Bulls ready for first basketball game in nine months, face Houston at United Center

Coby White, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr., round out the starting lineup for Billy Donovan in Chicago's presesaon opener against Houston at the United Center on Friday night.

Nine months is an auspicious duration in the human glossary. It generally measures the gestation period for an individual. For the Bulls, it's also perhaps a span of special growth. It's been nine months just about to the day since the Bulls last played NBA basketball. Players from the Lakers and Heat noted their unprecedented condensed time between seasons. The Bulls gladly would trade with them. Never in franchise history have Bulls players gone longer to await a new season, and basically unable even to practice.

And in that time, the Bulls essentially were reborn with a new basketball director, a new general manager, coaching staff and medical trainer. Now for the first time since March 10, when Covid-19 was something of the other guys' problem, when Australian bushfires were world news and the deaths of Kobe Bryant and David Stern were the worst thing that could happen, the Bulls are playing basketball again.

Welcome back; it's the same old place you laughed about. And the names have all changed since you hung around.

Except yours, guys.

"Just getting out there and competing," Lauri Markkanen was telling reporters Thursday on the daily media video conference. "I think it's going to be really fun. It's been nine months since we last played; it's been a long time. Just try to get the rhythm going into the regular season."

The Bulls Friday in the absent audience (and James Harden) United Center host the Houston Rockets for the first of four preseason games. The Rockets remain in Chicago for Sunday's game and the Bulls then close with two games in Oklahoma City before their Dec. 23 regular season start.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said he will use the games primarily to continue player evaluations for who fits best with whom and how they'll work together.

In a sense, it's a series of tryouts for these same players attempting to impress their new coach and thus earn more playing time and opportunities. Which is especially vital for this group of Bulls players with so many on the verge of potential free agency, new contracts or earning a place with this franchise.

Because it's coming to the end of the franchise's incubation. For three years, the Bulls have been adding high draft picks and young players toward a rebirth. It's hardly there coming off a 22-43 season that didn't even earn them a space inside the NBA's 2020 post season 22-team tournament. But it's close with opportunities to enter free agency next summer and perhaps just one more—if that—trip to the lottery drawing.

Who's standing up and standing out?

Donovan's early rotation will be the first indication.

Donovan said Thursday he still was uncertain about starters, though the Bulls preliminary game notes delivered to the NBA Thursday night listed Coby White, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Thad Young and Wendell Carter Jr starters. It was probably more a support staff guess, but it seemed reasonable since Donovan has been cautious about projecting too much play for the injury-hampered Porter. Donovan, Friday morning, added Porter to start for Young.

"They've been off for quite some time," Donovan noted. "I don't anticipate a lot of guys, unless they feel they need it, going deep in the second half. How we can organize the rotations where we've got guys that are normally going to play with each other and see what that looks like and maybe try to work on some different combination of players. A lot is going to be seeing where a guy like Otto, who has been out for a long period of time, needs a ramp up period to get himself back. He has looked very good. He's done a really good job. But it's going to be a little different going into a game. How much does he actually need?"

With the Bulls not considered a title contender this season, and the new management locked into analysis, does it make sense to overuse players not part of your future? But you also want to balance that against winning games and seriously trying to at least contend for the playoffs. Because winning teams not only elevate the status of your players, but also make your franchise more appealing to potential free agents.

Which will make this season a game of musical chairs, if not careers.

"For us in that first half, I think we'd like to play a rotation where we can get a good look at us at this point in time," Donovan said. "We do need to see what these guys look like against different competition and then probably at halftime reevaluate maybe who needs some more time or maybe who just needs to shut down and not play anymore.

"We've got four preseason games," Donovan noted. "I think we've got to build up to that point. It's been an unusual, shortened training camp. We've got to use this to get better. That's really the most important thing. What can we learn about ourselves? And how do we move forward?

"We are going to have to understand that there's going to have to be sacrifices that are made," Donovan said. "We're not going to have every guy on the roster in the rotation. So if somebody's not in the rotation, how do they come in each and every day to keep themselves ready, stay professional, work to get better, work to improve? You can't play 12, 13 guys. You've got to play the guys you feel give you the best opportunity to compete and win."

Donovan said he envisions playing nine or 10 players regularly, at the most, though he notes with injuries (a Bulls blight in recent years) and Covid-19 effects (a hovering reality), there'll likely be ample opportunities to slide into the rotation.

"If you stagger players, if you take starters and you put them in the second unit you end up playing nine players," Donovan explained about his philosophy. "If you have a true second unit where you are playing five (reserves) together, then you are going to be able to play to 10. That's something I'm still evaluating."

So what becomes of Porter, who is on the final season of a mammoth team high contract? He is a starter in talent, but does it make sense to give rookie Patrick Williams, who has impressed throughout camp, more of his time? Win more now? Develop more for later? It's one of many questions facing Donovan and the new management team. Similarly with Young and Tomas Satoransky, the latter two veterans who don't have full guarantees for next season. But who likely impact winning now more than, say, Chandler Hutchison and Daniel Gafford.

The rotation probably will be the first core four of LaVine, White, Markkanen and Carter. They have the most potential promise as emerging, central figures or facing decisions regarding contracts or trades. Then comes Williams, whom Markkanen said has been most impressive in camp along with White. Force feed more minutes to the rookie early? He'll certainly crack that first nine or 10.

That's five players. And then likely add the veterans Porter, Young and Satoransky. Who all know how to play, aren't particularly old and can contribute to winning. Losing becomes as much a habit as winning. The Bulls have some habits to change.

Both free agent Garrett Temple with Covid symptoms and guard/forward Denzel Valentine with a hamstring strain are unavailable this weekend. They likely have the best chances to fill out the last spot or two in a healthy rotation.

Which leaves those openings now, as Donovan said, to take advantage of the opportunity for players like Hutchison, Gafford, Ryan Arcidiacono, Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio. Maybe even for a two-way player like point guard Devon Dotson, Donovan frequently noting his two-way guy in Oklahoma City, Lu Dort, went from G-league to geez, he's a starter. And the Bulls aren't strong at point guard.

It's time Friday. Here's hoping for the news: Congratulations, it's a basketball team!