Westerlund: Bulls have good vibes, question marks entering new season


CHICAGO (670 The Score) – On a Monday in which NBA teams held their respective media days and a few players across the league stepped in it regarding comments about the COVID-19 vaccine, the Bulls gathered and smiled in the Concert Club at the United Center in a drama-free environment.

That’s in part because the Bulls don’t reveal much under the direction of tight-lipped lead executive Arturas Karnisovas, but give them this much on this day: Completely overhauling a roster in a few months time and adding big-name talent sure makes for good vibes, so long as those players accomplish the menial task of striking the right chord before they’ve been asked to sacrifice in a game yet.

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And that’s the tone the Bulls were hitting Monday, when multiple players explained that this was, in fact, the most talented team they’ve ever been a part of, comments that filled a key spot on everyone’s media day bingo card alongside the “best shape of my life” square.

“This is the most excited I’ve been, especially with the talent of the team that we have here, the support they’ve given me,” star guard Zach LaVine said as he enters a contract year.

“This is definitely I think the most talented team I've been a part of,” center Nikola Vucevic said.

“The talent is there,” wing DeMar DeRozan said. “I don’t think I’ve played with as talented a team as I have since coming here. Now it’s about just putting it together.”

How much weight the words of LaVine and Vucevic should carry on this topic considering they’ve never experienced playoff success is up for debate, but DeRozan’s thoughts seemed noteworthy after all the big games he played with Toronto earlier in his career. Of everyone, he could be asked to sacrifice the most from an offensive workload perspective. In San Antonio for the last three seasons, he was the fulcrum of the offense. In Chicago, there will be plenty of games in which he’s the No. 3 option. DeRozan, 32, could also be tasked with leading the second unit for long stretches – the Bulls would be smart to stagger his minutes with LaVine’s – but that all sounds good, at least for now.

“It’s us putting in the work, laying down that groundwork on how we’re going to approach this thing, putting it all together,” DeRozan said. “And we have great, high-character players, unselfish players and once you have that element, everything else will be easy. On any given night, it could be anybody that could get hot. We all understand that. We’re all unselfish. For me, even choosing on coming here, it was understanding that with the character of the guys and being unselfish. Because that, you need that. It goes a long way. It’s not about me, like, ‘I’m going to go out there and get 25 shots.’ No. None of us think that way. It’s all about winning and whatever we need to do and whatever we need to figure out to be a successful team. That’s what we’re going to do.”

We should note the Bulls aren’t without their baggage heading into the new season. As they get to work, the NBA is continuing its tampering investigation into the team’s signing of point guard Lonzo Ball, with reports of an agreement on a four-year, $80-million deal emerging a minute into the opening of free agency in early August. The NBA would like to know how the Bulls agreed on financial figures with Ball and the framework of a sign-and-trade with the Pelicans to acquire him … all in the matter of 60 seconds if they were actually conducting business by the book (which no one in the NBA does).

While it’s unclear what Chicago’s punishment will be, there’s a belief in some NBA circles that the Bulls could be docked a first-round draft pick. Not that Karnisovas would even broach the topic, of course. He’d like it to go away forever, completely declining to address the topic in any manner Monday.

Then there’s the aforementioned COVID-19 debate raging across a league with a players’ union that considers mandatory vaccinations a non-starter. The Bulls will be close to 100% vaccinated but not fully vaccinated, Karnisovas said while offering little other detail. LaVine was asked about where he was in the vaccination process when he contracted COVID-19 late last season, and his response felt like it had been emailed to him by the union at 9 a.m. that day.

“COVID-related questions, I’m keeping a personal matter to myself, and I think the team wants to do that as well,” LaVine said. “Thank you.”

There’s also the basketball equation, which is what we’re all really here for. With a little time to mesh, a group that’s loaded with offensive talent should become quite dangerous on that end. The question is will the offense be top-five good or top-10 good? The difference matters, because there’s worry on the other end of the court.

Specifically, can these Bulls play a lick of defense? They sort of hinted they can, but no one is going to believe it until they show it in the regular season.

The burden to organize and instruct on that front will fall on coach Billy Donovan, who was his usual positive self as everyone reconvened and he oversees a team that at least has a couple legitimately high-IQ players in its rotation now. The hope is the likes of Ball and bulldog defender Alex Caruso can strengthen Chicago's defense at the point of attack, putting less pressure on others to help and those attempting to protect the rim.

“That’s where the investment has got to be made,” Donovan said. “I’m not one of those guys who sits there and says because Zach LaVine is a really good scorer and so is DeMar, so is Vooch, we’ll just be able to score. I think that’s going to be a work in progress, but we are going to have to every day put the physical work into defending because if you look at whether it’s the rebounding or our ability to guard from the post or the perimeter, we are going to have to make an incredible investment defensively.”

Another concern for the Bulls is they might be missing two of their key rotation players when they open the regular season on Oct. 20. Guard Coby White isn’t expected back until November as he continues to rehab from shoulder surgery in June. And more recently, second-year forward and projected starter Patrick Williams suffered a severe ankle sprain. His timeline to return is right around the start of the regular season, but he can’t run up and down the court at this time, he said.

The Bulls are coming off a disappointing 31-41 campaign in which they missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season. They declined to detail specific goals Monday, though it’s well-known that returning to the playoffs is a primary objective. If the Bulls are to achieve that and make any noise once there, it’s going to take plenty of sacrifice and patience, as several individuals pointed out.

While he’s only 20 years old, Williams perhaps shared the best wisdom of the day, pointing to the elixir that can solve for the potential worry of how everyone will accept where they fit into the team. It's just easier said than done.

“Everybody’s role is perfect when you’re winning,” Williams said.

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

Featured Image Photo Credit: David Banks/USA Today Sports