By Drew Stevens (@lookwhatdrewdid)
As Chicago sports fans know all too well, change either occurs painstakingly slow with this city’s teams or it doesn’t occur at all.
That Arturas Karnisovas, Marc Eversley and Billy Donovan are now the principal decision makers for the Chicago Bulls proves the former option is more likely than the latter.
Marked turnarounds are anomalous if not altogether exclusive to teams that either draft, trade for or sign transcendent talent.
Think of the pairing of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with Paul Pierce, which in 2008 more than doubled Boston’s win total from the season before and produced championship dividends; or the introduction of Tim Duncan to the world by way of San Antonio that catapulted the Spurs from the worst record in franchise history to the Western Conference Semifinals; or LeBron James’ return to Cleveland in 2014, which netted a trip to the Finals for a Cavaliers team that never even flirted with a playoff appearance in his absence.
For this reason, attached to the Bulls’ 2020-2021 digital program should be a simple prologue that’s likely to cause widespread displeasure:
A call for the dampening of expectations isn’t owed to a shortage of upside.
Patrick Williams fits the part of today’s ideal protean basketball player — vouched for via video snippets leaked into the social sphere — and is worthy of the expense of a lottery pick.
The team’s best player and most valuable asset, Zach LaVine, set career highs in steals, blocks, rebounds, and points en route to racking up the highest scoring average for a Bull since Michael Jordan last season.
His backcourt mate, Coby White, boosted his three-point shooting from 33.8 percent to 40.7% and increased his scoring average two-fold while boasting a similar spike in assists in the 10 games between the All-Star break and the abrupt end to his rookie campaign.
What’s more, the injury bug that’s pestered Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen and feasted upon Otto Porter Jr. has since flown elsewhere.
This roster, which premiers anew tonight against the Houston Rockets in a home preseason opener, is a near-composite of the one that was winless against the Eastern Conference playoff field bridging 2019 and ’20.
Successfully manipulating an inherited set of pieces in ways other than what has led to underwhelming results of late will be a challenge, a likely greater one than what Donovan conquered in leading Oklahoma City to a tie for the fourth-best record in the pitiless Western Conference.
In OKC, Donovan could trust Chris Paul — and to varying degrees Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — to dissect defenses off the dribble and expertly navigate pick-and-rolls, especially late in games.
With only one bonafide playmaker in Chicago, Donovan won’t have that luxury for the time being. Nor can he allow LaVine to continue to be so heavily relied upon to deliver this team from its offensive evils. In that spirit, an upswing in White’s executive functions and capacity to facilitate would be a godsend now that Donovan has all but proclaimed him the starting point guard.
It’s a role White is eager to assume but will still need time to grow into. For all it’s splendor, White’s late season breakout also saw him turn the ball over nearly twice as much as he did in his first 55 games as a pro.
Taking care of the basketball isn’t as much of a bugaboo for Markkanen as is executing deliberate moves once its in his hands. As confounding as he is intriguing, Markkanen moonwalked into career-low marks in scoring, rebounding and shooting accuracy last year. If that was simply a result of his misuse in Jim Boylen’s rigid read-and-react offense is one of many questions the fourth-year forward must confront in the homestretch of his rookie contract.
That Markkanen’s career has been a hodgepodge of both promise and plight typifies this idling team as a whole.
Markkanen, Carter Jr. and Porter Jr. have spent more time on the mend than on the court together. Well-intentioned schemes meant to force turnovers on one end and an uptick in efficiency on the other proved unsustainable in their absence. Though Boylen, against good common (coaching) sense, continued to jam square pegs into round holes.
A player-friendly coach who molds his system to fit his personnel, Donovan won’t make those mistakes. But he has only just begun his courtship of this roster.
Meanwhile, seating at the table of Eastern Conference playoff contenders looks scarce — even with the additional accommodations possible from a play-in tournament.
Returning playoff squads Miami, Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are shoo-ins. Indiana and Toronto should remain in the fray, too. Atlanta, who the Bulls will see to start the regular season, participated in a near flood of off-season wheeling and dealing with a mind on ending that franchise’s three-year post-season drought.
That likely leaves the Bulls to contend with Charlotte, Orlando and Washington for the two remaining play-in spots.
The Magic nabbed the eighth seed last season but lost D.J. Augustin in free agency and will be without the defensive stylings of Jonathan Isaac. The Wizards re-signed sharp shooting Davis Bertans and traded John Wall for Russell Westbrook who, if not a better fit than Wall, is at least a healthier complement to Bradley Beal. The Hornets handed their checking and savings accounts to Gordon Hayward, and drafted LaMelo Ball to steer them into the future.
Now benefit from clean bills of health and proven guidance, two of their most meaningful acquisitions from the extended layoff, the Bulls are equipped with potential building blocks that could lead to this roster yielding much different results than its on-paper lookalike from a season ago.
But, give it time.
Change doesn’t punch a clock.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago