assured everyone to avoid a worldwide panic. "I look at the analytics. But I don't think it's the end all be all."

Did he really say that? In public? Billy, how dare you!

Billy Donovan and Thad Young

Billy Donovan and Thad Young

"I think there's a balance there to that," Donovan said defying current convention about most aspects of American life.

"What you don't want to be is a team that analytically can't win," said Donovan, quickly defaulting to calming mode. "What I mean by that if you've got teams taking a lot of threes and maybe you're not taking as many."

You know, if you don't have shooters like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and James Harden, stop! Unlike much of the last several years for the Bulls and many, many other NBA teams.

If you aren't Steph, c'mon, find another way. Is that so hard?

"I think the best way to offset the three-point line with the number of threes that are going up—because every year it seems to go up and up and up, right? And teams are taking it because they are looking at the analytics of what it means to take threes—is if you are not a huge three point shooting team, you have to take care of the ball, you have to get to the free throw line and you have to offensive rebound. Those things are important; that can offset it,"

Eureka! Now why didn't 25 teams think of that before? Use the talent you have rather than try to make them into the talent you want them to be. Novel approach.

Just like there was one Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, LeBron James and Steph Curry. And when you don't have him, maximize your strengths.

Even if everyone else is pointing and laughing?

"We've got to play to the strengths of our team," Donovan reasoned. "Vooch (Vucevic) is a really good post up player, Thad (Young) has been a remarkable guy for this year for how he has played in the pocket and close to the basket. Then you get Daniel (Theis) out there as well. For us, the game's gotten slowed. I think one of the positives of that is I do think that was a big part of the fact our turnovers are down. I certainly believe in fast breaking on missed shots. I believe in getting down the floor because the most effective shot in the game besides layups and free throws is transition points. Now do I think we need to play with this breakneck pace on made baskets? I think we can get into a situation where a guy like Vooch can get lost in that, Thad can get lost in that. We've just got to be balanced where we run opportunistically and then maybe in the half court we are playing to our strengths."

You know, basketball.

Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic

Zach LaVine high-fives Nikola Vucevic during a victory against the Brooklyn Nets.

No one will deny it's been kind of fun watching those 35 footers go in. But they've also kind of become a disease, like a drug habit. Just can't get enough. And it's infected the game. Forget a mask for your mouth. How about for your eyes? It's also combined with the fascination of a new breed of team owners who made their fortunes studying grids, matrix and statistical formula. So why not apply that to sports. It happens when your childhood is spent navigating a joystick instead of a back door cut. It certainly has a place, as Donovan says, but one size doesn't fit all.

The Bulls lost their first four after the trade, but then won the next two. Perhaps more significantly is the way they are doing it, shooting well with more emphasis on mid range play because many of their players are better that way, rebounding and moving the ball. Like if they stole, hit and ran and went to the opposite field in baseball. You know, making it more interesting to watch.

Even with the early adjustment losses and against top Western Conference competition like the Jazz and Suns, the Bulls in the six games since the trades are shooting better, taking fewer threes, passing more efficiently, rebounding more vigorously and committing fewer mistakes.

Even with the 20 turnovers which didn't mean much in the rout over Indiana Tuesday, the Bulls are averaging fewer than 13 turnovers per game, which is below Donovan's preseason goal. They've dominated in rebounding—rebounds equal rings, as Pat Riley famously said—with almost plus-10 per game and plus-30 overall in the six games in second chance points. The Bulls are averaging fewer than 30 threes per game, which is in the bottom five while in the top 10 in shooting the last six games and top three in assists and playing out of the post. What in the name of Shaq is going on here?

"You just want to make sure your formula analytically going against teams that are maybe high volume three-point shooting teams is not putting yourself at a deficit," said Donovan. "For us we've just got to make sure we are posting the ball, we are playing inside out, taking threes that are good. But we also have to be able to manufacture and generate some fouls and we also have to manufacture and generate some offensive rebounds as well."

What in the name of Moses Malone is going on there?

"I think those lineups can be very good for us because, like, Thad and me or Lauri (Markkanen) and me or Lauri and Thad or Daniel or whoever it is out there, I think we're also big men that can still move and still cover a lot of ground," said Vucevic. "I think defensively we'll be able to cover a lot of space and control the boards and I also think it gives us an advantage on the offensive glass. But one thing too is that we're all players with high IQs (that) know how to play and are unselfish and all of us can play inside and outside. Just gives us so many different looks, lineups we can put out there. I think it works well for us. I know a lot of teams like to play small nowadays; we have lineups that can do that. But I think that so far with the big lineups we've been pretty efficient and if we continue to grow as a team like that it can be advantage for us in certain situations for sure."

Watch out, here come the big, rough, tough Bulls. Analyze that!

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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