Bulls' struggles include managing the on-court disconnect between LaVine and DeRozan: Sources

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With two 2022 All-Stars in Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan and former All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls were hoping to be serious contenders in the Eastern Conference and build on their sixth-place finish last season. But as this season progresses, with the Bulls now a disappointing 11-18, and playing without their star guard Lonzo Ball due to a lingering knee injury, serious questions have arisen in the locker room about whether their two star wingers can fit in. top level on court this season and beyond.

The Bulls held several team meetings to try to resolve their issues, and that included face-to-face meetings between DeRozan and LaVine, according to team and league sources who were asked to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak publicly about team dynamics. DeRozan and LaVine have always had a strong respect for each other. Just 10 months ago, during All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the stars proclaimed themselves the best duo in the NBA. They maintain a good personal relationship. But their encounters have not led to in-game results so far, with a level of stylistic tension on the court simply escalating over the course of the season and being magnified due to their win-loss record.

“I think everyone goes through ups and downs, as does every team,” said LaVine. the athletic on Tuesday when asked about it. “Obviously, if we’re not winning games, not everyone is going to be happy. It won’t be as good as before. It’s all glitter and show when you’re winning games. But when you’re losing games and trying to do the same things, it’s tumultuous. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. For me, I keep my head down. I work on my game and try to help my team. I help try to lead the team. It’s where I am. I just try to take it day by day and assess how we’re doing.”

What’s more, multiple league sources and sources close to the organization say that LaVine and the Bulls are not in agreement. In recent weeks, there has been a palpable sense in various parts of the franchise of a disconnect with LaVine’s situation in Chicago. All of this is happening while LaVine is in the first season of a five-year, $215 million maximum deal that was signed this summer.

“There is a certain level of frustration with people trying to figure out what we can do to help fix the ship,” said LaVine. the athletic🇧🇷 “I think with the players we have, we try to put each other on to right the ship. We have this kind of guy, this kind of mindset where each one of us has been the number one option on a team before and then we all collectively come together. It won’t take a person. It will take all of us as a unit. I think that’s what the guys are trying to figure out how to help the group.”

As the saying goes, winning cures all. A year ago, DeRozan, LaVine and these Bulls were clicking on all cylinders as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics struggled to find their way. The roles are reversed a year later and jump out when you look at the rankings.

In the third season of Billy Donovan’s tenure, skepticism within the locker room about the head coach and coaching staff also increased. For Donovan, the challenge of optimizing DeRozan and LaVine together through a balance of execution, accountability and cooperation is great. Donovan’s job is currently insured, however, as the athletic reported that he signed a multi-year contract extension before the start of this season.


Bulls coach Billy Donovan sets tone for next season: ‘We’ve got even more to prove’

The Bulls’ season started with optimism. They returned 12 players from last season’s roster, and the hope was that continuity would equate to greater chemistry and better results. The Bulls are a much more complete and dynamic team with Ball healthy, of course, as his ability to pick up the pace and set the table for DeRozan and LaVine was necessary for last season’s team.

But even with Ball’s status uncertain in terms of when he might return, Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Arturas Karnišovas laid out this season’s expectations on team day in September.

“What we want to see is obviously an improvement,” he said. “When you make the playoffs and have a healthy body, I think a lot of things can happen. So I think we have to do better than last year. When you make the playoffs, as usual, things happen. A certain team is missing a key player or two and you can go through a round. So those are the expectations.”

From the start, though, the Bulls faced a bumpy road.

LaVine unexpectedly sat out the team’s first two contests this season, with the team saying his occasional absence would be part of scheduled maintenance centered on managing offseason arthroscopic knee surgery. LaVine struggled with a nagging knee problem during the second half of last season, showing tremendous resilience and courage to stay on the ground for the first postseason appearance of his career. LaVine could have had knee surgery during the season, but opted to wait until after the Bulls’ playoffs to ensure his availability for the team.

DeRozan arrived at the Bulls in the 2021 offseason intent on being second most nights behind LaVine and giving LaVine the backing to win more games. In that role, he emerged as one of the best players in the league, however, with clutch moments, multiple game winners and consistent leadership.

“Now is the time to understand how we can make this work for the whole group. I didn’t play as talented in that wing position as Zach. He is unique. I want to put everything I went through in my career, share it with him and win together”, he said. DeRozan said last October.

The duo had a successful first season, leading the Bulls to a 46-36 record and their first playoff berth in four years, having the best record in the East for parts of the first half of the year due to a 27-11 start. and seeming to really enjoy each other’s presence. It’s clear that Ball is an engine for these Bulls: The team went 22-13 with him in the lineup and 24-23 without him. DeRozan and LaVine seemed to lay a foundation for their partnership last season – except everything was called into question throughout the organization this season.

For Karnišovas, the best move of his tenure was to acquire DeRozan, who made the NBA’s second team and received the MVP vote a season ago. DeRozan has played brilliant basketball since joining the Bulls. He is averaging 27.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists on 50.4 percent shooting from the field and 88.1 percent on nearly eight free throws per game. As a fourth-quarter player, he ranks among the best in the NBA.

DeRozan joined the Bulls on a three-year, $85 million contract in 2021 and will be eligible for an extension this summer worth a maximum of four years, $153.7 million. Do the Bulls see DeRozan as a centerpiece for years to come?

LaVine chided the notion that the weight of expectations from his maximum allowable contract had weighed on him.

“It didn’t weigh (in) anything for me. I don’t understand how this is put in context,” LaVine said. the athletic🇧🇷 “Just because you sign an agreement, does that have to be added to it? I think there’s an added weight every time you step onto the court if you don’t play or don’t play the right way. But everyone is open to their own opinion.

“I’ve been improving every day since I’ve come out of an injury. If you’re missing out, you don’t see it. Obviously it’s frustrating when you’re losing and all these other narratives are coming up. It’s not coming from us. It’s coming from outside sources. This is exactly what you have to deal with. Comes with the territory. I understood that. I think the team understands that. This does not bother me. I think that’s something that comes with it.”

Additionally, Vucevic is eligible for an extension of up to four years and $118.2 million, but is currently expected to enter free agency in the offseason.

The Bulls’ future direction is clouded by the fact that they still owe the Orlando Magic a protected top-four pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. By potentially switching from competing for a playoff and Play-In Tournament berth to a complete rebuild, the Bulls front office would risk still being outside the top four and thus giving Orlando their pick.

And yet, if these Bulls continue down this path anyway, even with all this talent, it could leave the organization with no choice.

Goran Dragić, the team’s oldest and most experienced player, did nothing to assuage the team’s woes after a 150-126 loss at Minnesota on Sunday.

“We are not playing for each other,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

The veteran point guard’s comments followed Donovan’s in an equally candid interview after the game. Donovan publicly challenged his trio of stars through the media, but he was more direct than ever on Sunday.

“We’ve got to get out of the mentality of worrying about the score and how it’s going offensively and notice goals on the ball,” Donovan said. “And if the ball moved and passed, whoever scores, scores.”

Donovan echoed Dragić’s sentiments that the Bulls are playing too individually and results won’t start to change until the team does.

“When we have the mindset that ‘I feel like I’m doing this for him.’ And I’m going to do it for him, and I’m going to do it for him. And I’m not going to let the guy I’m with out there,'” Donovan said.

Required reading

(Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images)