As the second half of the season kicks off, Zach LaVine leads a Bulls team riddled with injuries and lofty expectations.
Zach LaVine paused. The Bulls peripatetic shooting guard doesn't hesitate much, though he does have that uncanny ability to lure defenders into a delay before his snake tongue-like, flinch shot release. How, Zach, he was asked, would he assess the first half of the Bulls 2019-20 season.
Silence. Zach's world doesn't usually seem particularly static. More silence. "How," LaVine finally repeated, "would I assess the team the first half of the season?"
Let's think about to say that.
The Bulls begin the numerical second half of the NBA season Wednesday in the United Center against the Washington Wizards. It's a season in what generally is Year 3 of a reset that many believed with the acquisitions of veterans Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky to support LaVine, Lauri Markannen, and Wendell Carter Jr. could lead to a playoff position. Or at least a contending opportunity.
But it's been at 14-27 a search for different ways of expressing disappointment, frustration, and dismay. Big leads lost, big deficits almost overcome. Fabulous finishers like LaVine's winning shot in Charlotte, an amazing comeback in Washington. Desultory losses like leading the first-place Lakers by 18 late in the game or in New York, Charlotte, and Cleveland.
Though it doesn't count for enough—but does count for something, meaning the season remains salvageable—it's been a team that regularly competes seriously, remains positive and optimistic and supports one another.
"It has been one of the better teams I've been on in terms of how people like each other, the attitude, a close team," said LaVine. "Guys going to dinner together. We talk with each other. People aren't upset when you see someone in front of them having a good game. Everybody's pulling for each other; that's been really good."
The bonds developed quickly for adding five new regulars, if not always the playing efficiency.
"We have a group of really good guys in here who want to win, want to compete and don't get too discouraged," said Ryan Arcidiacono, a team veteran given his three years with the Bulls. "We do have a bunch of good dudes who don't pout, don't blame it on anyone else. We try to go to work on what will make us more successful, trying to figure out a way to win."
They haven't with enough frequency, leaving the Bulls tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference with Washington, five games out of a playoff spot. With seven losses in their last eight games, it's been a growth deficit in the midst of a difficult January schedule.
That's become a further concern with the ankle injury to Carter. He likely won't return until after the All-Star break along with Otto Porter Jr., who went out with a broken foot after nine games. That's complicated rotations and results for a team, which as LaVine often notes, doesn't have a substantial margin for error on the offensive end. It also could impact the team's best characteristic, it's defensive play since Carter is the team's best interior defender.
The team's defensive play has been one of the positives of the first half, though stumbling lately both with Carter's absence and opponents responding to the Bulls somewhat unconventional style.
Coach Jim Boylen in his first full season since replacing Fred Hoiberg in December 2018 with two new lead assistants committed to new offensive and defensive systems. Defense had been Boylen's major. He was in charge of defense almost exclusively under Hoiberg. Boylen back then promoted a switching scheme, which has been popular in the NBA. Though it wasn't particularly successful for the Bulls. Probably in large part because of unstable lineups the last two years.
Most NBA teams these days operate offense from a standard pick and roll in the middle of the floor to attempt to draw the defense in for passes to the perimeter for threes. Having been frustrated with the utility of a switching game, also because the Bulls lacked enough of the same size defenders to make it work, Boylen has been unconventional in employing pressure to the pick and roll. It's enabled the Bulls for much of the season to be top 10 in defense (now falling to 11th in efficiency) and a league leader in steals and forcing turnovers.
"Some of the pillars of our system have been installed," Boylen said Monday when asked generally about the first half-season. "We have a style of play at the offensive end; we have a style of play at the defensive end. We have established practice habits and playing hard habits that I think have carried through September, October and into the season. I'm concerned about our defensive rebounding and our defending without fouling.
"The rebounding issue without Wendell is a concern," Boylen admitted. "The consistency at the offensive end, even if it has been better, can improve. I think it will the more we play together and get used to each other. Most of the inconsistency has been with the second group, which has changed from week to week, which makes it hard. I'm not discouraged; I'm kind of excited we've established some things. Our shot profile is top five in the league, our defense is on any given day between five and nine. That's what we're building and we will continue to work at it.
"What we've done well is we've established a style of play at both ends which we can coach to, teach to, draft to, whatever it is," Boylen added. "We know how we want to play. That's exciting, I think, for the franchise and for us and for the coaching staff."
The immediate question is whether the Bulls can sustain that defensive style without Carter.
