This time the Bulls are saying it's time.
"Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs," Bulls coach Jim Boylen offered firmly at the annual media day training camp opening Monday in the Advocate Center. "That's our goal for the season, to make the playoffs. And every day to prepare like we're a playoff team. Every day to work like we're a playoff bound team. I'm excited for that. I think that's the only way to do it. There's no way that we were going to stand up here and say, ‘Hey, I hope we can win 10 more games or we hope we can be better.' We want to get to the mountain top."
Sure, there was that picture everyone saw recently of the line to get to the top of Everest.
Those mountain tops can be elusive.
And coming off 27 and 22-win seasons, it would seem the Bulls would be at the back of the line.
But unlike the past few years with various short term personnel additions and debates about whether it was smart or correct to even win games, the Bulls feel like they are at least back in the climb.
Perhaps eighth place is like base camp, but management knows it's time to start admiring the view from above.
2019-20 Bulls Media Day: Gar Forman, John Paxson, and Jim Boylen
"We have revamped this roster in a big way, and a way in that we can look at this team and we see real talent," insisted Bulls Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson. "We see a versatile roster, we see some depth on this roster, we see some leadership on this roster which we haven't had, and because of that our goals this year are really simple. We want to compete at a high, high level. We think we can compete. And when you compete at a high level, you have an ability to be a playoff caliber team. We set that as a goal. Jim talks about it, he's not afraid of it, and our guys through their work have shown us that they want to make that commitment. So we feel good about that. Because of that, when we look at our roster we know we have a lot of players who are going to have to sacrifice in order for us to be the type of team we want to be, and we're going to need certain guys to step up to be the type of team we want to be.
"This has been a very good summer for us as an organization," Paxson added. "I think it really started last year when we made the coaching change and put Jim in charge. He's found his footing with this team and his ability to lead. His leadership this summer has been really, really good. The commitment our guys made this last month to be here when they don't have to be, to get together, to form some camaraderie has something that has been a powerful thing around this building. We know as well as anyone that we have not done anything. But we like our talent level and we like what we have in this building."
Of course, that's not unlike the script at 29 other NBA training camp media days: Everyone's working hard, everyone is in great shape, can't wait to get going, this is the year.
Though it hasn't been like that the last two uneasy years when it seemed like the compass the Bulls were using was pointing south. And east and west, though rarely up.
But with the acquisition of dependable and reputable veterans like Otto Porter Jr. last February and Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky last summer so they won't have to rely on rookies like Coby White and Daniel Gafford, the return to health of Wendell Carter Jr. and Denzel Valentine and the promise of potential stars like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls again appear to have a roster capable of competing with the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
The bar is not that high since everyone was talking about just competing for the playoffs, which is not that great an honor in the NBA since 16 of the 30 teams qualify. But perhaps for teams other than the 76ers and maybe the Bucks as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo remains healthy, the Eastern Conference may be as weak as its been since the mid-1990s and open for new faces.
The Bulls are one among many, like the Hawks, Magic, Heat, Pistons, Nets, Pacers and Celtics. But at least they appear back in the picture.
The opening day revelations and comments suggested why:
"Otto had a great summer in the weight room. He's bigger and stronger, and he's in better condition. Zach is starting to get his man body. His athleticism, speed and quickness, his ankles are healthy. His attitude is unbelievable. He was here the whole month. He's taken it to a whole other level athletically, which is hard to believe. But he has. Wendell Carter is 273 pounds; he's six percent body fat. That tells you he's put some work in. Lauri Markkanen is always in shape, he always works, and he's ready to take his leadership role and play winning basketball. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Thad Young and his ability to talk to our guys in a way that helps them grow and learn. We've added ballers to this team. Coby White, whether he's a one, a two, he's a baller. Shaq's (Harrison) a baller. (Ryan) Archie's a baller. Archie started 12 games at two for us last year. His true position is probably point guard, but he's a baller. Thad Young's a baller. He can play three, four or five. He's a matchup nightmare. That's what this roster is.
"We'd like to play faster, we'd like to get even better with a multi handler system. The thing we've been working on is when a guy brings it up other guys have to run, be in condition to run for 48 minutes; we want to be a solid, good defensive team. One thing we did poorly last year was our deep drive decisions. We have to honor our spacing night in and night out. We have to do a better job of playing point-5 basketball, which is you catch it and either drive it, shoot it or pass it (within a half second). That's what we've been working on."
"We have some guys who are at a time in their careers where they have to step up. That's Zach, that's Lauri, that's Otto. We know we have young guys that know it's their time to step up. We also talked about the fact that they're mature young guys. Wendell can be thrown in that mix, too. He's a very mature 20-year-old young man. That's the reality of this thing. They need to step up, but we have people around them, complements to this team that will help this team a lot."
On health, Paxson did add: "Chandler (Hutchison) is going to be out for a little bit; he had a hamstring injury. We are going to bring him along slowly. Luke Kornet has a little turf toe; he's probably going to be out. Denzel (Valentine) and Wendell are ready to go."
