Bulls Insider

5 takeaways from Bulls' disjointed preseason

With Coby White and Patrick Williams joining lineup, team is trying to establish new identity

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

It sometimes can be difficult to accurately analyze preseason basketball, particularly with a veteran roster that is as focused on health as anything.

For instance, the Bulls finished 1-4 during the preseason, Zach LaVine only appeared in three games and never saw the fourth quarter and Nikola Vučević and DeMar DeRozan only logged limited fourth-quarter action.

Still, for a team that is trying to move off isolation offense and maintain last season’s top-five defense, enough evidence exists to assess the following.

And it’s not like there’s much at stake this season or anything---sarcasm font---except perhaps the future of the franchise. With DeRozan’s contract expiring after this season unless an extension is reached and an expensive core coming off a non-playoff season, the players know what’s at stake.

“I think this is our last shot to make something happen,” Vučević said. “We’re aware of that. It’s on us to deliver.”

The lineup is set

Barring anything funky happening between now and the Oct. 25 regular-season opener against the Oklahoma City, Coby White and Patrick Williams will start alongside the Bulls’ “Big Three.”

“I felt like the last year, there was so much changing position for him. I felt like he’d mature back there and he could handle it,” coach Billy Donovan said of White. “We’ve been together awhile and we have a good relationship. He understands what I want. I’ve got a good understanding of him as player where he’s at his best.”

White downplayed winning the position battle.

“I haven’t done nothing yet. If I am the starting point guard, I have to keep growing obviously. I want to be a leader of this team,” he said. “Being vocal, contolling the team, getting teammates in spots where they like the ball and picking my times to be aggressive and get to the paint and force kickouts and just continue to create. I feel like the main thing for me coming into training camp was expanding on my leadership role.”

As for Williams, he closed the preseason in strong fashion with two aggressive games sandwiched around an early hook and challenge from Donovan. Even though he didn’t shoot the ball well in the preseason finale, he grabbed a preseason-high five rebounds and tried to dunk over Rudy Gobert.

“I think Patrick continues to evolve. He has played well,” Donovan said. “I think you also look at a fact of bringing Jevon (Carter), Alex (Caruso) and Torrey (Craig), there’s a good defensive mentality and energy there.”

Indeed, this trio coming off the bench together is as much a part of Donovan’s decision as anything. And it certainly won’t surprise to see at least Caruso and perhaps Craig play in closing lineups.

Offense is a mixed bag

Donovan said he liked the way the team tried to play as far as making quicker decisions and not stagnating and relying on isolation play as much in the halfcourt. He also liked the improvement in paint attacks and offensive rebounding. The Bulls rank third in offensive rebounding percentage during the preseason.

But limiting turnovers, which the Bulls have done well with in recent seasons, needs to improve. And for all the talk about increasing 3-point volume, the Bulls ranked 28th with just 32.8 per game.

“I think we’ve taken some good steps in areas we’ve talked about, playing with more pace and having more ball movement and not being as stagnant, not a lot of ball-watching,” Vučević said.

Utilizing Vučević as an offensive hub with more off-ball actions served as a popular theme during the Bulls’ week of training camp in Nashville. But it didn’t materialize itself as much during the preseason games, although Vučević was in more dribble handoff situations in the final two games.

“I think it helps our offense. We don’t have to be so pick-and-roll dominated,” Vučević said. “We can run different actions and we have guys who are really good cutters on this team. I think also for them it’s learning to manipulate those two- and three-man actions when I have the ball up top or at the elbows. Just have to continue to work at it.”

The Bulls ranked 20th with an offensive rating of 105.6.

LaVine looks elite

Despite resting one game and missing the finale with an illness that the team doesn’t think is a long-term issue, LaVine looks springy and athletic.

“I feel like myself,” LaVine said recently.

LaVine has talked about using this summer to work out rather than rehab, which he did during the 2022 offseason following a left knee scope. He also became a father that summer for the first time.

It’s showing in his finishing, where he shot 13-for-17 at the rim. Once his 3-point shot rounds into form---he shot just 31.6 percent during the preseason---he’s on track to be a lethal, three-level scorer again. In fact, Donovan wants LaVine taking upwards of the seven to eight attempts he has averaged over the past four seasons.

“I think he knows---and one of the things he spent a lot of time on this summer---is maybe missed opportunities last year on some catch-and-shoot opportunities,” Donovan said. “I think he’s trying to find ways that he can create more of those for our team because we’re a team that hasn’t taken a lot of 3s. And he’s the one guy who shoots it so effortlessly.

“I always think he’s working on things to try to get better. I think him and Vooch in pick-and-roll is something we need to keep getting better at as a team. Those two guys are invested. He definitely doesn’t have the attitude of, ‘Hey, I am who I am. I’ve arrived. I’m going to show up and get 25 a night.’ He’s trying to take another jump as a player.”

DeRozan's scoring could drop

At first, DeRozan downplayed a question about his role changing.

“Nah, not at all,” he said. “For me, it’s just feeling it out.”

But it’s clear from Donovan’s desire to play faster that DeRozan’s isolation chances could drop.

“I think there has to be a balance,” Donovan said. “DeMar, I love working with him because he’s always about the team. And I think if we become so iso-heavy, I think he even knows, that’s only going to take us so far. In play-calling situations, I think we can go to him. But we have to get the ball downhill and spray the ball out.

“The numbers are pretty drastic. Those three guys [DeRozan, LaVine, Vučević] had either the first or second-best years of their long careers in terms of offensive efficiency and we were 24th on offense. So our spacing has to be better. We have to get downhill and generate more offensive rebounds. We’re not going to solve everything. And DeMar has been great in understanding the bigger picture. There will be plenty of time for him. He has played in plenty of systems. He’s an elite offensive player. He has an incredibly high basketball IQ. As he says, I’ll find my way.”

In fact, that’s exactly what DeRozan said.

“You got to be ready to adjust for whenever. At the end of the day, it’s basketball. All my career, whatever is asked from me personally, I try to do that to the best of my ability and use my basketball IQ to heighten that. So it’s not a concern of mine,” DeRozan said. “I don’t overthink it. I do what’s asked of me from a team perspective.”

Stay tuned.

Defense needs to improve

The Bulls ranked 21st with a defensive rating of 109.3.

Despite adding defensive-minded players in Carter and Craig, Donovan said he doesn’t know if the Bulls can repeat a top-five defense. But he knows he can play better at that end than what they’ve shown to this point.

“I think Torrey and Jevon are learning new terminology. And those two guys are not the problem. They’ve always been very good defenders,” Donovan said. “But last year, we got really, really good defending with five people. We’re not helping each other enough. We’re not in gaps. We’re not where we should be. We’re not protecting the rim. We’re not there for each other on a consistent enough basis. We’re getting spread out.

“For our team, we have to be in the right gaps at the right time. Alex and Lonzo (Ball), those guys blew up half the stuff that took place on the perimeter. We’re not that type of team anymore. We have to do it collectively with five. And they all have to be willing to help each other.”

For the Bulls to reach their full potential this season, helping each other at both ends will be crucial. The preseason is over. The Bulls took Friday off and then start preparing for next week’s opener. That’s when the games get real.

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