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Bulls mailbag: Vučević's future, Williams' ceiling


The sky is falling. That’s the broad brushstroke theme to this edition of the Chicago Bulls’ mailbag, which featured some truly wild questions.

Trade DeMar DeRozan. Fire Billy Donovan. The Bulls are headed to the playoffs — flaws and all — at last check. Aren’t they?

That’s my question. On to yours...

Nikola Vučević does a lot of things valuable to the Bulls for sure. But when it comes to his future, do you see a trade going down in the offseason built around him or potentially DeMar DeRozan? — Pokes S.

Even if DeRozan doesn’t match this season’s performance, which certainly is likely given he’s having a career season in Year 13, trading him would be foolish unless it’s part of some currently unforeseen blockbuster for an All-NBA player. Even then, it might not be prudent. DeRozan not only has helped lift this franchise up with his play, but also with his stature around the league. That’s not insignificant.

Vučević has a declining and expiring deal. But he also was specifically targeted by this management team at last season’s trade deadline and his trade price wasn’t cheap. Like DeRozan, he’d likely only be dealt if it’s for some All-Star caliber player who either suddenly becomes disgruntled or whose team suddenly decides to shake things up.

I’m talking names like Anthony Davis if the Lakers decide to make drastic changes following a wildly disappointing season or Rudy Gobert if Utah flames out in the postseason again or DeAndre Ayton is his restricted free agency becomes messy. To be clear, all of these are extreme longshot scenarios. I expect both DeRozan and Vučević to return.

Given the investment with this roster and the impending status as a luxury tax team and lack of draft capital, do you believe Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley would consider a coaching change after the season in an effort to raise the ceiling of the team? Perhaps a coach, whomever it may be, that can better hide the weaknesses on the defensive end and get the most out of Patrick Williams? — Kristian B. 

To directly quote the great Rajon Rondo: “Um, let me see how I can answer this. No.”

(By the way, Rondo offered that classic quote after we once asked him if then-coach Fred Hoiberg had communicated to him why he dropped out of the rotation.)

Coming into the 2021-22 season, my expectations for this team were to simply make the playoffs and finish as a 3-6 seed with about 47-50 wins. That goal still seems possible. I’ve always viewed the DeRozan and Vučević acquisitions as short-term, two- to three-year moves to make the Bulls relevant again and give the team much-needed playoff experience while giving the younger guys like Pat Williams, Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Lonzo Ball (to a lesser degree) time to develop. It just seemed like a nice enough balance to get a guy like Zach LaVine, who seemed clearly tired of carrying lottery teams, to buy in long-term. I’ve always been of the belief that this team only goes as far as a 100 percent healthy LaVine can take them. As DeRozan — who has been otherworldly this season — gets older and Vooch starts to fade, Williams has to emerge as a star in the next two to three years. I joined the PWill hype train around the time he was drafted and his scrimmages with Trae Young and Spencer Dinwiddie surfaced. That kid has the complete package, just needs time to develop. He has a good IQ and feel for the game, but he often defers too much. With the assumption that he’ll grow out of that deferring nature that’s been handcuffing his on-court development, what do you believe the ceiling is for Patrick Williams? — Shaq W.

What is this balanced question doing in this mailbag?

That goal not only seems possible but likely. I’m terrible at predictions but placed the Bulls sixth with 45 victories before the season. At this point, it certainly looks like they may finish fifth and be right in the neighborhood of both of our victory total predictions.

Obviously, it would have been intriguing to see what a mostly healthy team could’ve accomplished. But plenty of teams can say the same, and some fundamental flaws have emerged that transcend the long-term absences of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

As for Williams, I agree with your assessment that he needs to develop into a star. That’s what the projection for high lottery picks is and remember: He was selected at a time most assumed the new regime could build around the young talent it inherited. That only underscores that projected need.

A talent evaluator I respect greatly who worked for another team is convinced Williams has the physical and athletic tools to be one of the best players from that draft. He told me that then and again recently, even though Williams has lost most of this season to injury. Obviously, plenty of question marks remain.

