As the Bulls prepare to begin the 20-21 season and the year winds down to its last days, Sam Smith takes some time to review what happened in the Bulls world in 2020, on and off the court.
Billy, Arturas, Marc, Zach, Coby, Lauri, et al, yes it's the first day of the rest of your basketball life.
It begins Wednesday in the United Center against the more celebrated (for losing teams) Atlanta Hawks as the Bulls finally open the 2020-21 NBA season.
It's about two months later than usual because of the Covid-19 virus after the four-month hiatus the NBA took last season before resuming the playoffs that extended into October. The Bulls last game was March 10, making it more than nine months until resuming play, the longest stretch without a game in franchise history.
The opening opponent Atlanta Hawks were perhaps the most active team in the offseason by adding Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdonvic, Kris Dunn, Rajon Rondo and rookie Onyeka Okongwu to a core with All-Star Trae Young. Former Bulls Dunn, Rondo, and Tony Snell, the latter whom the Hawks acquired in trade, all are listed injured and out for Wednesday's game.
This is generally not the time of year for an opening game as much as one of those year-in-review features.
Mostly rested at home.
Though there were a few highlights in those first three months of 2020.
There was a 5-3 stretch in January when Zach LaVine was in an All-Star game audition of a dozen games during which the Bulls played their best of the season. LaVine averaged 30.2 points, six rebounds and 3.5 assists on 38 percent three-point shooting with three games scoring at least 40 points. He led the team in scoring for 12 straight. But, alas, no All-Star reward for the game in Chicago. LaVine did participate in the three-point shooting contest, one of the few players in NBA history to compete in both the shooting and dunk contests. LaVine fared better than the only other Bull to do so, Michael Jordan.
Otherwise there was Coby mania when the rookie, snubbed for the Rising Stars game even in the United Center, came firing out of the All-Star break in a run of three games scoring at least 33 points and averaging 26.1 points on 43 percent three-point shooting in the nine games leading to the Bulls last game March 10, a victory. Yes, they are on a winning streak heading into this season.
The next nine months with a brief training period in Chicago in September because the Bulls were left out of the Orlando restart games left the players like the rest of us, masked and mostly alone. LaVine from home did participate in a TV-made shooting competition.
But the Bulls had one of the most significant offseasons—and years—in franchise history.
In April, the Bulls hired Arturas Karnisovas, just their third head of basketball operations since the Reinsdorf group purchase in 1985 after Jerry Krause, then known as a General Manager, and John Paxson, who became Executive Vice-President of Basketball Operations with the expansion of basketball managements. Despite the Bulls struggles in the last few seasons, Karnisovas and his new team has much to match since Krause was the architect behind the Bulls dynasty of six championships and Paxson with General Manager Gar Forman built two contending teams, the second which led by Derrick Rose led the league in wins in consecutive seasons.
Karnisovas hired a General Manager in Marc Eversley from Philadelphia and personnel assistants Pat Connelly and J.J. Polk. It was a front office renovation unlike any in franchise history perhaps since Dick Motta forced out Pat Williams to be coach and general manager. Karnisovas also added scouts and development staff in modernizing the Bulls organization throughout the summer.
The NBA draft was postponed into November when Karnisovas pulled a surprise of sorts by selecting Patrick Williams from Florida State, who became the fastest rising prospect in the draft. Williams quickly has demonstrated Karnisovas made an excellent choice with a studied maturity unique for a player who just turned 19 years old.
There was much speculation about what Karnisovas would do regarding coach Jim Boylen, who still had not coached the Bulls for one full season. But after four months of analysis and examination, Karnisovas dismissed Boylen and most of the coaching staff.
A few weeks later, Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan following a narrow seventh game loss in the Orlando games to the Houston Rockets decided to leave the rebuilding Thunder.
Karnisovas said it was a "no brainer" to offer Donovan the job after conducting several coaching interviews. Karnisovas said he even attempted to hire Donovan as he traveled back home to Florida. Donovan asked for a weekend to consider and quickly agreed to a long term contract with the Bulls. He brought with him several of his former assistant coaches, including Chicago native and NBA Hall of Famer Maurice Cheeks.
The Bulls now have five games to close out 2020, the most unusual of years for both the world and the franchise.
It's a group of players once expected to have promise, six onetime lottery draft picks in Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr., Wendell Carter and Denzel Valentine. None has played in the playoffs. Karnisovas seems to be making it primarily a season of analysis and examination in adding just first round selection Williams and veteran free agent guard Garrett Temple. The playoffs with the new play-in tournament remains a target.
There's the potential this season for the high scoring backcourt in LaVine and White and the promise of Markkanen, regarded after his rookie year as a future NBA star. There's ample veteran depth with Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young in reserve to support the youth and talent. Now it's time for Donovan to mix up the ingredients for an appealing serving that the Bulls hope is quenches their appetite for success.
"Right now I'm really trying to gauge our team," Donovan acknowledged. "I think the guys who have been here are in good shape. I think we can get in a lot better shape. We're going to have to have a lot of resiliency. We're going to have to handle adversity. We're going to have to handle the ups and downs. We're going to have to maintain a level of competitiveness when things are not going our way. We're going to have to have a fight as a team."
"So much of the NBA is putting the ball in the basket, but I do think there are a lot of things you can control that do impact winning and impacts your team," said Donovan. "If we're not making shots or struggling to score or having a difficult time offensively, do we have the mental fortitude and the toughness to grind out loose balls, offensive rebounds, getting back in transition, getting stops, trying to get easy baskets in transition? We're going to have to play like that and do a lot of those things to keep ourselves really, really competitive. As a group that's the challenge for us." "The first thing," said Donovan, "is every day you're holding your breath, wondering what could potentially happen or who is going to be available and unavailable (because of the virus). My judgment is going to be on our competitiveness, on what kind of team can we become in terms of playing for one another and with each other, and how well can we make each other better on the court? Can we be a team that's going to battle and fight and compete? The team is young, but there's also a level of experience that these guys have gained because all these guys that are ‘young' have handled and have seen meaningful minutes during the NBA season. So we've got to continually improve and get better in confronting and addressing the things on a daily basis that we've got to get better at. If we can make strides and improvements in those areas, then I think that's how we're going to be more and more competitive and more and more successful."
It continues Wednesday after it really started again last April.