They matter at home. They matter at work — even in the billion-dollar business that is the NBA.
Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley emphasized that dynamic when the Chicago Bulls hired them to modernize the front office. Head coach Billy Donovan, always known as a players coach, followed suit.
That brings us to Friday.
The Bulls unveiled some of their shiny new free agency acquisitions. The franchise has fallen on hard times since trading Jimmy Butler in 2017. As other franchises landed big names and top targets, the Bulls largely stood on the outside, mired in a rebuild.
The 2020 NBA All-Star game came and went to the United Center, and the disconnect couldn’t have been more pronounced. As the league celebrated the sport and this city, the Bulls were relegated to a Zach LaVine appearance in the 3-point contest and highlights from the dynasty and Derrick Rose eras.
And yet, 18 months later, there were Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan, two of the bigger names available in the 2021 free agency period, explaining why they chose the Bulls.
“They were the team that stood out that really wanted me for me,” Ball said.
Added DeRozan: “Marc (Eversley), he played a part in drafting me to Toronto. My rookie year, I remember he was one of the first guys to see me work out, before I was even drafted. My time with him in Toronto started our relationship, and it just carried over.
"Even after he left Toronto, just always being in contact with him, having that relationship with him. Obviously when he took the job in Chicago, I definitely congratulated him. For things to come full circle, for me to be sitting down with him having a conversation with him, I know with the relationship we have, he wasn’t going to tell me anything just to tell me anything.
"So when he approached me with it (joining the Bulls), all seriousness, it made it even more easier. He did a hell of a job. It’s just something that I want to be a part of, especially with the relationship I have with him."
Obviously, when Eversley worked for the Raptors, and that franchise drafted DeRozan ninth overall in 2009, neither executive nor player knew their paths would lead towards now. But another united pursuit has connected them anew — to restore the Bulls to relevancy and contention.
“The history speaks for itself,” DeRozan said. “They haven’t had the best seasons the last few years. And kind of being a part of that and wanting to change it back around, bring back that winning mentality. Every guy when I look at that roster has a chip on their shoulders.
“Me knowing Vooch (Nikola Vučević) since college, I know what type of player he is, how bad he wants to win. Zach (LaVine) wanting to be on that main stage and wanting to compete for something much more than just stats during the season. Myself, I always carried a chip on my shoulder. And Lonzo putting all those mentalities together. Even (Alex) Caruso coming from a winning program.
“It’s so much there that could bring so much potential. And it was just something that was appealing to me that I wanted to be a part of, let alone it being in Chicago, one of the greatest cities in the NBA. With those elements all mixing in one, it was hard to turn down.”
Indeed, DeRozan played with Vučević at USC. Ball talked almost reverentially about growing up near Los Angeles, watching DeRozan.
“I hit DeMar up when he first came over and decided he was going to be a part of the Bulls,” Ball said. “As you know, he’s from Compton, LA. So he’s a legend back home. A lot of people look up to him. I grew up watching him play. And I’m just excited to get on the court with everybody on the team.”
DeRozan returned the favor, opining that Ball’s 2021-22 season could be something special.
“I’ve been a fan of his. I remember watching him play in high school, through college. And since he’s been in the league, it seemed like he hasn’t really been let free to be the player that I believe he is," DeRozan said. "Coming to this organization once I saw him sign, and seeing him having that opportunity for the first time in his career, was something that I definitely wanted to be a part of.
"The dynamic that he (Ball) brings to the court on both ends is tremendous. He’s a hell of a point guard, a hell of a player. And for him, I think you’re definitely going to see the best out of Lonzo this upcoming year.”
Of course, hefty paychecks don’t hurt the decision-making process either. Ball left the Pelicans as a restricted free agent to sign a four-year, $80 million deal with the Bulls. DeRozan left the Spurs also on a sign-and-trade to the tune of three years and $82 million.
Relationships matter. But they also can get tested if things go south.
There’s genuine intrigue surrounding the Bulls, but there also are expectations now. Management is ponying up money, and sacrificing draft capital, to end a four-season playoff drought. This needs to work — and work next season.
This is where, beyond their talent, the styles and approaches of Ball and DeRozan should help so much.
Ball is a pass-first player, one of those connecting pieces who likes to push the ball up court — mostly with passes — to set up teammates. He’s also a willing defender.
“Just come in and do what I’ve been doing my whole life, you know. Playing point guard, leading the team, getting things going on the defensive end for sure, picking up the ball,” Ball said. “Just playing with energy and creating a good atmosphere that everybody really wants to be a part of, and just building chemistry together as a unit to win basketball games. That’s what I’m coming in there trying to do, throw those pieces together and move as one.’’
Always a prolific scorer, DeRozan has improved his efficiency and playmaking as his career has progressed. He’s a mid-range assassin who should operate well in the spacing that LaVine, Vučević and others provide.
Entering his 13th season, he’s also a leader.
“I'll step in there and treat everybody the same, with nothing but respect. And for me it's just lending whatever advice I can teach,” DeRozan said. “Last couple years, I've kinda grown even more as a leader being around a lot of younger guys and just trying to give them the confidence that they need and kinda building that camaraderie that carries over on the court.”
After all, relationships matter.