Everyone’s got questions as the Bulls begin the 2022-23 NBA season Monday with the annual Media Day interviews.
When will Lonzo return?
Is this the breakout season for Patrick Williams?
Where is the shooting coming from?
And the rebounding?
Anyone ask about Lonzo yet? Oh yeah, me.
Can DeMar repeat the greatest shooting six weeks ever?
Does Zach have to buy now all the time?
Uptempo or half court?
Can an old man still return soup at a deli?
I’ve got answers. That will come.
It looks like it’s going to be the first “normal” NBA season since March 2020. Or at least as normal as the NBA ever is, which to our delight isn’t often.
The Bulls were 21 games under .500 then and fans were ready for masks. Over their eyes.
Much changed for the Bulls since then, and for the better, with a Bulls run that actually had them leading the Eastern Conference the first half of last season, so close that coach Billy Donovan came within a game of coaching the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
Not much to brag about for the Bulls occurred after that, and then to quote John Winger in Stripes, “Depression set in.”
No, I’m not done with 1980s movie references.
The Bulls announced last week that Ball would require another sort of touch up knee surgery to hopefully enhance the previous procedure that put him out last January.
That’s not fatal for the team since there is a substantial inventory of guards with Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu, Coby White, LaVine and really DeRozan, though the latter passes for a forward, probably rookie Dalen Terry and off season acquisition Goran Dragic. There’s also expected to be training camp guards from Summer League like Carlik Jones and Javon Freeman-Liberty.
And there’s some good news. White is healthy after starting the season late last year because of shoulder surgery. LaVine is healthy after a minor knee procedure in the summer. Caruso is healthy after his wrist injury last season, and Patrick Williams is healthy after missing most of last season with a wrist injury.
The bad news, of course, Ball is not healthy, and he’s the one with two-way playing abilities.
Combining with Caruso, Ball was able to speed the Bulls into an elite defensive rating early in the season because of the pressure on the ball. That gave the Bulls a defensive identity they’d lacked for years. And on offense not only did Ball help open the court for DeRozan and LaVine with three-point shooting, but Ball’s fast paced play and distribution enabled the Bulls to play the kind of uptempo game Donovan envisioned. Ball also helped keep the ball moving by pushing the ball and throwing ahead.
LaVine and DeRozan, of course, are better players than Ball. But if one were out the other could handle the increased scoring demands. There’s not really anyone else on the roster who can push the ball, facilitate and shoot quite like Ball.
That’s the big question.
Dragic was signed presumably for Ball insurance, so the Bulls will get some payout from their policy even if they preferred not to. They also signed veteran center Andre Drummond to backup Nikola Vucevic and brought back forward Derrick Jones Jr.
The primary question for the opening of the season is who will start at point guard since Ball is now out, the Bulls said, four to six weeks. And then he will be reevaluated. So there’s a serious job to be considered.
Which leads to strategy and tactics.
Without Ball, how will the Bulls play? How do they want to play? How should they play. Who will play?
Fortunately I am here, so there are answers.
I’m with Donovan in the belief the Bulls should play fast on offense. I don’t believe they can do that often enough without Ball.
So this is what I would do also knowing that Bulls coaches for decades have agreed on one thing, which was to basically ignore my suggestions. It’s apparently enabled a few to win Coach of the Year awards.
Nevertheless, I am again making myself available.
I thought the Bulls wore out last season, though it’s difficult to ascertain precisely since there were so many crucial injuries. But now particularly because of Ball’s absence, the priority should be on a stronger close to the season.
Which means expanding the rotation and playing the regulars fewer minutes early in the season. It was appropriate to push early last season because the Bulls needed to reestablish credibility. They did that. Now they have to do it in the playoffs.
Donovan last season made DeRozan something of the captain of the second unit, which was a smart move to give them some guidance and scoring help. Donovan did it by substituting DeRozan first and then bringing him back early in the second quarter and sometimes the fourth depending on game circumstances.
I’d do a form of that this season, though with Vucevic.
Vucevic last season was the good soldier, but it remained clear there were too many opportunities taken away from him playing with LaVine and DeRozan, who both aimed at scoring 25 points per game. Vucevic sacrificed, but it also seemed to affect his shooting and presence. He’d often be forced to shoot late in the clock when offense broke down. It did especially after Ball went out. Even Donovan admitted the pace became slower.
There’s great hope—please, please, pretty please—for Williams this season. He also misses out on some opportunities playing with high scorers, but he’s naturally reticent. So it’s not as much of an issue since he seems more comfortable just trying to fit in.
All these demands for a breakout are a bit much. As Lech Walesa said, Let Patrick be Patrick.
The Bulls have a relatively small front line when starting DeRozan, Williams and Vucevic. There’s been some talk that perhaps Vucevic should start at power forward with Drummond at center to counter the size deficit. Though with neither being particularly light footed, that likely would impact too much defensively. Williams could respond to that size deficiency at small forward, but there’s probably no way Donovan would bring DeRozan or LaVine off the bench. And neither really should be the point guard, though LaVine has played the position before. And in the Olympics, LaVine did show he can defend the position. So it, nevertheless, is something to consider.
But what I’d do is form two groups, the first a veteran offensive team that would execute. And then be replaced by a high speed, high energy, pressure defensive team that could create turnovers and which would be supported by Vucevic’s scoring, in effect putting Vucevic back in a role he had with Orlando.
Vucevic isn’t the type of big man to screen for scorers and roll to finish. That sounds more like a role playing big man like Drummond.
I’d start Dragic at point guard, LaVine at shooting guard, DeRozan at small forward, Williams at power forward and Drummond at center.
Although it’s been presumed Dragic has been brought in for a bench role, he’s a natural leader and playmaker who still was making big plays this summer in the European tournament. One issue is it becomes an older group with Dragic, 36, and DeRozan, 33. But they’d also likely be playing fewer minutes than before.
And at least for entertainment, the TV broadcast can run a loop of the iconic clip of Derrick Rose jumping over him to dunk in 2010.
I like the idea of Drummond starting at center since he doesn’t have to score. And doesn’t, anyway. He and Williams can provide a defensive presence, and I like Dragic among all the guards for an ability to make plays and run an offense. And he makes clutch threes.
Last season the Bulls benefitted by taking teams by surprise to start the season. Continuity sounds good, but it’s also easier to anticipate.
Then I’d bring in the shock troops, a group of younger, hustling players with Caruso, Dosunmu, Terry, White and then Vucevic for stability and scoring.
I’d have them pressure constantly, sort of like a relay team, picking up in the backcourt and chasing. They could get some relief and support from players like Javonte Green, who also plays that style, and athletic Derrick Jones Jr.
It also could be a group that pushes the ball on offense with Vucevic as a trailer, which is where he made many of his threes last season. In the half court, Vucevic could become the primary scorer like he was with the Magic. Meanwhile, White, Caruso and Dosunmu all are adequate three-point shooters with White and Dosunmu about 38 percent last season. They could provide spacing off Vucevic.
Such a design wouldn’t put as much of a playing time load on the regulars without Ball. And then hopefully if Ball can go full out sometime during the season, the Bulls could build toward the playoffs back with him leading the first unit. But then also have this disruptive second group ready to take the baton and arguably be more prepared for the playoffs.
I know my work here is not done. But I have to assume that knowing I’m available is reassuring to the team.
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