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.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.