You never know what you’ll get from an NBA head coach during pregame availabilities. Some like to be brief and keep their game plan close to the chest. Others are expansive about the players on their team and praise their opponent.
Then there’s Billy Donovan.
Last week in Philadelphia before a game against the 76ers, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls gave what sounded like a state of the team speech. It’s understandable given that the reporters present were trying to answer the simplest but most complex question: who are the Bulls?
Donovan didn’t seem to have a clear answer. That’s fair considering the Bulls have dealt with injury woes, inconsistency and questions about whether their stars are a fit. All of this has resulted in a 19-22 record and Chicago clinging to an entry berth in the Eastern Conference.
“I don’t know if I would necessarily say frustrating,” Donovan said, “but the disappointing part for me would be more that we’ve shown who we can be and what we’re capable of. But at the same point, we haven’t done that on a consistent enough basis either.”
The Bulls’ Jekyll and Hyde act apparently manifests itself in agreement with the opponent.
The bad Bulls allowed the mediocre Timberwolves to lose 150 points. The good Bulls followed with three straight road wins. The ill-fated Bulls then followed up with a home loss to the 10-win Rockets. The good Bulls recently snapped the Nets’ blistering winning streak and defeated the rising Sixers.
You get the picture.
All of this leaves VP of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas and GM Marc Eversley in a tight spot. With Lonzo Ball’s long-term status cloudy, Nikola Vucevic’s center on an expiring deal and lingering questions about the fit of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, what should the Bulls bosses do?
“I think [Karnišovas and I are] on the same page and feeling the same way that there are these moments where we show very good hope and promise,” Donovan said. “And then there are moments where we walk away scratching our heads sometimes. For me, as a coach, you’re trying to find those buttons or whatever so that we play more consistently. And obviously, they have to take that responsibility… we all do. …
“And I think when we probably get closer to the [trade deadline]As you size up the team, look at the team, and watch the team, I’m sure those conversations will go a little deeper about how you feel.”
All was well that night in Philly. Sure, the Sixers were missing their superstar big man Joel Embiid, but it was still an impressive win for the Bulls nonetheless. LaVine led the way with an absurd display of gunfire. He hit 11 of 13 3-pointers en route to a 41-point outing.
What might have been more impressive is the way LaVine found his teammates during an absurd warmup. With him seemingly going all out in the second half, the Sixers adjusted and began catching every bunt. LaVine didn’t force anything, instead blasting Philly’s defense in the middle of the court, setting up his teammates to the tune of six assists.
“I think most games like this this year have been like this,” LaVine said. “The way we are trying to play. … It was ok. I dropped him a few times, they double-teamed, and I was able to get him back. So, you didn’t have to force anything.”
And there are special moments with Chicago … mostly because they have special players.
LaVine got it working last Friday and his teammates found it. DeRozan had many big games against the Sixers during his 14-year career. Of the 22 40-point games the 33-year-old has recorded, two have come against Philadelphia. He scored just 12 but had six assists. Vucevic, who struggled all night when the Sixers fell short, posted a triple-double.
The trio combined for 22 assists to just six turnovers. It’s the kind of performance that gives hope.
“This is what I was saying. [pregame] about liking the group,” Donovan said after the game. “DeMar is an elite scorer. Vuc is an elite scorer. They understand that a guy like Zach has it going and they’re … trying to find him, get the ball in his hands.”
Ball’s health makes any Chicago projection difficult. Donovan said he went to camp planning to be without his setter for the foreseeable future. While he’s made progress, it doesn’t look like Ball is anywhere near helping the Bulls.
And let’s not forget what Chicago was able to do last season. After acquiring Ball, DeRozan and Alex Caruso in the previous offseason, the Bulls spent much of the first half on top of the East. Before Ball was shut down on Jan. 14, 2022, Chicago was 22-13 with him in the lineup. Interestingly, they were 19-22 the rest of the way.
While Ball’s injury is the biggest concern, the Bulls have struggled with health as a group. Caruso, who was such a big part of Chicago’s defensive success last season, has been in and out of the lineup with multiple injuries. Javonte Green, who started 45 games for the Bulls last season, has missed significant time with a knee issue. DeRozan, who played in all 41 games this season, also was forced out of Monday night’s loss to the Celtics with a quadriceps injury.
And speaking of knee problems, LaVine’s season got off to a rocky start following knee surgery last May. He missed the first two games of the season and two other contests due to “injury management.”
If his recent performances are any indication, his knee seems healthy.
“Every time I go in [we see how I’m feeling]LaVine said, “because that’s what was discussed at the beginning and what we plan to do and it’s my decision if I want to play, obviously. I think I have the last word. But… certain things: how the calendar is going and then what is best for me and for the team. But when I feel good, I’m on the court. I think if I sleep well tonight, I’ll be fine.”
Narrator: He did well, going down 36 in a win over the Jazz the next night.
So do the Bulls make a move to mitigate the loss of Ball and give the rest of the roster a chance to run? Do they hold their ground, hoping Ball returns, and if he doesn’t, just go looking for them next year? Or do they recover assets in a lost season?
The answer is not clear.
“I feel bad for Lonzo, specifically for being a young player in the prime of his career,” Donovan said, “and he can’t play, so that part is disappointing and frustrating. I just think I got to a place where you just go out with the guys you have and do the best job you can with the guys you have. I think about sitting down and saying ‘What if this? And if that? …
“I went into the season just anticipating that [Ball] he wasn’t going to be available for training camp and he just didn’t know when he was going to be back. You almost have to prepare like you’re not going to be here. And I hope it is, and if it is, it can be a great addition.”
If you’re not sure what to make of the Chicago Bulls, you’re not alone. His head coach said a lot, but he doesn’t seem to have much clarity either.