Bulls embrace their happy work-in-progress status

CHICAGO — About a month before training camp last fall, the Chicago Bulls began meeting in their city, which would become a new home for...


CHICAGO — About a month before training camp last fall, the Chicago Bulls began meeting in their city, which would become a new home for most of them.

They got together for workouts they didn’t have to do. They played five against five. They dragged. With only three players who had been with the team the previous off-season, there were plenty of introductions to be made.

“Everyone who came here was very excited to see this project work,” said Nikola Vucevic, one of the Bulls’ longest-serving members, having joined the team at the trade deadline in March 2021. “There was a very positive energy in that. I think that helped a lot. Also, we had guys who were still trying to prove themselves.

Those practices built team chemistry, and the Bulls surprised people — including Vucevic — with how quickly they started winning. And when injuries and coronavirus infections depleted their roster, they had a base from which to adapt.

This season has required teams to be flexible, given how the pandemic has disrupted it. A virus outbreak during a wave of the Omicron variant in December meant the Bulls were 10 players short at one point – and once they emerged from that setback they began losing key players to injury. Despite all that, the Bulls, with a 38-21 record after Wednesday’s 125-118 win over the Sacramento Kings, are well-positioned for the playoff chase after All-Star Weekend.

“We haven’t been able to see ourselves at our full potential this year,” said Zach LaVine, Chicago’s two-time All-Star guard and longest-serving Bull. “Even then, we were working through the issues, getting to know each other.”

He added, “We’re still at the top of our conference and we’ve done some patch work.”

With the Heat inactive on Wednesday, the Bulls broke a tie with Miami — which dealt with its own virus and injury issues — for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference by defeating Sacramento. It’s been over a decade since the Bulls were truly considered contenders in the East. They’ve missed the playoffs for the past four seasons, and two years ago tried to shake up their front office in hopes of changing their fortunes.

They traded for Vucevic last season, and he became the first part of their remodel. Only third-year guards Coby White and LaVine remain from the team that started last season.

DeMar DeRozan became their marquee free agent signing, a player who had been written off due to his preference for mid-range jumpers over 3-pointers.

The Bulls traded for Lonzo Ball in the offseason and paid a small price — the forfeiture of a second-round draft pick — for tampering with it. They signed Alex Caruso, who comes off the bench for a defensive shake-up, also in free agency. And they drafted Ayo Dosunmu, a Chicago native who had spent three years at the University of Illinois.

Critics wondered if and how this group would actually work.

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said the players’ time together before training camp “really helped our team.” For Vucevic, that meant reconnecting with DeRozan, whom he had played with at the University of Southern California. It meant getting to know the others he had played against in the NBA

“That’s one of the great things about team sports,” Vucevic said. “You meet so many people and you never know who you’re going to make friends with.”

The Bulls started the season 6-1 and rode a nine-game winning streak in late December and early January after their Omicron wave passed.

Ball’s out passes, LaVine’s dunks and DeRozan’s buzzer-beaters were only part of the fun. Their quick offense, fueled by DeRozan, LaVine and, ultimately, Vucevic, was balanced by a clear defensive identity, led by guards Ball and Caruso.

“They seem like they’re having fun playing basketball together,” said Joakim Noah, who played for the Bulls from 2007 to 2016, including seven consecutive trips to the playoffs. “When you look around the league you realize you can probably count that on one hand.”

Friendships may seem like a small thing on a professional sports team, but discord can derail even the most talented teams.

“I think when you have a lot of guys integrated into the foundation like we’re one household, one family, when you have guys coming in and out, it’s a lot easier to hook guys up,” Dosunmu said. .

DeRozan was out for nearly two weeks after testing positive for coronavirus in December. LaVine has missed 11 games, most with a lingering knee injury, although he also played with back spasms earlier this month. Ball has been out since Jan. 15 with a knee injury.

Caruso missed 13 games in December and January with a foot injury. In the second game after his return, he fractured his wrist after a serious foul by Milwaukee’s Grayson Allen. Caruso hasn’t played since, but he’s been on the bench, helping young players learn from what he sees.

“We’ve got a strong-minded group,” said Vucevic, who had a double-double Wednesday with 21 points and 10 rebounds. “A group of fighters. When we go through this, we just talked about how we can’t feel sorry for ourselves because nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.

They stayed afloat beating lesser teams, but the league’s best proved a tougher challenge. So far they are winless against Miami, Milwaukee, Golden State, Philadelphia, Memphis and Phoenix. They have just two wins against teams currently in the top four in their conferences — they’ve beaten the Jazz and Cavaliers once each.

“We understand that we are a good team, we are not yet at the level of the best teams, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Vucevic said, adding: “We have to wait until we are complete to be able for the do, but this is all a good test for us to get there.

After a shooting Friday at the Chicago training facility, Ball took part in a drill as he worked on rehabilitating his knee. Nearby, Caruso watched a scrum. LaVine practiced shooting free throws, then spoke to reporters.

“We’re healthy and doing what we’re supposed to do, I can’t think of anyone better than us in the East,” LaVine said. ” That’s my opinion. When it comes to competition, you get on the line and you throw the ball, I don’t think anyone is better than us.

That night, LaVine played 37 minutes and winced as she landed on her feet after a dunk. The Bulls announced on Monday that he will be out until the All-Star break due to the lingering knee injury.

Since returning from his coronavirus-related absence, DeRozan has offered some consistency. He’s scored at least 35 points in the team’s last seven games — losses to Phoenix and Philadelphia, followed by five wins against pesky but less accomplished teams. He had 38 points on 16 of 27 shots from the field against the Kings.

After Saturday’s home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, DeRozan spoke wistfully about what it could do when the Bulls are healthy again.

“It’s like a dream that I dream about every night,” DeRozan said, looking away.

Outside the United Center, Chicago’s wintry air was freezing just hours before the city was dusted with snow.

“Being on a beautiful, sunny island is how I imagine it when we come back healthy,” DeRozan said. ” We will get there. It sucks right now, but we have to deal with it. It will come.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Bulls embrace their happy work-in-progress status
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