"I knew Chicago was in (the free agent) game. I was really excited that I wanted to end up here and I was so excited about this new team from conversations with coach, with new pieces like Thad as a veteran and a leader. I was all in and fortunately it ended up that way. I came from places where I was taught to play the game the right way and always compete for every game and for every play, and that's not going to change here. I think that's all we want, to compete every game and put ourselves at the end of the game in a position to win the game. I'm new in the NBA only for four seasons, but I've been playing professionally for 12 years and I'm not as vocal as Thad in the locker room, but I hope I can lead by example."
"I remember playing these guys and they played us so hard when I was in Indiana, gave us tough games each and every time. I want to be a part of this, I want to be a part of helping them build something great, building a new culture and just being a leader out there for these guys and just showing them how to win and showing them how we can get ourselves to the playoffs. You have teams that were playoff teams, teams that have potential championships and stuff like that looking at me (in free agency) and wanted to have me come in. But at the end of the day, for me, I think it was more about need than anything. I felt like this team needed me in the process. I felt like this team would give me a chance to come and help lead, help build something, help grow something, and build some culture. Which is what we did in Indiana and it puts me in the same potential place to where I was before, where I can come in and help a team get better and potentially make the playoffs. That was one of the biggest things, taking on that challenge and being ready to go out there and do the unexpected. "A lot of people always say that once you get in between these lines it starts, but it doesn't start in between the lines. It starts in the locker room where we're sitting there shooting the bullcrap. We're sitting there talking and playing amongst each other. It starts in there, building that camaraderie, building that brotherhood with one another and then it translates out to the court. If you don't like each other in the locker room then you're not going to like each other on the court. So we have to make sure that it's all together in there before we step out on the court. Because at the end of the day the coaches can't go out there and play for us, front office can't go out there and play for us. We have to go out there and play for ourselves as a team, a unit, and we have to be unified at all costs and that's the only way we're going to win games, being unified, having a structured situation to where we go out there and play. Making sure we're all together at all times, even if we're going to take some L's in the process. "Hold everybody accountable, including myself. Going out there each and every day, and when these guys see a guy who's going into his 13th season going just as hard, taking charges and diving on the floor for loose balls and stuff like that, it makes them want to go out there and do the same thing. It makes them want to play at a high intensity level. So just bring a lot of intangibles to the game, but also respecting the game and making sure that my teammates are being led the right way and make sure I'm helping them grow their games the right way (Young last season was among the league leaders in charges taken, deflections and loose balls retained)."
Wendell Carter Jr:
"I'm at 100 percent now. I feel a lot better than I have been the last five, six years. So I feel like the surgery was definitely a necessity. I feel like the whole league has changed; a lot of stars have been shifted all around the league. So I feel like it gives us a really, really good opportunity – as long as everybody stays healthy – to make it to the playoffs. Expect to see a lot more aggressive Wendell, but smarter at the same time. Someone who's going to go in, know where I can get my shots from, but know where my bread and butter is, and that's on the defensive side and rebounding. I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team on the offensive end that's realistic. But you'll definitely see a more aggressive, confident Wendell on the offensive end."
Otto Porter Jr:
"I think the mentality of this organization changed since I've come here; just what we want to do here has changed. We've come in early to put in that extra work, to get to know everybody. We got to compete against each other, see who's the best every week (during September games). I think that's something that everybody wanted. But also a time to build that team bonding and team chemistry.
I think Zach (won) the most games, but it was like a tournament. So four different players won.
We want to do something special here and I think it starts by coming together, being around each other and then working together on and off the court, new team, new teammate, new mindset. I think playoffs is definitely an achievement that we want to accomplish. We know it's not going to be easy."
"I want to be able to play all 82 and even more into the playoffs. We (with Markkanen) want to be known as a great combo. We want to take our team to the playoffs. I don't think it's pressure. We expect to be there. On the (All-Star game) dunk contest, it's in the back of my mind. I've had that stage to where I played on Saturday. Obviously, I want to play on Sunday. We both want to play on Sunday. If my legs are at the right way, I feel like maybe I'll do it. (Markkanen smiles and says: "I'm not saying anything that he's doing it or anything like that, I've just seen the stuff he does."). We both played extremely well at times last year. I can speak for myself. I had an All-Star-caliber season, but I didn't take it as that because we didn't win. You're at the All-Star break and have 14 wins. I think everything comes with winning, and I want that to be more important. Because if we're in that position to where we're winning and we're playing the right way and we can make the playoffs, that's going to be enough validation for us being into that (All-Star) game. Let's be realistic, we're the main scouting report on the other team. That's respect from other teams. I draw double teams. He draws double teams. I want to be in that elite group conversation. I think I've put a footprint and took the right step last year, but I was trying to tell people, that's just the floor. Everything comes with winning. I think I'm on the right path."
"Just like Zach, my goal is to play all 82 games and be available every night. I'm trying to become a two-way player, work on my defense because I think that's the key to success – have multiple guys who do it on both ends. One thing we always talk about is the availability. I think the goal for all three of us – obviously Otto was just with us to the end of the year – is to play all 82. For me and Zach, obviously, they talk about becoming more on the defensive end. Just work on that and becoming two-way players. I think that's a big step we can take. Like he said, everything comes from winning. (He's) going into what, sixth year? I'm going into my third year. We haven't made it to the playoffs, haven't won a whole lot of games. That's one thing that I know really pisses both of us off. So we want to get to that winning record first. Obviously, that comes from us playing well and the whole team playing well together. It all starts with winning."