(670 The Score) The Bulls will enter the All-Star break at 16-18 after holding off the Pelicans for a 128-124 win in New Orleans on Wednesday evening.
That record marks steady improvement for a Bulls team that was 22-43 a season prior with a nearly identical roster, but you won’t find coach Billy Donovan browsing the standings too intently at the conclusion of the first half of his first campaign in Chicago.
“I have no idea,” Donovan responded when asked what he’d have said prior to the season opener if you told him the Bulls would be 16-18 at the break. "I mean, obviously you know, we have a losing record right now."
What Donovan is more certain of is that his Bulls are progressing. Regardless of how that’s reflected in the standings or on the scoreboard on any given night, he explained he has seen growth in his team’s cohesion, habits and consistency.
“The record, to me, is more about how we're playing and are we making progress,” Donovan said. “And I think this team has made incredible progress, in my opinion, just being with them. And they've done a really, really good job. And I think, maybe (someone) asked me the other day about what I was grateful for -- these guys have been phenomenal. But you know at the same point too, we have a long way to go and I'm trying to not have them be satisfied and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other. They need to pull more out of me, I gotta pull more out of them. We just gotta pull more out of each other. And there's more to give. And there's growth and there's an opportunity to improve and get better.”
The Bulls ranked 16th in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency in the NBA entering play Wednesday, per Basketball Reference. They were 27th and 12th, respectively, in those departments in the 2019-’20 season. Their net rating sat at minus-0.3 entering Wednesday after it was minus-3.1 for the entirety of last season.
The Bulls’ improvement can be traced to a handful of factors, most notably guard Zach LaVine’s ascension in earning his first All-Star berth. LaVine has been both a scoring machine and a model of efficiency, and he has been supported by a strong bench unit led by forward Thad Young’s superb play while youngsters around them have showcased both their talent and inconsistencies.
Orchestrating it all has been Donovan, who has drawn profound respect and praise from his players for his constant communication and his leadership style. Donovan has also juiced the Bulls’ offense by getting the ball moving more fluidly, in part because he has helped LaVine leverage his explosiveness and build trust in his teammates, which has created space and opportunities for others.
“You hear things and you see a lot players say who great of a guy he is how much of a players’ coach he is,” LaVine said when asked what he has learned about Donovan. “But you don’t understand how much he, the interaction and talking that he does with you each and every day. It could be from the smallest thing in the world about just how your day is going and your mentality or your energy to X’s and O’s and plays. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed. It’s really cool.”
LaVine cited his team’s “fight” and ability to work through adversity better as two areas in which he has seen the Donovan-led Bulls take strides since an ugly 0-3 start to the season. It’s a refrain Donovan has often echoed at times too, but with his winning pedigree – Donovan won two national championships at Florida in the college ranks and led the Thunder to the playoffs all five of his seasons in Oklahoma City – he also knows how far the Bulls must go to become a consistent winner. The Bulls were tied for ninth in the East through play Wednesday.
“Once we get out of the break, there's gonna be a lot of games in a short period of time,” Donovan said. “And the one thing that's good about it is every team basically right now for the most part controls their destiny. You know, you're not in a situation where you sit there and say, 'Well, you know, if this team wins and this team loses, if this happens, this happens, maybe we can...' There's none of that right now. We just need to keep getting better and focus on our improvements on a daily basis. That's really all our focus needs to be right now. And then, you know what, you put everything you have into it, and then at the end of the year you look and see where you're at and you can I think feel good about the effort you put in. But certainly I hope we continue to get better because I still think there's room for improvement and growth in the team.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.