Where I most agree with your points is management’s desire to immediately gain relevance. AKME and staff analyzed the young players it inherited, concluded it wasn’t for them and pushed chip after chip in — or should I say first-round pick after first-round pick? — to acquire established veterans. But all management teams balance short- and long-term plans. The Bulls surely have multiple avenues mapped out for what happens beyond these contracts for DeRozan and Vučević. Re-sign them? Sign-and-trade them? Let them walk for cap space? Underpinning whatever direction occurs, Williams’ development is critical.

Can you ask Patrick Williams why he uses his left hand for dribbling basically all the time? It makes him slower instead of using his right hand.  When he’s driving, he should use his strong hand more to get more speed because he’s naturally slow and very easy to defend. I think AK missed on both 2020 picks. — William B.

Back to the apocalypse...

Williams played a lot of point guard in high school before he hit a growth spurt and always has preferred that hand as his prominent ballhandling tack. I’ve seen him attack from the right side with his right hand, and he certainly has shown the ability to finish with either hand.

It’s too early to judge draft picks, particularly with how atypical the last two seasons have transpired with COVID-19 and Williams’ injury. I’d agree that Marko Simonović hasn’t looked like an NBA player yet.

Are you able to provide insight into what exactly the player development staff does with Patrick Williams? AKME revamped that department, and PWill is clearly their No. 1 priority given he's a No. 4 overall pick. — Alejandro Y.

This is suddenly becoming the honorary Patrick Williams edition of the Bulls mailbag.

The player development staff is multi-faceted. Plenty of it is centered on working out the low-minute and out-of-rotation players. Management hired a bunch of players with college or international experience, and full-court runs are the norm following practices and shootaround and walkthroughs.

Much of Williams’ development while he was injured came via film study, which mostly was done with the regular coaching staff. He even was in on scouting report meetings.

But the player development also extends to work with the team’s director of mental health and director of performance health. This can range from everything to proper sleep and diet.

I know everyone calls DeMar DeRozan “Mr. 4th quarter.” But do you think Zach LaVine deserves more touches in the fourth if he has been the hot hand all night? — C.K.

The game tells you what shots to take. Especially when you have players as unselfish as DeRozan and LaVine. And trust me: LaVine does not care who’s getting the shots as long as his team wins.

Either player possesses the ability to get his own shot on basically any possession. Not all of them would be the right shots or great shots, to be sure. But DeRozan long has been one of the game’s best clutch players. LaVine still is growing into that role.

There are a few questions I’m going to write up for you. Hopefully, you’ll answer them. 

What’s the probability of Lonzo Ball playing in the first round of the playoffs?

What’s going on with Billy Donovan as far as giving minutes to players that don’t deserve them like Coby White and not giving the minutes to Troy Brown Jr., Matt Thomas or Malcolm Hill? 

Why doesn’t Donovan ever play Vooch and Tristan Thompson together? 

What adjustments have been recently made in order to win since the All-Star break? 

Is the front office still in it for this year or shifting their focus to next year and the offseason?

Why doesn’t Billy run plays for Zach LaVine in ways that Doc Rivers used to run for Ray Allen, Steve Kerr for Klay Thompson, Tom Thibodeau for Kyle Korver where he will get a few open 3-pointers from the corner? — Danny M.

May I suggest decaf, my man? That’s six questions. I’ll answer them in rapid fire.

The Bulls haven’t officially ruled Ball out for the season. But it’s trending that way.

Coby White is better than all of those players.

He did. It didn’t go well.

He has mixed up his pick-and-roll coverage and changed starting lineups more than once.

As previously mentioned, all management teams simultaneously focus on the short- and long-term. This regime is fully invested in both.

LaVine gets plenty of open looks from the corner. He has attempted 69 corner 3-pointers as of this writing. For comparison, Steph Curry has attempted 76.

I have a few things, so I’ll just dump them out for you.

Why is it that everyone but the Bulls, I’ll even say specifically Vooch, can see we cannot defend the pick and roll?

Following that, what does it have to take to get our bigs involved but also to just stay in the paint?

Patrick Williams is a humongous opportunity but entirely an opportunity. What is not being done to develop him the way he needs? He has no fight in him.

With Patrick Williams and Coby White, they both have tremendous potential but are so inconsistent. How do the Bulls press the importance of consistency and stability in the bench role?

