Bulls sense something building after productive September: 'The mentality of this organization changed'

Bulls sense something building after productive September: 'The mentality of this organization changed'

There’s a chance we’ll look back at September 2019 as the turning point of the Bulls’ rebuild.

It’s obviously too soon to say – the Bulls have still won 49 games in two seasons and have the NBA’s second youngest roster – but the unanimous sentiment around Media Day on Monday at the Advocate Center was that there’s a fresh breath of air throughout the organization.

Last season wasn’t rock bottom, but it felt like it at times. Core pieces of the rebuild missed significant time with injuries, there was a midseason head coaching change, the players walked out of a practice, the Bulls suffered eight home losses of 23 or more points, and they struck out in the Lottery for a second consecutive season.

But the front office quietly put together a strong summer, nabbing two key veteran free agents and drafting a point guard with much-needed versatility. Jim Boylen took it upon himself to spend time with each key piece of the roster. And perhaps most importantly, there was near-perfect attendance inside the Advocate Center during the final month of the offseason.

And it was in that month of September that the Bulls say they began to see a shift. With six new faces – seven including Otto Porter, who played just 15 games for the Bulls season – the team meshed in those September workouts, leaders were formed and the intensity increased. All getting-guys-in-our-building jokes aside, the Bulls believe that month of time together will push them forward as they enter Year 3 of the rebuild.

“A lot has changed. I think the mentality of this organization changed. Since I’ve come here, just what we want to do here has changed. With that being said, I think everybody’s on the right page, I think with all the talent that we have, we’ve come early to put in that extra work to get to know everybody, every piece in here, even in the front office, because we want to do something special here.

“And I think it starts by coming together, being around each other. I think that’s what starts it. And then working together on and off the court. Playoffs is a definite achievement that we want to accomplish.”

Porter noted a handful of players flying to Las Vegas to watch the rookies in Summer League, four different 1-on-1 tournaments that the Bulls held in those September workouts, and complete buy-in from everyone that formed chemistry and bonding that wasn’t there a year ago.

There’s a reason that everyone who spoke Monday said the Bulls have playoff aspirations. It’s a significant shift from April’s end-of-the-year press conferences when there was cautious phrasing about what the future looked like. The famous “P” word was not uttered once.

“You can just see the vibe that’s just happening in this building as far as the camaraderie with the new guys, the old guys, as far as a belief system in just putting in the work,” general manager Gar Forman said. "And the last thing I would say is that the job Jim and his staff have done, watching them throughout the draft process, through Summer League, through individual workouts, through what they’ve done in September, to me has been top notch.”

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have bought into the leadership roles they’ll need to take on as the Bulls’ 1-2 punch. Adding a veteran in Thaddeus Young who has both experience with rebuilds and on playoff contenders has also done wonders, and he’s already taken it upon himself to be a vocal leader in the locker room. Tomas Satoransky led the Czech Republic national team to a surprising sixth place finish in their first ever World Cup before arriving in Chicago, and Wendell Carter fully recovered from the core muscle surgery he underwent earlier in the summer.

“We had full attendance,” Boylen said on what made the September workouts so special. “I think the energy that they brought and the dedication to being here is a statement. It’s a statement that they want to be here and they want to win.

“We can’t start camp with a limited camp, with the shortness of camp, five preseason games, behind. We talked about that. And they made the commitment to come in and work and care. I feel we’re starting camp in great shape.”

It also helped that the Bulls were – knock on wood – healthy. The only injuries of note are Chandler Hutchison (hamstring) and Luke Kornet (turf toe), who both will miss the first week of training camp. Denzel Valentine (ankle) and Carter (core) will be monitored in the early going but both are expected to be ready to go when practice begins Tuesday afternoon.

But that’s when it really begins. The Bulls weren’t the only team to have a productive summer or buy-in from their players in the lead-up to training camp. This is still a team with significant question marks on the wing and a handful of rotation spots up for grabs. There is no room for slip-ups if their goal is to make the postseason, which would in all likelihood require a 20-win jump from a season ago. The roster is improved, they have a whole offseason under Boylen and their core pieces are healthy, but the proof will be in the results.

