Bulls Insider

Bulls focused on themselves, not Bucks, Celtics

Eastern Conference heavyweights added Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday while Chicago chose continuity

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Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The days leading up to the start of NBA training camp featured the Milwaukee Bucks adding Damian Lillard and the Boston Celtics nabbing Jrue Holiday, making the Eastern Conference race top-heavy.

But don't tell that to Chicago Bulls newcomer Jevon Carter.

"Thoughts on Milwaukee and Boston? I don't really care. I'm a Chicago Bull," Carter said Monday at the Advocate Center. "I'm not really thinking about Boston or Milwaukee."

That was the pervading mantra from Bulls' media day. Following an offseason in which management tripled down on its core of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls are focused on internal improvement and believe they have what it takes to make some noise.

"Everybody's 0-0 right now," LaVine said. "Obviously, they made some big trade acquisitions, added high-level guards. Obviously, everything looks good on paper. But we put the work in. If you don't believe in your group or your guys, you shouldn't show up.

"I'm looking very much forward to this training camp, us getting off to a good start. Because it's a big season for a lot of people."

Indeed, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas even talked about this core's performance impacting whether or not ownership moving forward enters luxury tax territory, a penalty that Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf only have paid once in franchise history.

"I think we’re at the point where we’re going to go into the luxury tax if we’re confirming this is the group. I think this is just giving more time for this group to figure it out. And I think once you have consistent success, you can go for it," Karnišovas said. "In all my conversations with Jerry and Michael, obviously they have no problem going into it. But we have to make sure it’s the right group. I believe in them. I have faith in them going into this season. We’ll see how the season plays out."

To improve on last season's underwhelming 40-42 season which featured the Bulls beating the Toronto Raptors but losing to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat in the play-in tournament, the Bulls must improve their 24th-ranked offense. Adding Carter, who, coincidentally, arrived from the Bucks, and Torrey Craig should help the Bulls' 3-point attack, which ranked last in the NBA last season.

But the Bulls' offensive goals move beyond just improving their 3-point shooting.

"We’re looking to play faster," Karnišovas said. "We’re going to try and move the ball better."

And so playing in transition and utilizing quick decision-making with more paint attacks in halfcourt settings are focal points.

LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic each had strong seasons individually last season, but it didn't translate to a high-powered offense or victories.

"How do you have three guys at that level offensively and look at the fact that we’re 24th on offense? We shot the ball 11th best of anyone in the league, our effective field goal percentage was good. The key for us was we did not get to the free-throw line. We were 24th or 25th there. And the other part of it was we didn’t have many opportunities to offensive rebound," coach Billy Donovan said. "And the shot profile, to me it’s less about taking more 3s as much as it is how you generate them. Our biggest challenge with this group is we’ve got to get into the paint.

"We’ve got to do a better job spacing, a better job attacking the paint. Because about 85 percent of your fouls are taking place inside the paint. It’s the best opportunity to offensive rebound on those shots. And then the third thing is those are where you get kick-out 3s. I think that’s got to be a real focus for us."

Another offensive wrinkle could be utilizing Vucevic as an offensive hub, taking full advantage of his passing skills.

"That was a big thing for me. It was finding ways to utilize me more," Vucevic said about conversations that informed his decision to re-sign before hitting free agency. "Not so much only for me shooting the ball and scoring but using my playmaking ability to help the team in different ways.

"I think we can see a lot more teams do it and do it at a high level. Obviously you have Denver with (Nikola) Jokić. You have Miami with Bam (Adebayo). Teams like that that use their big man a lot as a playmaker. And I think we also have a team that can function that way, obviously with me and all the guards that we have who can play off the ball. It could make life a lot easier for a lot of our guys.

"I think last year also we were thinking, ‘When Lonzo (Ball) comes back, it’ll be different.’ I think this year we have a clear picture obviously he’s not going to be back and we have to find other ways to run our offense without putting so much pressure on Zach and DeMar handling the ball and scoring, doing everything. So it’s a lot of conversations I had with Billy before I signed and after I signed about what they were thinking and how I could be utilized and where we could do a lot of stuff I like. I think there’s a lot of different options we could do where I could become a playmaker. That could help a lot."

DeRozan played for a Raptors franchise that advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a team that largely stayed intact. So he has seen the continuity route pay dividends. And as the Bulls head to Nashville, Tenn., for the start of training, he is excited for the potential.

"I hate dwelling about the past about anything, but that continuity goes so, so far. You know, sometimes you've got to fail as a group to understand what it takes to even win as a group," he said. "Sometimes you gotta hit the wall hard with a group to understand we are all going to help one another back up.

"And for me, even going out to Nashville and just locking in, getting away from being in the city, where it's just us, really gaining that camaraderie, the chemistry, the understanding of what it takes, what we need to do by knowing how much we failed last year and the things  that put us in a place that, you know, we have to play for a play-in game. We got to go into training camp with that on our heart and we can leave out of there with much more continuity than we had before. That's the one thing that always put me in a position to have success with a team was that continuity."

The Bucks adding Lillard to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Celtics transforming their team with Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis complementing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make them the prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites. DeRozan is ready.

"I love it. I love it. The competition level should want to bring the best out of you and want to compete against that. That’s how I look at it," he said. "And that’s one thing I express to the guys. When you see that, you gotta get more hungry, understanding you want to go against those big teams like that and compete. That should bring the best out of you every single night."

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