"I think we can do much better than we have, much better than our record indicates," says Young. "Defensively we have to get better, but offensively we have to learn to finish games. We're still in the process of figuring that out. Be better on both sides of the basketball, stay confident and true to what we do as a team. Bring what you do to the game and focus and lock in on that and that's how everything comes together; do your role to its entirety."
Rookie second-round center pick Daniel Gafford moved in to start. He has size and quickness and can block shots. Luke Kornet has been the backup, though he isn't swift. They've been victimized by being in the pressure defense and not as quick as Carter to recover. Perhaps Boylen plays Markkanen more at center with Young. The defense will be tested again.
The offense other than LaVine averaging 24.5 points, 14th in the league, has been unpredictable and unreliable. It's taken some on the team by surprise amidst a long adjustment. Boylen advocated a slower pace when he took over last season with more inside scoring to emphasize a defensive game. The Bulls added that sort of player in Young. But then devised an offensive game relying on speed and perimeter shooting, the tenets Hoiberg most advocated.
Though the Bulls have attempted threes at a franchise record-smashing pace, the transition has not been smooth or easy with personnel not fully suited to that game. It's also been complicated by trying out on the fly rookie Coby White at point guard and occasionally mixing in reserves like Denzel Valentine, Chandler Hutchison, who was hurt a lot, Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison.
Though the players still are going with that glass half-filled outlook. Which does match the optimism they've exhibited all season despite several crushing defeats.
"It's a little more (consistent) than last year in the sense of no coaching change," said Arcidiacono. "We struggled early out of the gate to grasp the defense and the way we wanted to play and we just haven't been able to find a way to hold our leads in the first half of the season. We're all disappointed in the play and position we're in. I think we know we're a better team, but we just haven't found a way to close out games and get wins in timely situations. That's on everybody. I think we've been able to be competitive and show that we're not just going to roll over and give up on anything and that we're going to stick to the game plan and trust the coaches and trust each other."
That's perhaps been most impressive even if it doesn't count in the standings. Even in games like Monday in Boston when they seem defeated to start, they continue with fury. They've done so often in fourth quarters when far behind, but then eased up—or froze up—with those late leads. It's led to much second-guessing, criticism, concern, and disappointment. At least there's been none of that metaphorical finger-pointing among the participants.
"Our style of defense, our ability to shrink gaps and bring two to the ball and close has really improved and something I think we're really good at," said Boylen. "It's a little different style from other teams, but it fits our personnel and how we want to play. Offensively, our shot profile (where shots are taken) is excellent. We'd like to have less mid clock, mid-range twos; we'd like to play at the rim and we'd like to space it and shoot threes.
"I coach by faith," said Boylen. "We're going to work on the things that I feel can help us build this team and build this franchise. Of course, we want to win; we're going to try to win every night. But I'm not going to get caught up in the negativity of that (losing record). I'm going to keep teaching and coaching. We're at the halfway point and I think we've done some things really well and we have to do some things better. I think that's what happens with young teams and new teams."
It's a relatively young Bulls team on average with a 19-year-old regular like White. But also with veterans, though the loss of Porter was debilitating because so much was expected of him.
If not a numerical success, the Bulls have had many aesthetically pleasing moments with LaVine's bravado and the yin and yang of surprising victory and defeat. There's been entertainment when you can steer around the disappointment. Ain't over 'til, you know, it's over.
"I feel like we're underperforming," LaVine agreed. "We're a team that had goals coming into the season; still can get those accomplished. We're still fighting. We're in games, but we're still doing the same things, losing the same way. We're underperforming to our talent level.
"We're not an extremely high firepower team that can make up for mistakes, so we have to play a really consistent game," said LaVine. "I do think we are one of the hardest playing teams in the NBA and as for the outlook as a group, we're not down. We feel we're better than what our record has shown. We just haven't proved it yet."
Here's a look at the 2019-20 Bulls at midseason.
Zach LaVine: 24.5 pts; 4.6 rebs; 4.0 assists.
LaVine has had a brilliant season, shooting 40 percent on threes with some of the most acrobatic and entertaining play in the league. He's even among the league leaders, top 20, in steals. His 13 threes in Charlotte were a league season highlight and he hasn't missed a game. He draws negative scrutiny because of the team's record but has proved to be one of the league's best players.
Lauri Markkanen: 15.1 pts; 6.6 rebs; 1.6 assists.
It's been a slight step back for the developing seven-foot marksman. He's somewhat unlike many NBA players in his desire to do exactly what is asked, which slowed him to start the season with new playing styles on offense and defense. He began to break out in December until a sprained ankle, which he's played through and also hasn't missed a game. He's due for a better second half.
