The Chicago Bulls pushed their chips to the middle of the table at last season’s trade deadline, acquiring Nic Vucevic at the cost of two future first-round picks plus a recent lottery pick. They doubled down over the summer, spending $85 million apiece to add veterans DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to support dynamic scorer Zach LaVine.
If Chicago isn’t a top-10 offense when all is said and done, there will be a lot of surprised observers around the NBA – and a lot of nervous energy running through the Bulls front office.
The Pistons limited that amalgamation of talent to 94 points in Wednesday’s season opener, a defensive showing that Dwane Casey will take happily 81 more times. They also took the loss because (a) they remain frightfully young and (b) frightfully young teams lose more than their share of games that come down to the final five minutes with the outcome in the balance.
“We held them under 100. They’re a great offensive team,” 20-year-old Isaiah Stewart said after Wednesday’s 94-88 loss. “So what we do, we hang our hats on defense and I think that showed tonight.”
Stewart is being mentored these days by Ben Wallace, who sat under the basket near the Pistons bench and surely appreciated the way his protégé banged with Vucevic, who struggled with Stewart’s physical play, shooting 7 of 21 and doing most of his damage when Stewart sat. If the Pistons grow into the defensive behemoth they strive to be, Stewart will be at the heart of it.
But you can’t warp time and the Pistons are starting three second-year players in Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Killian Hayes and they’ll add a third 20-year-old to that unit when No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham returns from an ankle injury. The Bulls, meanwhile, have in LaVine, Vucevic and DeRozan three players who’ve long been accustomed to having the ball in their hands at the end of taut games.
“Experience is huge,” said Jerami Grant, the only Pistons starter with any appreciable NBA experience, even if he’s only been the featured scorer since arriving in Detroit less than a year ago. “We’re fine. We’re growing. We’re learning from this throughout the year and we’ll get better as the games go on.”
When Grant and LaVine, summer teammates as the United States won the Olympic gold medal, checked into the game simultaneously with 6:31 to play and the Pistons ahead by a point, Casey understood it was advantage Bulls for what the experience of having multiple closers meant.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Casey said. “And they had (Alex) Caruso out there, an excellent defender, on Jerami, who won a championship. He’s a guy who can also close. They had a whole group of guys out there who are closers.”
Casey lamented the 17 turnovers and the 21.4 percent 3-point shooting (6 of 28), but the Bulls matched their 17 turnovers and weren’t appreciably more productive from the 3-point arc at 30.4 percent (7 of 23). The Pistons also battled to a draw off the glass at 47 apiece, an area Casey was wary might be a vulnerability coming out of preseason.
The difference in the game, really, came down to Chicago having more bullets in its chamber in the stretch run when the whistles come a little less frequently and bucket getters become the game’s most valuable commodity.
“We held that team to, what, 43 percent? Thirty percent from three? I have to go back and look at the tape, but I think all the shots were challenged, tough shots,” Casey said. “LaVine (34 points, 23 after halftime) is who he was. DeRozan made some tough shots over length. Our biggest concern was our scoring. We’ve got to be able to score. I knew we would compete, play hard.”
That they did. Like last season, the Pistons will evaluate their season in ways more nuanced that merely looking at the standings. A big part of measuring its success will be how far they come in being seen as a team others dread to see on the schedule.
“On the defensive end, we came ready to play,” Grant said. “We held ’em to 14 points in the first quarter. We did a good job on the defensive end. We’ve just got to make a couple more shots and we’ll be fine.”