“Me and Billy have a good relationship,” Zach LaVine was saying after Bulls practice Sunday in the wake of his unprecedented late game benching in the Bulls still can-you-believe-it 108-107 Friday loss to the Orlando Magic. “We talk all the time. We’re grown men, it’s a grown man’s business. There’s gonna be uncomfortable days. Just like in any sport or any business, you’re not gonna agree on every decision made. So you talk about it, you move on from it and you understand where the other side is coming from.”
And Billy’s OK with Zach.
“I always feel like I can say anything to Zach and I think he can say anything to me,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan added. “I’m not going to love everything they (players) say to me, and they’re not going to love everything I say to them. It comes back to your intentions and what you’re trying to do. Like anything else in a relationship or family, not everybody’s going to see eye to eye on everything. The thing I’ve always respected about Zach is he’s got as good of a heart… as good of a person as you’re going to find. He’s always been a good person. He’s been a really, really good guy.”
I don’t believe they hugged, even if everyone perhaps felt they should have, or were ready to shed a tear.
Now onto the real elephant in the room, or the Bulls in the china shop, as it were. Or that mess on the floor, which is the Bulls 6-10 record preparing Monday in the United Center to face the Boston Celtics, who are both the best and hottest team in the NBA, 13-3 overall with a nine-game winning streak .
And as counterintuitive as it may seem, the Bulls might just have a better chance to win against the Celtics than they did in their previous games against New Orleans and Orlando.
It’s all about matchups in the NBA, we like to say.
Boston is small, like the Bulls, and not a particularly athletic team. Unlike young teams like the Pelicans and Magic, big teams with tall players and explosive athletes who jumped on the Bulls early and produced those first quarter Bulls deficits.
The Celtics, like the Bulls, depend more on sophisticated high scorers and veteran savvy, although the Celtics have done so with somewhat more defensive identity. So, OK, the Bulls may not be a team destined for the NBA Finals as the Celtics seem to be after an appearance last season.
But about this time last season, it was the Celtics in crisis as the Bulls have appeared to be these last few days with this Donovan-LaVine kerfuffle.
It was a year ago earlier in November when the Celtics blew a big lead to the Bulls and ended up losing by double digits. Celtics guard Marcus Smart suggested what everyone was afraid of, mounting their elephant, that Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown perhaps were, let’s say, mutually exclusive, that their gears didn’t exactly mesh. Nor cared to. And so falling to 2-5 began months of trade suggestions and speculation, a .500 Celtics team on January 28 that ended the regular season with 51 wins and a loss in the NBA Finals.
No one doubts Tatum and Brown now.
And no one needs to doubt Donovan and LaVine.
They both were right, and if Vučević makes those free throws…
It is unusual in the NBA when no matter how he is playing your 1 or 1A player gets benched at the end of a close game. After all, it’s always said in the NBA about shooters that if they are zero for 10, they should keep shooting because the next one is likely to go in. And LaVine is the best shooter on the team, at least from three-point range.
Which was LaVine’s point.
“I’m a competitive guy, I want to play,” LaVine reiterated. “I just told him I feel like I’ve earned the right to go out there and try to play through a bad game. Everybody has a career-low night. Mine happened to be that night. Do I think I could have played better? Of course. I also have the mentality of, if I was able to go out there, I think I could’ve helped the team win. If I went one-for-20, I would’ve been fine with that. I just wish I had an opportunity to go out there and try to make a couple more shots.”
Which is what you want from your best players, to be competitors and want the ball.
We always hear about guys who are “not afraid” and we celebrate that. I actually think that’s specious because you don’t get to the NBA without having taken and made loads of big shots. But you wouldn’t want your top players to be satisfied or relieved not to be in the game.
Similarly, you wouldn’t want your coach being afraid to take that player out or to make a move the coach believes is necessary to win the game.
“I felt like at that point in time it was the right thing for our team,” said Donovan. “I own the decision; it was my decision. I think he knows that I’ll always try to put the team first and do what’s best for the team. I also respect him from the point of view he thought he needed to be out there.
“There have been times where maybe Vooch didn’t close the game, but maybe sat longer because Andre (Drummond) was playing well,” Donovan pointed out. “The decisions I’m making, I’m going off my gut and off my eyes. I know that’s not 100 percent foolproof. There are going to be times I’m going to look back and say, ‘That wasn’t a very good decision. I probably needed to do something else.’ At that moment, could he have been out there for the two free throws (instead of Vučević)? Yeah, maybe. Maybe he gets the ball, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he makes both free throws and the game is over. Maybe Vooch makes both free throws. It didn’t work out.”
It sometimes seemed like no matter the circumstances Donovan like most coaches defaulted to going with his best players and living with the results. Which is the typical script in sports. But good for him that he tried something else in an attempt to win. It’s not like we’re likely to see it often. Or LaVine with four points on one of 14 shooting.
