You never know what you’re going to get from an NBA head coach during pregame availabilities. Some like to keep it brief and keep their game plan close to the chest. Others are expansive about players from their team and complimentary of their opponent.
Then there’s Billy Donovan.
Last week in Philadelphia ahead of a game against the 76ers, the Chicago Bulls head coach gave what felt like a state of the team address. It’s understandable given the reporters on hand were trying to get the simplest yet most complex question answered: 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 fit. All of it has resulted in a 19-22 record and Chicago clinging to a play-in spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I don’t know if I would say necessarily frustrating,” Donovan said, “but the disappointing part to me would be more of we’ve shown who we can be and what we’re capable of. But at the same point, too, we haven’t done it on a consistent enough basis.”
The Bulls’ Jekyll and Hyde act seemingly manifests according to the opponent.
The bad Bulls allowed the middling Timberwolves to drop 150 points. The good Bulls followed that up with three straight win road wins. The bad Bulls then followed that up with a home loss to the 10-win Rockets. The good Bulls recently snapped the scorching hot Nets winning streak and took down the surging Sixers.
You get the picture.
All of this leaves vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas and GM Marc Eversley in a tough spot. With the long-term status of Lonzo Ball murky, center Nikola Vucevic on an expiring deal, and questions lingering about the fit of Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, what is the Bulls’ brass to do?
“I think [Karnišovas and I are] on the same page and feel the same way that there’s these moments that we show really good hope and promise,” Donovan said. “And then there’s times we kind of walk away scratching our heads sometimes. For me, as a coach, you’re trying to find those buttons or whatever it is to get us to play more consistently. And obviously, they’ve got to take that responsibility ... we all do. ...
“And I think when we get probably closer to the [trade deadline], as he’s evaluating the team, and looking at the team and watching the team, I’m sure those conversations will get a little bit deeper of how he feels.”
All was right during 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. LaVine led the way with a preposterous shooting display. He hit 11-of-13 threes on his way to a 41-point outing.
What might have been more impressive is the way LaVine still found his teammates during an absurd heater. As he seemingly was making everything in the second half, the Sixers adjusted and began trapping every touch. LaVine didn’t force anything, instead he exploited Philly’s defense in the middle of the floor, setting up his teammates to the tune of six assists.
“I think most of the games like that this year has been that way,” LaVine said. “The way we’re trying to play. ... It was good. I gave it up a couple times, they double teamed, and I was able to get it back. So, you didn’t have to force anything.”
And there are special moments with Chicago ... mostly because they have special players.
LaVine had it going last Friday and his teammates found him. DeRozan’s 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 of them have come against Philly. He scored just 12 but had six assists. Vucevic, who had mismatches all night as the Sixers went small, recorded a triple-double.
The trio combined for 22 assists to just six turnovers. It’s the kind of performance that provides hope.
“This is what I was saying [pregame] about liking the group,” Donovan said postgame. “DeMar’s an elite scorer. Vuc is an elite scorer. They understand a guy like Zach has got it going and they’re ... trying to find him, put the ball in his hands.”
The health of Ball makes any projection of Chicago difficult. Donovan said he went into camp planning to be without his point guard for the foreseeable future. While he’s made progress, it doesn’t sound like Ball is close to being able help the Bulls.
And let’s not forget what Chicago was able to do last season. After acquiring Ball, DeRozan and Alex Caruso the previous offseason, the Bulls spent much of the first half at the top of the East. Before Ball was shut down on Jan. 14, 2022, Chicago was 22-13 with him in the lineup. Funny enough, they were 19-22 the rest of the way.
While Ball’s injury is the most serious concern, the Bulls have struggled with health as a group. Caruso, who was such a big part of Chicago’s success on defense 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’s played in all 41 games this season, was also forced to leave Monday night’s loss to the Celtics with a quad injury.
And speaking of knee issues, 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 because of “injury management.”
If his recent performances are any indication, his knee appears healthy.
“Every back-to-back I go into [we see how I’m feeling],” LaVine said, “because that’s what was discussed in the beginning and what we planned out to do and it’s my decision if I want to play, obviously. I think I have final say so. But ... certain things — how the schedule goes and then what’s best for me moving forward and the team. But when I’m feeling good, I’m on the court. I think if I get a good night’s sleep tonight, I’ll be OK.”
Narrator: He was OK, dropping 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 shot at making a run? Do they stand pat, hoping Ball comes backs — and if he doesn’t, just go get ‘em next year? Or do they recoup assets in a lost season?
The answer isn’t clear.
“I feel bad for Lonzo just specifically being a young player in the prime of his career,” Donovan said, “and he can’t play so that that part of it is disappointing and frustrating. I just think that I’ve gotten to a place where you just kind of go out with the guys that you have, and you do the best job you can with the guys you have. I think to sit around and say ‘What if this? What if that?’ ...
“I kind of went into the season just anticipating that [Ball] was not going to be available for training camp and just not knowing when he was going to come back. You almost got to prepare like he’s just not going to be here. And I hope he is and if he is it can be a great addition.”
If you’re unsure what to makes of the Chicago Bulls, you’re not alone. Their head coach said a lot, but doesn’t appear to have much clarity, either.