How starters' struggles is introducing conundrum for Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Though only 17 games in the 2020-21 NBA season, the Bulls are approaching a conundrum.
It’s not due to their record -- 7-10 -- which, if presented during training camp as their mark through 17 games, would have been acceptable. It’s not due to coaching, which has been competent and straightforward under Billy Donovan and his new-look staff. And it’s certainly not due to Zach LaVine, who, turnover troubles aside, has made yet another jump forward in his seventh NBA season.
The Bulls’ issues are of a bigger picture quality than that. In a season Artūras Karnišovas described as evaluatory during training camp, the primary forces driving spells of success aren’t the ones auditioning for long-term roles.
“That group has to function better,” Donovan said following Monday’s 119-103 loss to the Boston Celtics, referring to his starting lineup.
That came minutes after Donovan earlier said: “It is good, the fact that we know we can go to our bench and the bench generally kind of rights the ship for us.”
Indeed, those two groups have been near polar opposites this season, in both profile and production.
Due to injury and COVID-19 protocol related absences, the Bulls’ first unit has already seen a handful of tweaks as the quarter-mark of the campaign beckons. Opening night tipped off with Coby White, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., who collectively sport an average age under 22, on the floor. Since, an array of factors has led to Otto Porter Jr., Daniel Gafford and even Garrett Temple filling in for stretches.
But whichever way you slice it, the returns for the Bulls’ starters have been poor. The through-line has been youth and inexperience, though Donovan emphasized Monday that the starters’ struggles go beyond that:
Bulls five-man lineup combinations
White, LaVine, Williams, Markkanen, Carter
White, LaVine, Williams, Porter, Carter
White, LaVine, Williams, Markkanen, Gafford
White, LaVine, Temple, Markkanen, Carter
*12 of those minutes came Jan. 18, when this unit started vs. the Houston Rockets. In those minutes, they posted a 75.9 offensive rating and 80 defensive rating (-4.1 net)
Those top two lineups are the only Bulls five-man units to play more than 50 minutes together this season. The one featuring Markkanen ranks 79th out of 84 five-man units across the NBA that have reached that 50-minute minimum in net rating. The one with Porter ranks 80th.
Factoring out the team’s consecutive season-opening blowout losses steadies the lineup including Carter -- 88.5 offensive rating, 88.0 defensive, plus-0.5 net in 57 minutes -- but those figures are hardly inspiring. In first quarters, that unit’s net rating is minus-12.7. Minus-3.6 without the Hawks and Pacers defeats included.
The bench, meanwhile, is loaded with thriving veterans. Thad Young is having one of the best per-minute statistical seasons of his career and doing it on both ends. So is Garrett Temple, while shooting a career high 40.6 percent from 3. Yes, Porter is party to one of those woebegone starting units, but his evergreen role has been as the third head of that veteran triumvirate, and he’s averaging 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in just 23.5 minutes per game while shooting 42.9 percent from deep.
Individual on-off metrics are noisy, especially because reserves’ minutes typically come against opponents’ second-stringers (weaker competition). Still, this disparity is jarring:
Net Rating Differential (on/off)
Otto Porter Jr.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Source: Cleaning the Glass, which factors out “garbage time” possessions
*Ryan Arcidiacono (50 minutes, +36.1), Chandler Hutchison (47 minutes, +2.1), Adam Mokoka (22 minutes, -13.1) and Cristiano Felício (4 minutes, -27.8) did not qualify
It’s no surprise, then, that several of the Bulls’ losses this season have featured a similar pattern to the Celtics game: Starters stumble out of the gate, reserves rally the troops, but ultimately, the team falls short.
The former two phases apply to wins, too. Remember the bench's 61-22 scoring advantage and myriad major plays in the Mavericks victory? Or the small-ball closing lineup featuring Young, Temple and Porter that helped secure multiple victories in Markkanen’s absence? The list goes on.
So, what’s a talent evaluator to do? You can cherry-pick bright spots in each of the core pieces’ seasons -- Markkanen is averaging 18.5 points on improved efficiency, LaVine has made strides as a facilitator, Williams has showed promise, Wendell Carter Jr. appeared to be finding his footing before his quad injury -- but as a unit, they haven’t meshed. Far from it.
In fact, Donovan’s catch phrase regarding the young, unproven talent on the team is that they’re still learning how to win.
“I wish I could snap my finger or pour something on it to make it just happen, but it doesn't work like that,” Donovan said after the Celtics game. “Unfortunately, before you win there's generally a lot of suffering.”
Asked about the balance between winning and teaching earlier in the season, Temple more or less said that the best way to teach winning is to win, and if the veterans are helping the Bulls do that at all it can be instructive.
“No matter what you're teaching, if you're teaching and continue losing they really aren't learning much,” he said. “At the end of the day, as long as we're winning as well as learning a few things along the way I think that's the goal.”
In that sense, the Bulls’ 7-10 record (their best through 17 games since 2016-17) bodes well. But rotational strains are beginning to show. Williams, for example, played a season-low 10 minutes against the Celtics, an evening Donovan described as “not his night.” Young said Williams was upset with himself after the contest, which he believes can be productive. But the point stands: While the game was in the balance, Donovan’s preference clearly tilted toward the vets.
Elsewhere, White and the recently returned Tomáš Satoranský each played 24 minutes against Boston, with Satoranský slinging six times as many assists (6 to 1). White has looked lost of late, averaging 11.5 points on 36.5/33.3/80 shooting splits in eight games since posting a career-high 36 points against the Kings on Jan. 7. Donovan has repeatedly called White more a shooter than a scorer, which is backed up by his unimproved rim frequency and accuracy so far this season. His touches have jumped by nearly 30 per game from Year 1 to 2, and his share of minutes at point guard more than doubled, but to largely uninspiring results. It doesn’t all fall on him, of course, but the offense’s turnover troubles -- the Bulls rank dead-last in the NBA in that category -- reveal that, while White and LaVine have moments as creators and are valuable players in their own right, the team still lacks a true lead playmaker.
Again, a conundrum. The veterans playing well should be an unadulterated silver lining. They are driving on-court improvements, however marginal. Donovan and Bulls players have at various points praised Young, Temple, Satoranský and Ryan Arcidiacono’s leadership and team-first focus. At best, that should be spurring meaningful cultural and player development. At worst, each’s trade value swells as the new front office regime looks to shuffle its cupboard of assets for the future.
Instead, the Bulls are in purgatory. Play the players most affecting winning, and you risk sacrificing precious development and evaluation time. Continue on this track, and more losses like the Celtics and Lakers game are on the horizon. Part with any of the reserves at the trade deadline, and it’s reasonable to question how competitive this team would even be.
Because of the frame through which this season began -- with words like evaluation and player development at the forefront -- riding the youth probably remains most prudent. Donovan mostly evaded a question related to that Monday, but didn’t seem near any drastic changes. The team is still awaiting Carter’s return from injury as well, which has thrust Gafford into the front line and underscored the team's last two lackluster losses.
“My responsibility is to do what I can for this group to put them in the best position to win,” Donovan said. “You also have to look at the dynamics of moving people around. You know, the one thing I do feel good about is with Sato, Denzel is playing a little bit more here of late. OP, Thad, at times we have brought Lauri back with that group. At times we have gone with Thad at the five, OP at the four and Garrett out there. That group’s got a pretty good chemistry and you have to look at the give and take of doing something like that may be. Does it disrupt that group?”
For the time being, in Donovan’s words, the starters simply need to function better. The future depends on it.