Bulls Insider

How Bulls' acquisition of Vučević has changed play style


You could see Sunday coming.

Not so much because of the shorthanded Brooklyn Nets' situation, because they’ve played well without Kevin Durant and James Harden. More so from the way the Bulls competed in Phoenix and defended in Salt Lake City in losses to Western Conference powerhouses in the Suns and Utah Jazz.

So when the Bulls snapped their six-game skid with an impressive 115-107 victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Nets, it did more than give them their first victory since completely changing their team at the NBA trade deadline. It showcased the progress they’re making in learning to play with each other.

“Stylistically, we’ve completely changed the way we played in a week’s period,” coach Billy Donovan said. “And that takes time.”

All NBA teams are dealing with plenty in this most unprecedented of seasons. But the Bulls may be currently leading the league in the disruption department.

Five new players. Nine of 10 games on the road, many against elite opponents. Injuries to Garrett Temple, Coby White and Zach LaVine -- the latter two minor affairs. White landed in the league’s health and safety protocols and missed Sunday’s game.

And all the while, trying to take advantage of an All-Star’s unique skill set in Nikola Vučević, who finished with 22 points and 13 rebounds and possesses the ability to score at all three levels, but does plenty of his damage from the post.

“Our offense was running through Thad (Young) in the pocket, cutting off him, playing dribble handoffs. Zach played a lot on the ball,” said Tomáš Satoranský, who posted season-highs in points (19) and assists (11). “Now we all have to adjust because we have an All-Star down there.”

As Donovan stressed, this is a good problem to have. The Vučević acquisition was made for many reasons, both current and future. But four straight losses following it, good opponents or not, wasn’t a good look.

Sunday was. Just nine turnovers. A 30-7 advantage in free-throw attempts. Six players in double figures. Fifty-four points in the paint, including six baskets in that zone for Vučević.

“His biggest advantage is that he’s such a great shooter and he’s got such a great touch in the low post that you can really manipulate the defensive coverages,” Satoranský said of Vučević. “I think it’s a big advantage for us when he can pop and create all that spacing because he’s shooting around 40 percent from 3, which is very unique for this type of big guy. We’re trying to take advantage of that. We’re learning on the go.”

It’s the second straight game with single-digit turnovers, which has been a problem area all season. This is a good sign for a team that is adjusting stylistically. But it’s also something that seems like it can take hold.

That’s what playing through Vučević often and, in adding another responsible decision-maker in Daniel Theis, can do. Also, the Bulls are playing slower. Before the trade deadline, they ranked eighth in PACE at 101.07 possessions per game. Since the trade, they're 19th at just 97.8 possessions per game.

“I think its natural when you make big changes like we did that players are going to have tendencies to overthink things, make sure everybody fits in, that we don't step on anybody's toes. But at the same time, you just have to play your game and be who you are because that's the reason all of us were brought here,” Vučević: said. “I think each game was better. We've showed improvements.”

Even Lauri Markkanen, who is playing more in the post and drawing minutes at small forward, showed signs of progress in his new role. Although he’s probably the biggest loser in the Bulls’ stylistic adjustment. Not only did he lose a starting job, but he played just 23 minutes against the Nets.

“It has a huge effect on our whole team,” Donovan admitted about the all the changes. “And one of the things I’ve tried to keep an eye on as it relates to Patrick (Williams), with Thad and Vooch and Theis and Lauri at times, the ball is going through our frontcourt. So Patrick is finding ways to slash, which has been really good. But a lot of times he has to space the floor and pick out opportunities to slash.

“When the ball goes in the post, Lauri is not in as much movement as maybe he’s been earlier in the year -- for the first 35 or 40 games. So this has been a huge change for everybody. And I give the guys a lot of credit from the perspective they know the trade has made us more talented. It’s made us bigger and more physical. They also knew it was going to take a little time.

“Everybody has been disrupted by it. There’s no getting around it. But I say disrupted and it’s a positive thing from the standpoint of we have to reinvent ourselves of how we need to play.”

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