Sam Smith: Bulls show encouraging signs near NBA's halfway point

It's perhaps appropriate the Bulls Wednesday will conclude the first half of the 2020-21 NBA season in New Orleans, the Eastern U.S.'s party city. Not so much this year with Mardi Gras deprived of most of its parades and festivals. But the NBA and the Bulls should do some celebrating.

The Bulls are improved, more interesting and competitive and seem finally to have emerged from the regrets of rebuilding. The record isn't as good as they'd hoped, 15-18 heading into the game with the Pelicans. That's just two games better than a year ago after 33 games, though the Bulls were then just about to go on six and eight-game losing streaks to finish 9-23.

More encouraging is the Bulls current record is just one game poorer than the 2016-17 team after 33 games, that team with Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo the last Bulls team to make the playoffs. Perhaps more significantly, the Bulls are pushing the best teams, among the league leaders in close games, though a disappointing 9-12 in those games.

The NBA can also feel a lot better about itself for a season that despite being shortened to 72 games looks a lot like most seasons.

The NBA has experienced its share of Covid-related absences. But the league has endured and survived far better than many anticipated playing outside a "bubble" environment like last season in Orlando and with nationwide travel.

The Bulls have been one of the best teams regarding Covid security with their only outbreak mostly contact tracing after playing in Washington in December when numerous Wizards players had the virus.

Zach LaVine and Coby White have played every game and Patrick Williams has missed one for injury, that being 60 percent of the starting lineup. Garrett Temple also has missed just one game and Thad Young hasn't missed any since returning from an infection after missing the first four games. Denzel Valentine only has missed games from coach's decision. With the direction of performance czar Chip Schaefer, the Bulls adherence to league protocols has been as effective as any NBA team.

There have been about 30 postponed games around the league—four for the Bulls—which will have to be squeezed in during a compressed second half beginning March 11. Most teams have played half or close to the 36 games, though the Bulls at 33 have played among the fewest with the Spurs and Grizzlies the least at 31.

But more significantly, the large majority of star players have not been been forced to miss multiple games. The fear entering the season assuming the NBA could even get through it without a protected "bubble" was a distorted and perhaps inverted season with the standings scrambled by absences with the virus and short offseason.

But that hasn't occurred as the projected best teams have floated to the top of the standings. The Lakers and Clippers are among the top four in the West. The Utah Jazz is No. 1, but they've often been a team projected to do better. In the Eastern Conference, the No. 1 76ers are not a surprised considering they've been a recently underachieving team. The Bucks and favored Brooklyn round out the top three.

Plus the NBA's decision to add a play-in tournament for teams finishing seventh through 10th has increased competitive desires. It's also been an apparent antidote for teams losing games to get lottery position with teams even currently 13th in the conference, like Cleveland, just two games out of the play-in tournament.

The season also been a boon for new Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who has been praised for helping elevate the game of LaVine to All-Star status and the willingness to continually challenge and motivate Bulls players. The popular expression of players "buying in" has been frequent among the Bulls this season.

Following the loss to the Nuggets Monday, White said he's enjoyed Donovan's demands.

Billy Donovan leads a 15-18 Bulls team going into Chicago's final game of the first-half schedule on Wednesday.

"He challenges you everywhere; it doesn't matter what time or place," said White. "He's going to challenge you. You'll be walking on the street and he passes you and he's going to challenge you. That's just who he is as a coach and I feel like as a person. For me getting to know him, he's a coach. But he's the ultimate competitor. He wants to win more than anyone. Like I said, it's not really a certain place he challenges you; whenever he see fit he's going to speak his mind."

Donovan's attitude and aptitude and the commitment of an enthusiastic group of high character players also has opened the way for a new era of Bulls basketball. New management has said this season primarily is about development, though with the enhanced use of veterans like Young and Valentine and the addition of Temple, the Bulls have demonstrated an increased commitment and competitiveness.

In the last three seasons after 33 games, they were 11-22, 8-25 and 13-20. But those teams often was surprised to win; now they appear surprised to lose. Still, they know it's hardly a complete team which should undergo personnel changes this summer with enhanced free agent possibilities.