A successful September only matters if it leads to a successful October and November.

“The commitment our guys made this last month to be here when they don’t have to be, to get together, to form some camaraderie, has something that has been a powerful thing around this building,” VP John Paxson said. “We know as well as anyone that we have not done anything. For us we know we have to evolve into a very good basketball team, but we like our talent level and we like what we have in this building.”

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2020 NBA Draft Lottery going virtual, breaking Chicago's two-year host run

2020 NBA Draft Lottery going virtual, breaking Chicago's two-year host run

It’s felt pre-ordained for months now. Now, it appears it’s decided.

No, the Bulls didn’t draw the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (yet). But The Athletic’s Shams Charania did report Monday afternoon that the lottery scheduled for Aug. 20 will take place virtually. All 14 teams ‘in attendance’ will be allowed to ‘send’ remote representatives. The event will presumably be televised, but details haven’t emerged on that front yet.

It’s a logical gameplan given the COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing nature, and the acclaim received by virtual draft showcases broadcast by the WNBA and NFL while live sports in the United States were effectively paused.

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The news also sends a few ripples in Bulls world. For one, who will rep the team, in this, its third consecutive lottery appearance? Michael Reinsdorf and Horace Grant manned the post in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But for this year? Benny the Bull would be sure to bring the energy. On the heels of the summer of “The Last Dance,” perhaps a dynasty-era contributor could get the call. Or maybe a newly-minted front office face instead? Time will tell.

And, as our K.C. Johnson pointed out on Twitter, this development also marks the end of a two-year streak of Chicago hosting the lottery in 2018 and 2019. The city has long housed the combine.

Here’s what Adam Silver told NBC Sports Chicago in February when asked his impressions of Chicago as a host-city for the lottery:

We have been very pleased in Chicago. Our community comes together in Chicago for our predraft camp and combine. It made perfect sense to also conduct the draft lottery there. And that was something that Mayor Emanuel never stopped reminding me of. Things can potentially change over time. We are enjoying being in Chicago. Because of the geographic location, it’s more convenient for our teams to be in a more central location. And Chicago, for the same reasons that makes it a fantastic All-Star host, has all the accommodations you need for our teams when they come together for our combine. My anticipation is we’ll be in Chicago for a while. And the city has been terrific to work with.

Silver made that comment before All-Star weekend in Chicago, but all of the above virtues translated. Though Bulls representation was limited, no one would deny Chicago played a splendid host for the festivities.

The Bulls enter this year’s lottery locked into the seventh-best odds (7.5%) at nabbing the No. 1 pick, and a 32% chance of vaulting into the top four. 

Slots No. 1 through No. 8 in the lottery standings are set with the teams excluded from the NBA’s restart. Slots No. 9 through 14 will populate at the end of the play-in round, when postseason seeding is officially set. Teams that started the restart as a top-eight seed in either conference can fall into the lottery if they miss the playoffs, but the ultimate order of the lottery odds will be decided by pre-hiatus record (meaning, for example, that if the current standings hold and the Phoenix Suns finish with a better record than the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, but miss the postseason, the Suns would own better lottery odds than the Pels and Kings by virtues of each team’s pre-hiatus record).

All of which is to say, clear your calendars for next Thursday. After that, rumor and speculation are sure to swirl until the draft itself, which, as of right now, is reportedly scheduled for Oct. 16. The status of the combine remains up in the air, though ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported July 23 that the league is polling teams on which players should be invited to the combine if one takes place.

For the Bulls, helmed by a new front office regime and facing a moment of reckoning in the current rebuild, this year’s draft process is an especially crucial one.


Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history

Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history

NBC Sports Chicago is counting down the top 10 Bulls at each position in franchise history.

We've hit the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. And last, but certainly not least, the men in the middle. The centers.

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Defensive anchors, multi-skilled hubs and blue-collar tenacity abound in these rankings. And plenty of hardware — both of the championship and individual variety.

We hope you've enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Without further adieu...

Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history