Derrick Jones Jr. should be playing over Tristan Thompson. I don’t understand what is going on there.

Billy’s rotations make absolutely no sense the entire second half of the game and I don’t feel like anyone seems to care about this slump. Who do you think should be utilized off the bench more/less?

Zach and Deebo could potentially leave after this season, and given the inability to actually contend with above .500 teams, at this point what would make them stay? If they leave, do the Bulls rebuild around PWill, Caruso and Lonzo, or Ayo? — Jourdan G.

Not to be outdone, my guy Jourdan asked seven questions. This is remarkable and perhaps unprecedented in my 25 years of doing Bulls mailbags.

This is a safe space for Bulls fans. I feel you needed to vent. So rather than answer your questions in rapid-fire fashion, or even all of them, I’ll just touch on some broader themes.

Before the recent road game against the Knicks, Donovan engaged in a fascinating conversation with beat writers about the Bulls’ pick-and-roll defense. It centered mostly on semantics. Donovan insisted the Bulls don’t play a drop defense and want Vučević at the level of the screen. Without Ball and Caruso healthy for long stretches to unleash their elite point-of-attack defense, the Bulls’ pick-and-roll coverages have suffered. Vučević is who he is. I actually thought he was having a solid team defensive season in the early stages of the season, tied to Ball’s and Caruso’s ability to blow up actions. Donovan actually has been trying some occasional double-teaming here of late to offer different looks in coverages.

Donovan has fielded questions about Thompson over Jones Jr. It’s pretty clear this is the direction he has chosen. It’s certainly a more traditional one for playoff basketball, particularly with some of the larger front lines the Bulls could face in the first round.

DeRozan can’t leave after this season. LaVine can but has reiterated multiple times his main focus is returning. So let’s hold off on building around Dosunmu or whoever the heck you listed for now.

P.S. I’m exhausted.

Do you think Ayo Dosunmu has hit the proverbial rookie wall? And if so, how do you think he breaks through it?

Do you think Coby's inconsistencies are down to him perhaps not seeing enough of the ball during games, therefore struggling to find rhythm or something else?

And finally does Lonzo's return really solve all the defensive issues we are seeing? I don't believe it does. The root cause is much deeper than any one individual, in my opinion. — Scott D.

Scott checks in with a mere three questions and speaking of exhaustion, we have a rookie wall for Dosunmu offering.

I don’t see it. What I see is a rookie who, as Donovan has said, now is landing on scouting reports and going through the league for second and third spins so advance scouting has built up on his game. Plus, let’s face it: Dosunmu likely played over his head for a long stretch there. That’s not to say he can’t again achieve that level consistently. It’s more that it’s unrealistic to think a second-round pick will play at that level the entire season without some dips in production.

I loved how he responded in the Cavaliers’ game. He returned to the starting lineup and looked confident again. There will be ebbs and flows to his game. But he’s tough-minded and responds to adversity well.

I do think White is suffering from his role and usage fluctuating. But we also have seen him heat up in a hurry.

I’ll just say this about the defense: If Ball and Caruso are this important to its success, they’re both underpaid and the Bulls are in trouble. So I agree with you that Ball’s return alone — if it happens — won’t solve all their defensive issues, particularly since if he even returns, he’ll be rusty.

If the Bulls end the season on a sour note with a play-in game or quick first-round exit, what to do you think is the likelihood of Nikola Vučević being involved in a trade? Who else do you think are the most valuable expendable assets for the Bulls? — Jakob S.

I’ve already touched on the Vučević trade possibility. I’d also say this: Management teams can’t be that reactionary. In other words, their overall vision can’t be shaped by, say, whether or not one playoff series is won. Either they believe in this roster they’ve constructed, or they don’t. What we heard when the deadline passed without a move is that management wanted to see this team whole. It still hasn’t happened. This is getting somewhat lost in the shuffle, but the Bulls have improved significantly from last season. It’s just that expectations got raised by their early-season performance.

If the Bulls do make a move, one of Dosunmu or White and the future first-round pick from Portland are assets. So is Williams, but I don’t see management moving him. Perhaps improved rim protection is a target. The Bulls were linked to Jakob Poeltl at the deadline.

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