What some might call a demotion, the Bulls called development.
And, really, when you place nine players in double figures for the first time in 50 years, record 35 assists and watch new starters Tomáš Satoranský and Thad Young and new reserves Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr. all impact a 118-95 victory, who can argue?
Forget, for a second, that the Raptors played their second game in two nights and without crucial players like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, out for the league’s health and safety protocols. Focus instead on the way everybody looked inward -- including, in Billy Donovan, the man responsible for the lineup change -- and found a common goal.
“All I want to do is win,” White said.
Added Satoranský: “Everybody only cares about winning.”
Guess what Donovan said?
“In talking to both those guys, they just want to win,” Donovan said of White and Carter.
In this age of COVID-19, who knows if group hugs are allowed? But the Bulls engaged in a symbolic one.
Donovan said he made the change for a variety of reasons and not to single out any player. But both the analytics -- before first substitute, the normal starting unit of White, Carter, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams and Lauri Markkanen owned the worst net rating in the league -- and the eye test led him to the same conclusion.
And in Donovan’s mind, the move doesn’t prevent juggling simultaneously the dual goals of trying to win and developing one of the league’s youngest cores.
“I think there are some people who look at development as just throw a guy out there and let him play through all his mistakes and let him get better. These guys need to learn how to win. The number one component that goes into winning is sacrifice. This was a situation where Coby and Wendell were put in situations to sacrifice,” Donovan said. “They were like, ‘Listen, Billy, if you feel that this is the best thing, that’s fine. We’ll go along with it.’”
Carter took it a step further.
“After the third game of how I’ve been playing, I would’ve benched myself,” the third-year center said.
As the Raptors unveiled a triangle-and-two defense to try to thwart LaVine, Satoranský and Young offered safety valves and precise passing early, helping set the tone for the assist-heavy attack.
Then, two nights after Carter opened a vein in his postgame session with reporters, the big man looked like a different player for reasons beyond the fact he one time ran downcourt wearing a smile of unbridled joy.
On one move, Carter authoritatively pump-faked a jumper and confidently took one dribble and stepped into a better jumper. On another move, he missed a left-handed dunk off his offensive rebound.
This is the kind of decisive, aggressive play that had been missing.
“I see myself as a starter,” Carter said. “I trust Billy a lot. I think I echo that a lot to him and let him know whenever he makes decisions, I'm always behind him. He's been a part of winning teams and he knows what it takes to win. And I wasn't playing well for like the past five or six games, so I understood that he had to switch some things up and it happened to be changing the lineup. I'm here for him and I'm going to do whatever he tells me to do.”
White came off the bench every game but the final one last season. So this wasn’t that big an adjustment for the second-year guard.
“It’s really no process for me. It’s already processed. I know what I’ve got to do,” he said. “I’m not going to let that affect me in any type of way. I’m still going to go be me and play with that joy. Nothing can ever take my joy from the game.”
But Carter had never done so in 112 previous games.
“Wendell’s my dog, so of course we talked about it,” White said. “I told him, ‘Just be aggressive. Be you.’ He did exactly that.”
Carter is the key here. White has proven he can handle coming off the bench. More nights than not, you know what you’re going to get from Satoranský and Young. But if Carter can produce 12 points, 11 rebounds, one block and one steal in 19 minutes, well, he might not be coming off the bench for long.
After all, if one thing has defined Donovan’s brief tenure here to this point, it’s that he’s not afraid to tweak the rotation. He answered “100 percent” when asked if he’d keep an open mind to further lineup changes if needed.
“My intention with the group has always been to try to help them, put them in the best position to win,” Donovan said, turning his view inward. “Am I perfect? No. Am I going to make mistakes? Absolutely. Have I made plenty of mistakes already? Yes, absolutely.
“But I think you have to be prepared as a coach to help the group as best you can. I’ve stolen this line of ‘voluntary cooperation.’ I can’t tell you how unbelievable Coby and Wendell were when I met with them. They were tremendous. It just speaks volumes of them in terms of their character and who they are and I think how they feel about the organization and their teammates and the fact that they really want to win.”
Don’t get it twisted. This wasn’t a democratic decision. Donovan said he allowed anyone who wanted to to talk at the Saturday film session in which he unveiled his plan. But the sense he received is that players knew a change needed to be made.
Carter’s lacerating self-analysis would be an example of that.
“This is good for their development to be quite honest with you because obviously we’re trying to win,” Donovan concluded. “And they’re going through real life experiences that will help them grow and get better as players. I would worry about their development if I told you, ‘Hey, Coby and Wendell didn’t play and we took them out of the rotation.’ They’re still playing. There are still opportunities to grow.
“It’s a good lesson for everybody on our team because I always feel like the sign of a great player is somebody that makes everybody else around them better. And I don’t know if that group starting previously was really functioning like that.
“And I just figured we got to kind of shake it up and maybe look at some other things. I wasn’t necessarily convicted that this was the right thing in terms of this lineup. But I felt very, very convicted that we needed to do something.”
Donovan did something. So did the players. Now, it's on all to keep the momentum rolling.