In this season of whatever this will be for the Bulls, the only certainty is the uncertainty in which they will march toward the bottom of the standings in hopes of obtaining a high lottery pick.
Last year, only one starting spot was up for grabs and the Bulls did everything they could to hand it to Nikola Mirotic, but it’s the opposite this time around as only one spot seems to be nailed down in the form of Robin Lopez at center.
So the rotation spots and starting positions will be determined by who plays best, which should lead to some intriguing personnel battles in practices and in the preseason.
The spirit of competition was initiated by Bulls Executive Vice-President John Paxson and reiterated by head coach Fred Hoiberg, who after games in his first two years often lamented lackluster efforts against lesser opponents.
One would think that shouldn’t be the case this season.
“I love their effort. I think our guys are out there competing at a very high level,” Hoiberg said. “We're making mistakes, there's no doubt about that. Most teams at this stage are, especially young teams. The important part is we've gotten better each day.”
Hoiberg said the turnovers have been an early issue but that’s to be expected in the first week of camp, especially with Hoiberg wanting to increase possessions and play faster.
“It’s really just play as hard as you can when you’re out there,” second-year guard Denzel Valentine said. “We’re young. With youth, there’s a lot of energy. We should be one of the fastest-paced teams in the NBA. If we play hard and play the right way, we have enough talent and we’re deep enough.”
Speaking of the simple plays as opposed to making the spectacular ones, the vision of Valentine trying to squeeze passes into rapidly-closing windows was a frequent occurrence in his rookie year last season.
After playing with the ball throughout his college career at Michigan State, he didn’t have many opportunities with Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo rightly making most of the decisions.
So when he did get his chances, he often played too fast but not quick enough to make the flashy look-away passes he was accustomed to pulling off. It led to an uneven rookie season and left him as a forgotten man of sorts when the Bulls made their draft-night trade to acquire Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn.
“There wasn’t need for me to try to playmake. My role last year was pretty much be a spot-up shooter and be efficient when I get the ball,” Valentine said. “This year, my role is going to increase. I’m going to be able to make more plays and do things I’m comfortable doing. It’ll be better.”
In theory he has a leg up on Dunn, if he’s in the running to play the point. He’s had a year to be in Hoiberg’s offensive system and should know the terminology and concepts better than any other perimeter player.
Even though his ankle surgery over the summer had a longer recovery time than he expected, leading to an uneven showing at Summer League, he has plenty of opportunity to show where he fits in the present and future of the franchise.
He’s shown he’s a capable shooter, shooting 35 percent from 3 and 38 after the All-Star break when his minutes doubled.
“(I’m) really just slowing down, getting more comfortable playing at pro speed, and my shooting of course,” he said. “Defensively, I want to be able to stay on the floor at all times and be able to guard 1-4. Defensively is a big improvement.”
His lack of athleticism certainly hurts him defensively, a place where Dunn is expected to excel, along with Jerian Grant still being in the mix. But he knows he’ll have his chances and presumably, Hoiberg will have no problem making this competition a meritocracy as opposed to fulfilling any preconceived agenda.
“There’s definitely opportunity knocking on the door,” Valentine said. “I just put in the back of my mind that no matter happens, I’m going to stay me, put in the work. Since the trade happened and more opportunity is here, I have to grow up a little faster now. I’m spending more time in the gym, spending more time watching film, taking it more serious with my body.”
As for starting or coming off the bench, Valentine said: “This year, I’m just going to have an open mind. If I start, I start. If I don’t, I don’t. I’m going to try to do what I do and keep progressing.”