Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- Monday night featured casual conversation following a team dinner, talk that stretched deep into the night.
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Tuesday night, following the Chicago Bulls’ first training camp practice of the season at Belmont University, a team outing to Topgolf loomed.
The Bulls are holding remote training camp for the first time since visiting Beloit (Wis.) College in 1985, Michael Jordan’s second season. And not to get too deep on the decision, but coach Billy Donovan said the genesis stemmed in part from how the world mostly communicates now.
“I don’t think this is necessarily just our team. I think it’s in general with society. These guys have really good relationships. But I think there’s a deeper connection that you’ve gotta have and establish. In today’s society, where everything is done with your phone and there’s Facebook and all these social media platforms, they don’t really connect like you think they’d connect. And the connection part is the communication piece,” Donovan said. “And I thought this was an opportunity for us to get away and connect.
“In a lot of ways, we don’t have to communicate as much as we did in the past because everything can be done by phone or email or text. In talking to those guys, the players really thought it would be a great idea.”
DeMar DeRozan, for one.
“I was all for it,” DeRozan said. “I’m going to be honest: I always hated training camp in the city you played in. We’re going to be in Chicago half the year. So why not just get away going into the season to try to lock in?”
DeRozan is a veteran of remote training camps, having visited various Canadian stops like Vancouver and Montreal when he played for the Toronto Raptors.
“That was a big part of our success, quite honestly,” DeRozan said. “On those trips, we did a lot of stuff that we probably wouldn’t do if we were at home just practicing. And that carried over to the season as far as having each other’s backs.”
During exit meetings last April after a disappointing, 40-42 season and play-in loss to the Miami Heat failed to produce a playoff berth, management heard from enough players to worry about a cohesion problem. It’s not that the players didn’t get along. It’s more that sometimes communication, the ability to have really hard conversations, didn’t always happen to the level of accountability needed.
Losing Patrick Beverley, who Donovan called “the ringleader” for such activities as going to watch NFL games together, added to the equation. And when management largely returned the same team, swapping out Beverley for Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig for Derrick Jones Jr., the decision to practice remotely crystallized.
With input from many, the principal decision-makers settled on Nashville as opposed to somewhere like, say, Las Vegas, another city considered.
“This was convenient,” Donovan said. “Belmont has a great facility; we appreciate them opening it up. It was a one-hour flight from Chicago. The travel just made a lot of sense.
“One of the things we talked about is we’re bringing back the same group. We have to do something different. We can’t just do the same thing and expect everything to be fine.
“It’s not just about going to dinner. It’s about having conversations about really what they need from each other as teammates, how they can help one another. We have to communicate well on the stuff that matters.
“Sometimes they’re not always going to be easy. They’ll be difficult. It’s not personal. They all want to win and come together and figure out ways to do that. But the more they can connect with one another to have those conversations, I think the easier it is.”
And for the first day, when everybody is 0-0 and no issues or injuries have crept into the picture, the returns were positive.
“Today was good, very productive just from a standpoint of everybody being very vocal, on one another, holding each other accountable,” DeRozan said. “As soon as a mistake was made, offensively or defensively, guys were on one another.”
DeRozan said Alex Caruso consistently has been the most vocal over the last two seasons in terms of holding teammates accountable. But Coby White started growing into the role more last season. And Beverley may be gone, but Carter doesn’t plan to sit idly on the sidelines.
“I am,” Carter said, when asked if he’s a vocal leader. “I think I just need to do a better job of learning how to deliver the message. Because everybody's different, not everybody takes everything the same way. So it's just learning the guys and seeing what they like, don't like. But I can say I'm going to voice my opinion.”
This desire to improve cohesion and communication also featured September outings. The Bulls held a softball game at Guaranteed Rate Field and also visited Topgolf in Chicago.
These may seem like small things or rah-rah college stuff. But if the focus to improve the dynamic is coming from the players and from within the organization, perhaps it can lead to on-the-court improvement.
“They’re really good guys and all have good relationships. But there’s a different kind of connection that you have to have in your job to be really, really good,” Donovan said. “I think that was something they all felt they needed to be better at.
“I just think it’s everybody just understanding it. I think I’ve got to do a better job of maybe creating opportunities where we have more discussions. Where it’s not just go to practice and leave practice. Where it’s, ‘Hey, Alex, who did you need more from today? Why did you need more from this guy? Hey, Ayo (Dosunmu), who did a really great job for you today? Hey, DeMar, who in your opinion sacrificed?’ I think those are things where you start the conversation.”
A conversation that leads to the next conversation and the next one, and the one after that.