With continuity still reigning supreme, it’s up to Donovan to make the Bulls a playoff contender
By Drew Stevens
Billy Donovan told on himself.
On Media Day, while fielding a question about how he planned to breathe new life into the offense around his three best players, the Chicago Bulls head coach mentioned how efficiently Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević scored last season.
To be sure, Vučević (59.4%) turned in the best true-shooting percentage of his career, while both LaVine (60.7%) and DeRozan (59.2%) finished a sprinkle below their high-water marks.
And yet only Charlotte, San Antonio, Detroit, Houston, Orlando and Miami scored fewer points per 100 possessions than the Bulls last season.
“So,” Donovan began, “how do you have three guys at that level offensively and then look at the fact that we’re 24th on offense?”
How indeed, coach?
The Bulls will move forward into a new season tonight with every intention of sprucing things up on that side of the ball. But regardless of how many more shots they take inside the paint, at the charity stripe and from beyond the arc, it will all fall back on Donovan.
Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley made it so.
While the roster certainly doesn’t look any worse with Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter, it’s still one built around B-listers and the idea of two, maybe three, of their supporting cast mates stealing enough of the show to make this season look less like a rerun.
Granted, LaVine could access parts of his game he hasn’t put into practice the past nine years, just like Patrick Williams, Coby White or Ayo Dosunmu could move forward in leaps and bounds.
With so much left to chance, however, the onus is on Donovan to make a playoff contender out of (mostly) the same materials responsible for a 61-70 record since Lonzo Ball met with disaster.
To do so, he has prioritized offensive rebounds and dribble penetration to fetch more whistles, point-blank shot attempts and spot-up threes. He also seems primed to start White alongside LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević — a surprising development to those (me) who thought he would peg Carter for the job, but irrefutable evidence of his intention to get the offense off the ground all the same.
The challenge for Donovan will be keeping everybody, particularly his twin tough-shot makers, as engaged in the process as they were in the first quarter of the preseason opener.
Against a Milwaukee Bucks team that, it must be confessed, was without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Khris Middleton, the Bulls tallied 30 points, launched 11 threes, racked up eight assists on 11 made field-goals and placed seven different players in the scoring column.
It was an encouraging sign, but a fleeting one, too.
“Watching us, I feel like we’re better off now than maybe we were last year,” Donovan said prior to the final dress rehearsal against Minnesota. “But I will say turnovers have really hurt us a great deal. I think the execution has gotta be much better. I think some of the possessions that we have that are stagnant or slow, where we’re just up against the clock, is because the entry point of the possession, the early part of the possession, is not executed very well and the defense is kinda blowing things up.”
With DeRozan and Williams both on the last year of their respective deals, there’ll be additional meaning baked into the next six months.
The stakes probably won’t be as high for Donovan, who owns a 119-124 record over the past four years and had his contract extended before last season.
But he understands them just the same.
“I totally get and understand it’s a result-oriented business,” he said. “I totally get that what makes this place special is they obviously have a really passionate fan base. We also have an enormous amount of history in the past of incredible success. I go about each and every day, trying to work and help our group the best I can.”
This season is riding on his best being better.