Bulls learn hard NBA lesson that you don't always get to play the Hornets and Spurs
being average, while better, still isn't good enough for an empty trade deadline
In the post-post-pre-LaVine-trade era the Bulls are now in, they’re 3-0 against the Hornets and Spurs, yet 1-2 against non-Hornets/Spurs, where that win was in overtime. I wish there was an easier way to run team statistical splits for ‘games where opponent was trying’.
It hasn’t been quite as underwhelming as the beginning of the season, when the team was outright bad and uninteresting. Coby White’s ascension gives them at least one sustainable-looking variable increase from pre-LaVine
trade holdout injury days. But some of the old habits are seeping in with Vuc (and watching Vuc), where the team tries to involve him too much and he’s not good enough to warrant it. The defense is looking like last year, statistically good but prone to getting worked by a capable offense. The Bulls gave up twenty three point makes in losses to the Cavaliers and Warriors.
With LaVine, it’s not quite as frustrating as before yet almost too different: he’s now seemingly bordering on passive and over-passing. Though there are some rare occasions where it’s actually too much in that direction, overall it makes for a better individual player and better for the team offense as well. I don’t think it helps his trade value (no matter how many videos get shared among content producers and consumers who decidedly do not work in NBA front offices), but doesn’t hurt it either.
(status-check: the trade value is still not high. January 15th was the date where several Lakers were eligible to be traded, but a LaVine trade did not happen. That has to mean even IF there is interest from other teams, even the Lakers, it’s not to the level where they’re giving up good assets AND saving the Bulls money)
In terms of value simply caused by scarcity, to the Bulls it is looking true that while they have more than enough guards to replace LaVine, not having enough forwards really exposes them. Years of AK roster construction almost make it seem like it’s a character-building rule that you can’t have multiple non-centers over 6’7”, so when Patrick Williams had a rare absence on Monday night, it looked to hurt the team worse than any LaVine one. With Torrey Craig’s long-term absence still ongoing, Billy Donovan ‘was forced’ to try lineups with both Vuc and Andre Drummond. It actually worked the first try against Cleveland, but then the second time did not because, well, it’s not a strategy with a high frequency of success.
This is a long way to reiterate that outside of Coby White leveling up (which does change things, but not that severely) there is nothing different about this team than what we thought before the season. They were playing worse than expected for a while, then better than expected for a while (though how many wins weren’t schedule-aided?), and ultimately settling in and likely ending at ‘mid’.
But as we’ve seen before, the Bulls often spin (or self-delude) any chunk of the season, no matter how small and with no context, and use subjective ‘feelings’ over results to tell us the same thing: trust us, we think we’re good enough to where nothing significant needs to change.
Here was Alex Caruso before Monday’s game:
‘‘Trying not to veer out of my lane too much, but when we play the right way, we’re a good team,’’ guard Alex Caruso said when asked about the direction the front office might take. ‘‘I think we’ve proven that a little bit last year and this year, even though you can’t put much weight in seasons you’re not in [the playoffs]. But we’ve beaten good teams, we’ve shown we can play with the good teams, and that’s the way you win late in the season. For us, it’s just about the consistency of it.”
Caruso is right: this isn’t his lane. But it’s a good attitude to have in the lane he’s in, and why he said this last year too before the Bulls lost in the play-in tournament.
The problem is we’ve heard Arturas Karnisovas, who should have a more appropriate perspective, sound just like this. And all he’s given us to believe for years now is the move will be no move. After all, as Will Gottlieb pointed out at CHGO, the Bulls have just completed a 14-9 stretch, a segment of team record which was touted consistently by AK last season. And another core directive, “the rest of the East is also bad”, is also playing out to AK’s prognostications especially with tier-sharers Hawks, Nets, and Raptors. In the next few weeks, they somehow get the Hornets AGAIN while playing two games against the skeleton crew Memphis Grizzlies.
It’s easy to see this stretch of play, that looks more like a mirage than true ‘competitiveness’, continuing. Hopefully AK proves us wrong this year with a LaVine trade before the deadline, even a not-great one.