Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
DETROIT --- An underwhelming and disjointed 1-2 start to the Bulls’ season has laid bare potential foundational issues.
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In short, if matters don’t improve, the future of the Big 3 is in question, either by the Bulls’ choosing or perhaps even by the players themselves.
From the Bulls failing to recognize Nikola Vucevic’s favorable matchup in the opener and Vucevic getting into a heated exchange with coach Billy Donovan about offensive stagnation to DeMar DeRozan needing to play hero ball in the lone victory to Zach LaVine’s career-high 51 points coming in a loss on Saturday night to the rebuilding Detroit Pistons, the core has failed to find collective chemistry.
“Obviously we’re all frustrated on why it’s not clicking the way it should be. But that’s the position that we’re in. We’re going to have to figure it out,” LaVine said. “Lonzo (Ball) was a big part of that. It looked really good when Lonzo was here.
“From Day One, I’ve said it’s time to put pen to paper. It’s our third year here together. We know how this business is. We all love each other. DeMar is one of my best friends. We talk all the time. But we have to figure out how to make this thing work.”
The players know what’s at stake if it doesn’t.
“We’ve been here for long enough. Shoot, Vooch has been traded. I’ve been traded. DeMar has been traded. We understand the business,” LaVine said. “We care for each other. You understand what’s on the other side of that.”
Vucevic made similar remarks first in an offseason interview with Yahoo Sports as he starred for Montenegro at the World Cup and then during the preseason, emphasizing that management could break up the core if success doesn’t come this season.
Remember: DeRozan is a pending unrestricted free agent after this season unless he and the Bulls reach terms on an extension. And the initial talks have led nowhere. At this point, if the losing continues, it wouldn't surprise if DeRozan opted to wait and see the future direction of the franchise.
Just like management may wait to see how this season plays out in advance of the February 2024 trade deadline. Talks are dormant for now.
All that’s for certain is this: The days of leading the Eastern Conference when Ball ran the show are getting further in the rearview mirror.
“You can’t really compare Year One. We had Lonzo Ball. He made a helluva big difference running the show. Without that, we’ve been constantly trying to figure out what works for us,” DeRozan said. “Nights we show individual ways of it working but as a collective, we’re still working to find a balance for not just us but for the team.
“We’ve showed spurts here and there but it hasn’t been as consistent as we want it to be. None of us are selfish. We’re always trying to figure out how we can make it easier on one another for the team. We just haven’t been consistent with it.
“I think we’re going to get it. It’s frustrating because so much time went by that you think it should be second nature. But it’s one of those things I think we at times maybe overcompensate for one another because we want it to click so bad at the same time for us.”
That overcompensation is perhaps also being exacerbated by Donovan’s desire to feature less isolation and stagnation and more off-ball actions and ball and player movement. The Bulls finished 24th in offense last season despite LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic all having strong individual seasons. Donovan wanted to address that.
Three games in, it’s very much a work in progress.
“We’re trying this new thing out to have a complete, cohesive offense with equal opportunity. It’s going to take some figuring out. Preseason looked good. But preseason is preseason,” LaVine said. “We got a lot of our stuff in transition. Throughout the first couple of games, me and DeMar were in the corner a lot. Now we’re trying to figure out how to get involved with more touches.
“The first game, Vooch had Chet Holmgren on him. I told Vooch I have to recognize that. We all have to recognize him and Dre (Andre Drummond) were dominating. That has to be a Vooch game. We all have to figure out how to help each other. It can’t be a 50-point game from me or a 20-point fourth quarter from DeMar every game. Can’t live that way. We need everybody else. But it has to work like a well-oiled machine.”
It's not. The halfcourt offense is extremely clunky through three games.
Asked if the new offensive philosophy hamstrings him individually, LaVine said: “It's something we have to figure out. We each have been the main option of a team before. This is something new we have to figure out. Through the first three games, we haven’t got 100 percent of it.”
Told that sounded like a yes, LaVine said: “It’s tough when you’re trying to figure something out that’s not working. We’re going to stick with it. That’s what we have to do.”
For now, the Bulls have no other choice. But if it doesn’t change, other changes could be coming.