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More reasons to feel nervous heading into this Bulls season
A pessimistic Bulls season preview, part 2
For part 1 of this post, see here:
I was exaggerating a bit with the lede there, because there are some national prognostications (thanks, commenters!) that aren’t predicting doom for this Bulls season. Namely Dunc’d On , where both Nate and Danny had the Bulls as an ‘over’ pick and predicted a .500-ish season resulting in making the East playoffs. And Michael Pina fed the take punchclock at The Ringer to say he thinks the Bulls will be a top-4 seed. Kind of the opposite of his usual opinion on the Bulls, so that’s odd.
But I am perhaps more naturally skeptical, or conditioned to expect less. There’s just so many years of hearing bullshit from management where all these variables will go right to where it conveniently obviates the need to spend more money on better players.
So I’ll pivot back to why I’m worried about some of these variables:
They'll either be more injured or more playing hurt
One of the craziest things AK says/does is the doubling down on “continuity” when it’s been proven to not work. The Bulls had a very consistent squad all season (as Lonzo Ball was out…all season), and they still underperformed.
Hollinger brought this up in his reasons for why he expects less this year:
the Bulls are likely to miss significantly more action this time around. The big three of Vučević, LaVine and DeMar DeRozan only missed 13 games between them. Patrick Williams played 82 games, Ayo Dosunmu, 80, and Coby White, 74. Even oft-injured Alex Caruso played a career-high 67 games, which is like 103 for a normal player.
It’s certainly possible that the Bulls just have more durable players. Though I’m only confident of one player where this is the case: Vuc, who through Eastern European stereotypes and proven track record has been more (double double) machine than man in his career. But he is turning 33 this week.
DeRozan is similarly heretofore indestructible, and by all accounts fanatical about staying in shape, but just turned 34. And we learned last year that while he didn’t miss much time, he was playing through a hip injury. That’s the kind of thing that will just happen more and more with age, no matter how hard DDR works to fight it off.
Speaking of playing through it, I see this paradox often from Zach LaVine backers who are praising him in the face of “disrespectful” rumors (maybe they’re doing their part to up his trade value?): they’ll simultaneously claim Zach’s no longer an injury concern, yet also you can throw out his early-season slump because he was injured. To start this year, LaVine appears ready to go, having a good-looking preseason and claiming that’s not an accident but due to lack of a need to rehab this summer. I hope so, and the most recent trend is positive, but it’s not enough to overcome overall ‘injury concern’ just yet.
And unlike Vuc and DDR, LaVine actually jumps while on the court. We’ve seen through prior injuries to Williams and Caruso that such a style can lead to more injury ‘bad luck’.
Currently no credible reinforcements, and none coming
If the Bulls do pick up injuries more and more this season, even to a low degree, they’re uniquely vulnerable to a big drop-off in play. This is in part because of the rotation: the Bulls have no truly must-have players, but many above-average (if mostly one-way) ones. See how much the Lonzo injury derailed everything.
But another reason the Bulls are vulnerable is that after these many pretty-good players, the deeper bench is really bad. Moving past the playing rotation (aka the Donovan Doze…er, ten) there’s nobody on the roster (active or two-way) who’s established himself as belonging on an NBA court. Perhaps the closest is Terry Taylor, who at least has the width and bounce (if not height) to play in an NBA frontcourt. And he’s not very close at all.
Taylor was kept on the team while Carlik Jones was waived over the weekend. That was because the Bulls are going to go into the season below the maximum number of active players (including Lonzo taking up a spot) instead of going over the luxury tax. Why should we think that would change in-season? In the case of injury, the Bulls are not going to spend on help.
If it goes bad early again, they will not come out of it this time
This point is a bit repetitive, but it’s hard to over-emphasize how ludicrous AK’s team building philosophy is. Another promised benefit of “continuity” heading into last season was that they’d get off to a better start than those wacky teams that made meaningful changes, what with their new jerseys and chaotic locker rooms and all that comes with player transactions. We saw what happened, and they’re continuing on about this anyway.
This year it’s “cohesion”, a slightly different word but same concept. Where they, repeatedly and with a straight face, say that while last year they said the team would benefit from this consistency (aka laziness, ineptitude, lack of ambition) from the front office, actually in truth the guys were more “complacent” and “didn’t play for eachother”.
Now THIS year, that is fixed because…they went on the road for camp.
I don’t think that “move” will deserve any credit if the Bulls do get off to a good start. But if they come out the gates flat again (and it’s a hard early schedule) the players will very quickly give up on management’s talking points.
The players are nearly all veterans at this point. They know they play for a franchise that won’t commit what it can to winning. So why, in the face of adversity, should they sacrifice? It’s easy to speculate on personal agendas coming to the forefront if the team-wide goals aren’t looking likely early. DeRozan is going to be a free agent. Williams a restricted free agent. LaVine has been widely shopped and no doubt knows he still has a “not a winning player” reputation. Vucevic got a gift contract, but still came into camp complaining he also has a damaged reputation and doesn’t get the ball enough.
This happened last season too. But somehow they weren’t in too big of a hole that couldn’t be dug out of using the galvanizing power of a bought-out Patrick Beverley. And in their declarations this offseason, the front office has pointed to less Beverley, but more the “parity” (crappiness) of the Eastern Conference that gives them hope this will be a good season.
But I think the players hold themselves to higher standards: they know if they’re below .500 midseason that it means it’s not working and the team isn’t going to commit any more resources to making it work. And thus the players do not have any reason to sacrifice personal goals when the team won’t sacrifice a few million bucks.
This could all mean a repeat of last season, where they were down pretty bad but the PatBev era brought them back to a sense of competitive average-ness they at least felt comfortable selling again to the fanbase. As stated repeatedly, I think that resurgence was all fake, or at the least not likely at all to repeat.
Zach Lowe had the Bulls 26th in ‘watchability’, and while I don’t think fan sentiment will have an effect on this team’s performance I do think - especially if it’s looking like more of the same - the players are probably as sick of playing together (and for the same coach) as we are watching it. And they’ve heard management essentially abdicate the ambition of wanting to be one of the better teams and instead relying on parity and ‘being competitive’. It’s certainly reasonable to think the Bulls will have a better season than, say, the Raptors or Pacers. But it’s just weird as a fan to hear management express that their team is going into every game against all but the bottom-ten teams in the league as some scrappy underdog. Hosting the Thunder opening night is a good example of this, where they’re 1 point favorites.
Now I’m just a beaten-down fan, but that franchise ethos has gotta wear on the team too, if not right away then certainly if some early wins don’t happen.
There’s a counter-argument to predicting a low-30s win total in that that with a team obsessed with average there’s no bottom: if the Bulls had any appetite to ‘blow it up’ they would’ve done it already.
Well, for one thing, that may be true from a rational standpoint, but this group is bad at their jobs and don’t even know what success means. But I also don’t think the Bulls have to have an appetite for tanking in order to actually do it. They’re not that good, and merely trading DeRozan would remove the floor. It’ll probably be done poorly, of course, but despite so many things being tough to predict with this franchise, they’ll always ultimately be a day late and a dollar short.
…oops, that isn’t exactly driving engagement with this team. Still, there are games to play to prove me wrong. Sign up and follow along.