Donovan guided his team to the playoffs every season in Oklahoma City, but he then joined a loaded team with multiple All-Stars and had all-NBA players every season. LaVine could join that roster this season, and Donovan said he's especially enjoyed working with this Bulls group of players.

"Things that I'm really grateful for, it is a great group of guys," Donovan told reporters Tuesday before the team left for New Orleans. "I know a lot of times people—I always say this—get a chance to watch these guys in between the lines. But they don't get a chance maybe to interact with them quite a bit. It is a great group of guys. I really am grateful for the fact that I think I've pushed them very hard, I've challenged them I think pretty hard. I think they've always tried to take on the challenge and they've always tried to put their best foot forward."

Though Donovan also acknowledged there's work ahead for many.

"I think that we have some players that are in some really, really heavy roles that are very, very inexperienced," said Donovan. "I look at Wendell and the fact that coming off that injury (three weeks out with a quad contusion), I thought he was starting to find his way a little bit and tried to use him as a facilitator, a guy at the top to distribute the ball, maybe take some more threes, shoot the ball from the perimeter. I think he was a work in progress there. Coby being a fulltime point guard, I admire whether it's a good game or a bad game he tries to come back and work and get better and take on the challenge. But some of that's been new for him."

It seemingly was Donovan's way also of saying the point guard and center positions remain uncertain, especially in recent games with Carter outplayed by top centers like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Deandre Ayton.

Wendell Carter Jr. sinks a hook shot over Joel Embiid.

Carter after Tuesday's practice acknowledged he's still getting back to full strength following an early return from injury. But he said he's still determined to excel at his position despite the size disparity.

"I'm a center," said Carter. "There are a lot of centers in this league seven-foot or over. It's just physics. I'm shorter. I don't necessarily think I'm not as strong, but I'm just shorter. Whenever they can get a hook shot in, they're usually shooting over me. What I have to do is a better job of using my strength, pushing catches out to make it more difficult for them to get to those areas around the rim." As for the rim, LaVine has done a terrific job of finding it in averaging a career high 28.5 points per game, seventh in the NBA and behind basically only MVP candidates.

"I think Zach right from Day 1 has really made winning a priority for him and he wants to really help contribute and I think just his mentality and the way he's done that has been great," said Donovan. "I think Patrick Williams is maybe averaging more points in the NBA than he did in college (true, 10.1 to 9.2). For a young kid to have the level of humility that he has—and he's working to get better—I think all these experiences are good for him."

Donovan also commended the reserve veterans, who have been the stabilizing forces that former top executive John Paxson envisioned when he signed them in the summer of 2019.

Garrett Temple, Thad Young, and Otto Porter Jr. make up a veteran bench that has been important to the Bulls success this season

"I'm grateful for the fact that we've got three really, really good veteran guys," said Donovan. "It's a shame that Otto (Porter Jr.) has been out for so long dealing with his back. But I thought he was playing really good basketball. I think Thad has been incredible for us the way he's performed and played. I think the same can be said for Garrett. Some of the experience that we lack, take the last two games, Phoenix and even Denver. (Jamal) Murray and Jokic know how to close games. Chris Paul knows how to close games. We have to learn how to do that. We're in situations that hopefully we can grow and get better from. But the group I couldn't ask anything more of in terms of the way they're working, the way they're trying, the way they're trying to pull together, the way they're trying to sacrifice and work. There's just, I've always said this, in order to win there's a lot of pain that comes in before that."

Donovan has endured that with the players, who often have taken it hard. Which also is progress. No one's relieved with a close loss anymore.

"We've had some really, really difficult and challenging losses," Donovan acknowledged. "Going back to the Golden State game at home (last second three to lose on a mixup), the Portland game at home (Damian Lillard three), Oklahoma City on the road (lost 22-point lead). We had some opportunities in LA against both teams (narrow losses in the last minute). We certainly had our chances against Phoenix and against Denver (the past week). I'm not saying we should have won those games, but we're there. And these guys have worked hard. Hopefully we can learn and gain some more experiences. But I really have enjoyed the group; I'm really appreciative of the group. I just hope that as a staff we can help these guys continue to evolve and get better as players."

It's been an encouraging start, though not halfway there at the halfway point.