Despite the Bulls marketing team’s efforts to make #RunWithUs a thing, it seems like there’s issues with the team chemistry and leadership in the midst of all this losing.
The Bulls were looking better in recent games after their embarrassment against the Golden State Warriors. But after a home loss to a fellow-bad Dallas Mavericks team followed by an annihilation in Boston, while there hasn’t been any public intersquad fighting, according to Wendell Carter Jr. this team remains far from perfect:
“When the times get hard, I feel like we start to separate. I feel like those are the times we need each other the most. It’s not so much an offensive or defensive thing, but just coming out of timeouts we go our separate ways and instead of huddling as a team we only huddle when it’s a timeout [when the coach has us huddle]. I feel like that’s important, just to talk to one another, interact with one another throughout the game so we get a feel for one another and know we got each other’s backs. I feel like that’s where we struggle right now.”
It’s difficult to quantify camaraderie/chemistry/whatever you want to call it. In terms of ‘playing together’, if you want to use assists to define that, the Bulls are 24th in the league in assists per game. Defense is largely a team effort and being successful on that end of the floor largely revolves around effort, talking with your teammates, and playing together. The Bulls are 25th in the league in defensive rating even after their recent post-Warriors uptick in that department.
The Chicago Bulls have the youngest team in the NBA by average age. Finding a guy willing to provide the unifying voice in a locker room to help improve that chemistry becomes difficult because players don’t feel like it’s their place to speak up.
Zach LaVine, as a five-year NBA veteran and the de facto best player on the team, should fill that role. He suggested as early as last season that he wants to fill that role, and again after his blistering start to the year put him temporarily at odds with the head coach:
I’m trying to be a leader on and off the court. Obviously, I have a lot of room to grow with things on the court and off the court as well, so I’m just trying to be better. I’m just trying to help the team win.
“I didn’t want it to come across as finger-pointing. I think that’s why I tried to clear up what I said. He said the same thing — we need to do some things better and so do I. I take ownership in that too.”
But if Carter’s assessment is correct, he hasn’t gotten around to doing it quite yet.
Another popular choice to fill this void is Robin Lopez since he’s the oldest player on the team. However, he seems more comfortable with the mentor role (as in how he’s helped out Lauri Markkanen and Carter Jr.) than a rah-rah, unifying leadership role.
Jabari Parker, who’s proved to be a thoughtful speaker and who is an NBA veteran at this point (not to mention well-paid), could also be a candidate. But this season, he’s been in his own funk that’s spilled over from lack of offensive production to poor effort and body language on the court and in the locker room (the media access part, anyway). It’d be hypocritical if he got on his teammates for that kind of stuff, and it indeed looks strange when he’s calling out Carter for his own bad passes, something that (maybe, this is open to interpretation) happened again in that Celtics game.
Maybe the unifying voice for this Chicago Bulls team resides in its injured cavalry. Kris Dunn is fairly brash and outspoken, and as a point guard he plays a position that naturally carries responsibilities. Bobby Portis is also injured, and he’s been referenced before in this role despite, or because of, his history of settling teammate squabbles with fists.
Even though guys have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and even at full strength it’s a young team lacking top-end talent, the lack of on-court togetherness that Carter Jr. eludes to in his interview is concerning. Somebody needs to step up.