Go back to Chicago Bulls media day in late September, back before this magical season began.
DeMar DeRozan tried to warn us.
“We’re all unselfish,” DeRozan said then. “For me, even choosing on coming here, it was understanding that with the character of the guys and being unselfish, it goes a long way. It’s not about me, like, ‘I’m going to go out there and get 25 shots.’ No. None of us think that way. It’s all about winning.”
The Bulls keep doing that, making NBA history on New Year’s Day. In their seventh straight victory that nudged them into sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead, DeRozan became the first player in NBA history to make buzzer-beating game-winners on consecutive nights.
Meet the New Year. Same as the old year.
It’s hard to quantify DeRozan’s impact on the franchise. You could go to numbers, where DeRozan has scored the most fourth-quarter points in the league. Or you could go to nuance.
“The beauty of it is he is who he is,” acting head coach Chris Fleming said. “He comes every day. He’s got a routine and a way to treat people. I think some of it just starts there.
“He has come here for the right reasons. He really wants to be part of a winner. He’s a winning player. He has been on good teams before. I think the way he goes about talking to his teammates and treating his teammates and treating and talking to his coaches, I think that of all the other things you see on the basketball court and his ability to put that thing in the basket, I think it starts there with him.”
DeRozan has infused the franchise with belief. He exudes calmness at all times, but particularly under pressure. He owns an unrelenting and unwavering commitment to winning.
One of his favorite sayings is as long he has time, he has a chance. Well, the Bulls have a lot of time to get even better before this restorative season ends.
“Just hungry to win,” DeRozan said Saturday night via Zoom from Washington. “Being in the locker room with guys and a coaching staff that make coming to work fun, motivating and exciting. Every time I get an opportunity to go and play with these guys, it’s a dream come true in a sense. Even though I’ve been in the league for awhile, it’s that refreshed feeling that you have playing basketball. Credit to these guys and this organization. That’s just the culture we have right now.”
That culture began with incremental steps. Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley entered and placed their stamp on the franchise, much like John Paxson did when he succeeded Jerry Krause.
Billy Donovan’s arrival added another layer. A win-now move by management at last season’s trade deadline to acquire Nikola Vučević pushed more chips to the center of the table.
But the culture advanced significantly when LaVine and DeRozan started talking about their partnership. Those conversations began during the fluidity of free agency and then intensified once DeRozan’s acquisition became official.
Shared preseason workouts in Los Angeles and Chicago built trust.
“I mean, you always have to have confidence,” LaVine said Saturday via Zoom from Washington, when asked if he could have envisioned this storyline unspooling. “I have the utmost respect for him and confidence in his game. And obviously I have confidence in my game as well from the work I put in.
“The chemistry came really, really fast and really easy. We don’t have any egos. Regardless of who has it going that night or who has it going in a quarter, we’ll both come together and look for other guys and get them involved throughout the game and just try to figure out how to win the game. That’s been the first and foremost thing that has helped this team.”
And then, when all else fails, find DeRozan in the fourth.
That’s a light-hearted way of trying to summarize things, of trying to capture this lightning in a bottle. Even DeRozan admitted he didn’t know if he was dreaming after making NBA history.
“It’s an honor to be trusted in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Whether things are going or going bad, my teammates always lean on me to be that calm presence to kind of bring us home. I always bring that calm presence as much as I can in the fourth quarter, letting guys understand as long we got time, we got a chance.”
The Bulls are making the most of theirs.