On paper, the Bulls improved at the trade deadline. But they’re now 3-8 since then, including Wednesday’s dismal 115-106 loss to the lowly Magic, who own the league’s fourth-worst record.
Billy Donovan doesn’t want to hear any talk about “on paper” or beatable teams, like Sunday’s loss to the Timberwolves, who possess the league’s worst record.
“We are not in a position now to be looking at anybody and thinking we’re better than anybody,” Donovan said. “That, to me, is the biggest mistake. It doesn’t make a difference who we line up against. It could be a college team or a high school team. If we’re not going to really be desperate and have that sense of urgency, this idea that we sit there and say, ‘This team’s record is this, this team is one of the worst teams.’ Where are we at? That’s what we are trying to build ourselves out of.
"And I think there’s sometimes this perception of ‘Oh wow, this is a team that is vying for a championship.’ No! We’re not. We’ve got to build those habits and we have not built them on a consistent enough level.
“I don’t look at it all as Minnesota’s record, Orlando’s record. We don’t have that luxury. Because you know what? Is Orlando saying the same thing about us? Is Minnesota saying the same thing about us?”
It wasn’t supposed to work like this. The additions of Nikola Vucevic, Daniel Theis, Troy Brown Jr., Al-Farouq Aminu and Javonte Green were supposed to solidify the Bulls’ push for a locked-in playoff spot, not a fight for the 10th seed and a play-in opportunity.
Donovan, who, has been resistant to the idea of starting lineup changes over the last few days, tried plenty of groupings against the Magic.
He deployed 12 players, including Aminu, who hadn’t played since the first game after the deadline against the Spurs. He used zone defense in the third quarter to try to junk up a poor defensive effort that featured someone named Donta Hall, who’s on a 10-day contract, sprinting past Bulls to offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
But Donovan can’t control effort.
“You can’t play desperate for nine minutes and expect to win an NBA game,” he said, citing a fourth-quarter wake-up call that trimmed a 23-point deficit to six.
Worse, his players agreed they didn’t come with the proper effort.
“I was talking to the guys going into that fourth quarter -- think when they got up 20 -- and told them that we were playing lifeless basketball,” Thad Young said. “At that point, we just rolled out of bed and came to work because we had to come.”
Added Zach LaVine, who scored 21 of his 30 points in the fourth but also had a crucial turnover late: “We didn’t play hard enough until the fourth quarter.”
Don’t blame Young. He played just 14 minutes, his second-fewest this season, in another clear sign that Donovan is trying to find the right mix for his new toys.
“We’re just still trying to find our identity. Who are we going to be as a team? How we’re going to play? What we’re going to do?” Young said. “On the defensive side, I think we still have a lot of, ‘What are we doing out there?’ Or, ‘How are we supposed to do this?’ It’s a lot of thinking that’s still going on. And trying to process how we need to play and what lineups need to be out there and how these lineups all work together.”
The Bulls will get some rare, and needed, practice time Thursday. The defensive issues are glaring and need fixing. The Magic scored 14 points off turnovers, 21 points off 13 offensive rebounds and enjoyed a 20-9 advantage on free-throw attempts.
Wendell Carter Jr. wore a smile on his face after piling up 19 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals. Trading him, and two first-round picks, was mortgaging some of the future for a win-now mentality.
Sure, more offseason changes are coming. But that offseason might get here faster than imagined unless the Bulls figure things out with the urgency with which they need to play at all times.