Bulls

The Bulls' season is at a low point, but there's still much to play for

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USA Today

The Bulls' season is at a low point, but there's still much to play for

NEW YORK — 23 seconds into Wendell Carter Jr.’s first game since Jan. 6, the Bulls’ starting center blocked Elfrid Payton’s driving layup and then missed a turnaround hook shot at the other end.

“I got winded first trip down the court,” Carter said after returning from his severely sprained right ankle.

In some ways, you could say the first possession of the Bulls’ eventual 125-115 loss to the Knicks served as a metaphor for this lost season. It began with such promise and ended with disappointment — with a hint of pain for good measure.

Granted, getting winded isn’t the same as an injury. But some metaphorical allowances must be made for a season that has so spectacularly drifted from the script.

After losing to a Knicks team that won the rebounding battle by 17, posted an opponent season-high 76 points in the paint and snapped a six-game skid, the Bulls are a season-worst 20 games under .500 entering March.

Think about that.

A season that began with playoff talk and such promise has devolved into a revolving door of injury updates and poor play. And losing. So much losing.

Is now the time to mention that 17 of the Bulls’ final 22 games are against teams currently in playoff position?

This is a critical stretch for the Bulls, who also returned Denzel Valentine back from his strained hamstring for his first action since Super Bowl Sunday. This is the time teams can check out, can end huddles with chants like “1-2-3, Cancun!”

And Zach LaVine knows it.

“I feel good for everyone coming back,” LaVine said. “I just hope we can all stay locked in and finish these games out.

“You have other stuff creep into your mind. You’re looking at the finish line instead of looking at the next day. You have to fight that. Everybody’s different. I focus on what I can, stick to my routine. Obviously, I enjoy playing basketball. I had basketball taken away from me with my ACL injury for a while and it gave me a new perspective on it. Since that, I try to play in any game that I can. I enjoy playing.”

LaVine did his part, scoring 26 points with seven assists and playing through a sore quad that he tweaked in pregame warmups. Yes, even those aren’t safe anymore, as Coby White proved by scoring 22 points after having his status uncertain until just before tipoff after he tweaked his back before Thursday’s practice.

LaVine rode a stationary bicycle in a Madison Square Garden tunnel to keep his quad loose. And if we’re going to extend — beat into the ground? — this metaphor, that seemed fitting too.

RELATED: Coby White: 'I feel like my time is coming'

The Bulls are spinning their wheels this season, not showing progress in the win-loss record in the third season of the rebuild.

“I’d be disappointed for sure. I’d definitely be shocked,” Carter said, when asked what he would’ve thought if someone told him in training camp that the Bulls would be 20 games under .500 in March. “Now that I’m looking back, it’s like, damn, we just had so many injuries. So many people have been out. I feel like we haven’t had a full healthy team since I been in Chicago. It just kind of sucks as a team.

“We got time though. If we can’t make the run we need to make to get in the playoffs this year, I feel like we have to set the tone for next year.”

There you go. Everybody is searching for something to play for down the stretch. LaVine wants to play all 82 games.

“I just try to focus on what I can do. If I can look myself in the mirror and say I did everything I could do at the end of the game, I’m happy with that,” LaVine said. “Stick to my routine. Try to be a pro. Help lead and get better. I think we can all do better being consistent with ourselves.

“I can’t speak for everybody else. I know when I step on the floor, I think I can win. I haven’t been a winner in the NBA but I don’t feel like I’m a losing player.”

Valentine is playing for his NBA future, whether it’s with the Bulls or, if they let the restricted free agent walk, elsewhere.

“It’s huge to prove to myself and to everybody else that I belong for good,” Valentine said.

Carter is playing to prove he can stay on the court and be a leader.

“We have to learn that none of that individual (expletive) matters as long as we’re not winning,” he said.

And on and on and on. The Bulls still hope to get Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. back in the near future. The final 22 games could be a death march or they could be a tease for the future.

The past is ugly.

“How have we arrived here? There are a lot of different factors,” LaVine said. “I don’t think some people played up to par. I don’t think we did the right things game-to-game. We fight but we don’t get the end result we need. Something has to change.

“Still, we have to stay consistent. Don’t let that doubt creep in. There are going to be frustrations with the season, frustration with the losses. Obviously, you could play the blame game with injuries and ‘poor me.’ I don’t think anybody gives a damn about that. (Teams are) going to try to get easy wins. You have to take pride in it. This is still our job. We have to compete and play.”

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NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

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The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

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