Wendell Carter Jr.: 11.7 pts; 9.9 rebounds; 1.2 assists.
He'd mostly overcome his size deficiencies at the position with spirited play and easily a team most double/doubles. He also hadn't missed a game—a rarity in the NBA these days for a team's top players—until an ankle injury last week. He'll likely be out until after the All-Star break. He'd been a force in helping the Bulls develop a top defense early in the season and was starting to expand his shooting range.
Coby White: 11.3 pts; 3.5 rebs; 2.2 assists.
The rookie coming first off the bench also hasn't missed a game and has been one of the better rookie producers, top 10 among neophytes in scoring, assists, three-point shooting, steals and minutes played. Though considered a point guard, he's been limited as a playmaker and more effective as a shooter who can be streaky but instantly effective.
Otto Porter Jr.: 11.2 points; 3.4 rebs; 1.6 assists.
His injury left a gaping hole at small forward that's mostly been filled by guards. Which has made the defensive play more impressive, if also vulnerable. This is the second consecutive season of injuries for the young veteran, which is a worrisome sign and disappointment from last year's trade.
Tomas Satoransky: 10.1 pts; 3.6 rebs; 5.3 assists.
He has been as good or better than expected. He's tried to shoot more as needed, but makes clutch shots and has an unusual ability for an average athlete to get past defenders, a smart and tough player. He probably doesn't handle the ball as much as he should since he's probably the best overall all-around point guard on the team.
Thaddeus Young: 8.9 pts; 4.5 rebs; 1.8 assists.
He's had a disappointing half-season, though perhaps not his fault. The 13-year veteran has had a successful career as a stealth inside scorer. With the team's offensive changes, he's been shooting more spot-up threes, which is not his specialty. His playing time thus was reduced with rumors he might prefer to play elsewhere. He's never complained publicly or undermined the staff. Lately he's played out of the post more with good results, which could presage some changes.
Kris Dunn: 7.2 pts; 3.6 rebs; 3.2 assists.
He's been perhaps the biggest surprise, though not for his production. He'd been almost forgotten about with drafting and signing point guards. But he reinvented himself as a Bruce Bowen/Marcus Smart/Patrick Beverley defensive annoyance and among the league's steals leaders. He's generally defended the opponent's best scorer as the tip of the team's defensive sword. Though he still hasn't developed the reliable spot-up three to support the defensive prowess.
Denzel Valentine: 6.0 pts; 1.8 rebs; 1.0 assists.
No love, as it were. He's mostly been left out of the playing rotation, which suggests a limited future with the team. He had a brief run off the bench, but is back out of the rotation. He is one of the team's better shooters and playmakers, but his lack of speed is generally being held against him as a regular.
Chandler Hutchison: 5.4 pts; 3.1 rebs; 0.6 assists.
He's mostly been injured with a shoulder problem after getting a few starts in November. The team had hoped he could fill the void of Porter's absence. But with the injury and a slow and cautious return to form, his impact has been limited with Dunn or Satoransky playing more at small forward.
Daniel Gafford: 4.9 pts; 2.5 rebs; 0.5 assists.
The second-rounder wasn't expected to play much. But he has been starting with Carter's injury. He showed earlier in the season considerable promise with forceful athletic play as a dunker and fighter on the boards. He quickly became the team's leader in blocks despite being ninth in minutes played. He'll get a long look now and looks like a bargain draft pick.
Ryan Arcidiacono: 4.0 pts; 1.7 rebs; 1.5 assists.
He also hasn't missed a game except when he wasn't invited to play. His attendance is remarkable given the physical beating he gets as a leader in charges taken despite limited play. He played more early in the season and probably needs to shoot more since he's been the best percentage three-point shooter. But he prefers to run the team and make plays for others.
Luke Kornet: 3.0 pts; 1.7 rebs; 0.4 assists.
He had sinus surgery earlier in the season and then fell out of the rotation with poor shooting and the development of Gafford. The seven-footer who is primarily a three-point shooter fit the profile of what the team wanted to do, if not its defensive emphasis. With Carter out he's been playing more, but that also will depend on whether Young and Markkanen begin to play together.
Shaquille Harrison: 2.7 pts; 1.5 rebs; 1.0 assists.
He's done what he's been asked, which hasn't been often. He'll come in for certain defensive situations, and sometimes you get the sense Boylen wished he and Arcidiacono were more offensively oriented since they have that run-through-the-wall mentality the coach prefers.
Cristiano Felicio: Just played in his first game of the season after a broken wrist without any statistics.