Preseason or not, 4-0 is better than 0-4.
This Chicago Bulls preseason carried something of a sense of urgency in the sense that management added so much firepower and so many different parts that head coach Billy Donovan wanted to form chemistry quickly. Starters logged ample playing time. Off-day practices featured plenty of scrimmaging.
So what did the Bulls learn about themselves?
“We’re an extremely explosive offensive team. When we lock in on the defensive end, we can be extremely scary,” Zach LaVine said. “We got a bunch of guys out here playing for each other, trying to figure each other out, that are extremely unselfish and will sacrifice anything to win.”
Added DeMar DeRozan: “Not too much. And I mean that in the most positive way. I know these guys are the ultimate competitors, eager to win, eager to learn, highly unselfish. So it was everything I expected.”
Here are five takeaways from an overall impressive preseason:
LaVine remains an elite scorer
Remember all that talk of LaVine likely having a hard time matching last season’s sublime offensive efficiency because he’d have to sacrifice playing alongside DeRozan and Lonzo Ball? Yeah, not so much.
LaVine averaged 22.5 points in 29 minutes while shooting 51.7 percent, including 52.4 percent on 3-pointers. He also shot 89.5 percent from the free-throw line and closed the preseason by attacking the Grizzlies and taking 10 trips to the free-throw line.
If anything, LaVine looks like he could be even more efficient this season because he’s not going to be asked to do as much and is comfortable playing off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations.
“I feel good with it. I’m learning when to get off the ball and let other guys operate and get into those lanes and play in transition. I did it just this past summer in the Olympics. I learned to play off the ball there,” LaVine said. “It’s a blessing to have all these different weapons and go-to guys, all these No. 1 options on the t team. You get them the ball and get out their way. I’m here when you need me.”
Ball and Alex Caruso are making huge defensive impacts
The Bulls posted double-digit steals in each of their four preseason victories. They also ranked fifth in deflections after ranking near the bottom in both categories during last season.
Donovan has owned that the Bulls will be undersized all season. So his approach has been to utilize an aggressive, switching defense that has led to players guarding multiple positions and getting in passing lanes for transition opportunities.
Ball has stood out with his high basketball IQ and anticipation. Caruso has stood out with his communication.
“He’s incredibly long and really instinctive. He gets his hands on a lot of balls. He breaks up a lot of plays. He’s very active,” Donovan said of Ball. “One of the things that he’s got to do is figure out spots where he can really be active and disruptive and then also figure out the spots where maybe sometimes that activity and that energy is being used against him sometimes. I think that’s the balance.
“As a coach, you don’t want to take that away from him because he can see things before they happen. He’s got a real good read and feel for the game. But as a point guard and a lot of times guarding the initial pick and roll, he’s been good on the ball, he’s been good getting over screens. And he’s been good being disruptive off the ball. I think his hands and his activity’s been good. But also I think the more and more you get film on a team, the more and more you can try to put guys in positions where sometimes that aggressiveness can turn out to be negative. So I think he’s got to really be smart in terms of when he does that.”
On one play against the Grizzlies, Caruso could be heard calling out an opponent’s out-of-bounds play and communicating defensive responsibilities to his teammates. He created a jump-ball situation, which he won, on the ensuing pass.
DeRozan said Caruso is like that in practice too.
“He comes from a championship pedigree,” DeRozan said. “And that’s an element that brings so much knowledge on the court.”
In the final dress rehearsal, which also featured Tony Bradley’s debut, Donovan used a nine-man rotation when the minutes mattered.
Javonte Green has taken advantage of Coby White’s absence to seize a rotation role, though he mostly is guarding power forwards in Donovan’s small-ball defensive scheme. Caruso, Bradley and Troy Brown Jr. drew the other minutes.
Even with Bradley back, the Bulls clearly are going to play small a lot. Donovan even said he isn’t averse to trying Patrick Williams at center again, which Donovan did briefly until Steven Adams checked in Friday night.
White ultimately will return to a rotation role. And Donovan proved last season he’s comfortable changing up his rotation when the need arises. But the final dress rehearsal is typically a good indicator of what to look for in the regular-season opener.
Chemistry class passed
Ever the coach, Donovan bemoaned the lack of offensive flow at times in Friday’s preseason finale. But the Bulls finished the preseason with an offensive rating of 111.1, which ranked third in the NBA. They also averaged 28 assists to just 12.8 turnovers, hardly reflective of a team that hadn’t played much together.
“It’s pretty good,” DeRozan said of where he thinks the team’s chemistry sits. “We got a long way to go. Every guy who steps on the court is very unselfish and wants the next person to be successful. Sometimes we become overly unselfish but that’s just a product of being a new team.”
The Bulls didn’t really play like a new team. But the dress rehearsals are over. The real action begins Wednesday.