Everyone likes to attribute too much to the coach, which is why he generally becomes the first casualty of a loser or excessively acclaimed with a winner. The NBA probably is mostly responsible for that by making the coaches speak with the media every day instead of those who put together the team.
Bulls expansion coach Johnny Kerr once explained it best: “Who needs five guys running around with your paycheck?”
Draw up whatever you want and put in whoever you want.
There really are no geniuses or dunces in coaching.
It comes down to what the guys on the game do.
I’m quite sure in the wake of this hoo-hah we’re not going to see this kind of thing again.
Although I think Donovan could do something else.
There’s been talk all season of starting Javonte Green, who Friday almost was the star of a game where someone else scored 41 points with his emotional play that almost stole a Bulls win from a 10-point deficit. The theory is Green would supply that brio and spirit.
I believe Green is right where he should be, coming off the bench in that classic role of energizer, if not so much for the scoring. The debate has been about replacing the sometimes languid Patrick Williams with Green. But the Bulls need Williams’ size, and he has played better in recent weeks.
What the Bulls really need in my view is Alex Caruso starting at point guard.
I thought going into the season without Lonzo Ball that Goran Dragić would be the best replacement. He is the best pure point guard on the roster, leading the team in assists per minute by a lot. But Donovan has been correct to try to limit his playing time given his age and playing for his country in the summer.
There’s not much for now the Bulls can do about the three-point shooting deficits, especially against these young teams with players who grew up not realizing you once didn’t get an extra point for being a chukker. Donovan seems to understand that and has consistently advocated for disruptive play and transition scoring.
Ayo Dosunmu is probably the new management’s best draft pick, a dedicated hard worker. But he’s not a point guard to run an offense. I understand the Bulls need one, and good kid that he is, he’s trying to be one. But it’s where teams often fail with young players by trying to make them who they aren’t because the team needs them to be who the team needs.
Maybe Dosunmu will get there with time like former Bulls Horace Grant and John Paxson.
The Bulls needed a point guard in the 1980s to play with Michael Jordan and knew Paxson wasn’t one. So they repeatedly traded and signed, Kyle Macy, Rory Sparrow, Sedale Threatt, Steve Colter, Sam Vincent, all brought in to replace Paxson. Until Paxson outlasted them all and with time became Jordan’s favorite point guard and a hero of two NBA championship game clinchers.
Similarly with Grant, whose twin brother became a small forward. At 195 pounds coming to the Bulls, so was Horace. But the Bulls had to trade Charles Oakley because they needed a center in Bill Cartwright. So the Bulls drafted collegiate star power forward Stacey King. But Grant bulked up and held off the physical giants of the Eastern Conference to become the vital third star of the Bulls’ first three championship teams. They grew into those roles. It takes time.
The Bulls don’t have a lot of time now with their veteran Big Three.
It’s often the fatal flaw of those blow-it-up rebuilding projects that fans and media suggest when things are going badly. And then they are impatient with the immediate lack of results. It often forces teams to expedite and seek more of the kids than they are ready for. We’re seeing that with Lauri Markkanen, whom the Bulls needed to be tougher and more physical and nobody was too upset when he was traded. And to some extent with Coby White, who they often shoe-horned into a point guard role because they needed one. It happens with all the rebuilding teams until they luck into a transcendent star or are able to trade one.
Now the Bulls need more activity and thrust to start games, and perhaps the manic Caruso can help provide that.
He’s really the closest player the Bulls have to Lonzo Ball with spot-up three-point shooting and pressure on the ball and with the ball.
After a slow start shooting threes, Caruso is now up to 36 percent, fifth on the team. More significantly, on the team he’s second to Dragić in assists per minute, first in steals and second in blocks. Yes, second in blocks, two behind Williams. And by far first in deflections, where Caruso is second overall in the NBA to Paul George. I don’t believe they keep the statistics in the NBA’s repository of the arcane, but Caruso also has to be among the league leaders in forcing offensive fouls by fighting over screens. I think most are called incorrectly, but since it’s a point of emphasis this season, the officials call more to get better grades. Caruso is smart enough to know that.
He would also help speed up the game, which has been an obvious flaw in those slow starts by giving opponents a chance to set up and shoot those deficit-producing threes.
When you start the season 6-10 as the Bulls have at a time when the belief was that this season could be more than a pot boiler, then there’s inevitably going to be some boiling over. But it doesn’t mean the pot has to be ruined.
“I don’t want to get this blown out of proportion to the point we’re talking about a loss,” said LaVine. “We’ve had multiple losses this year (but we’ve) got a lot of games left. We’re all good. I think he understands where I’m coming from. And I understand his decisions as a coach that he has to make are tough. Even if your players don’t agree with it. That’s just what it is.”
“Try,” LaVine said, “to have more than four points.”
That could have changed the outcome Friday. Perhaps it will be Monday.
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