As the Bulls work back a litany of battered bodies, expect lineup and rotation gymnastics to continue.
In the team’s first game back from the All-Star break against the Charlotte Hornets, Ryan Arcidiacono made his first start of the campaign (and logged a season-high 28 minutes) for an injured Chandler Hutchison. Head coach Jim Boylen confirmed Arcidiacono as a starter for Saturday’s bout with the Phoenix Suns and laid out his rationale.
“[Arcidiacono]’s an additional ball-handler, he creates spacing on the floor, he's a good shooter," Boylen said. "We can have him handle and Zach (LaVine) and (Tomas) Sato(ransky) can play off the ball, which I think is important for them, especially with a team that is down numbers, maybe they get a possession where they can rest or play off the ball."
Arcidiacono started 32 games for the Bulls in 2018-19 — another injury-ravaged season — which he said has made this adjustment a familiar one.
Boylen also elaborated on how that decision is impacting the team’s development plan for rookie Coby White. The hope is White’s spark-plug scoring and creation (he’s averaging 28.5 minutes, 11.5 points and 4.7 assists in his last six games) can be a boon for a Bulls bench drained by injury, while he also grows as a decision-maker and leader.
“[Arcidiacono starting] keeps Coby in that backup role, where he's finding his voice and he's learning to play that (lead guard) position,” Boylen said. “And I think that's important too. Coby has more of a voice with that second group, and we're asking him to run that group as efficiently as he can and learn.”
The Bulls deployed a nine-man rotation for Thursday’s game against Charlotte, and Boylen said that will again be the case tonight. The one tweak: Luke Kornet, who sprained his ankle at Friday afternoon practice, will be inactive, and Adam Mokoka is back from the G League. Boylen said he expects Mokoka to play tonight.
Daniel Gafford will start in Kornet’s place, with Cristiano Felicio the primary big off the bench. Tonight will mark Gafford’s fifth career start and first since Jan. 15, when he gruesomely dislocated his right thumb a minute-and-a-half into a game the Bulls eventually won over the Wizards. Kornet started 14 games at center in his stead. Gafford has been gradually working his way back from a sprained ankle he sustained against the Raptors Feb. 2 (his first game back from the thumb).
“I love his energy. He tries, I think he's grown as a young, developing player. I like having him out there. I know Daniel is gonna embrace his role, he's gonna compete on every possession,” Boylen said of Gafford, who will have his hands full with Suns center Deandre Ayton tonight. “We're still trying to get [Gafford’s] wind up, get his legs back. It's hard, our [centers] in our system do a lot. We have an active defense and they're involved in a lot of our offense, so the conditioning piece for all of them is really important.”
Gafford’s re-introduction to heavy minutes should help a reeling Bulls defense. His 1.2 blocks per game and 42 total blocks are both second among rookies, and, per Cleaning the Glass, Bulls opponents shoot 1.6% less frequently and 8.1% less accurately (96th percentile) when Gafford is on the floor. The Bulls have allowed 70.2% shooting in the restricted area (dead last in the NBA) since Wendell Carter Jr. went down on Jan. 6.
As for others on the mend: Hutchison suffered a setback in his nicked up right shoulder just before the All-Star break, and said on Friday that he received a cortisone shot in it — a strategy he says has worked for him in the past. Hutchison is listed as doubtful, but with Boylen revealing the team will use a nine-man rotation, it’s safe to assume he won’t play.
The same is true for Carter, who did some sprinting with Otto Porter Jr. (already ruled out) after shootaround.
“Target dates are floating,” Boylen said of when he expects those with ambiguous recovery timelines to return. “We discuss them after every ramp up — a little bit more this day, a little bit more the next day. There’s a conversation that happens: ‘How you feeling? How’s it going? What do you think, a little sore today? Ok we’ll back it off a little.’ That might change when a guy’s coming back or I feel pretty good and you know what I’m going to ramp it up again today. That’s just the process.
“I do feel some guys are close, I feel they’re closer than they were two days ago. I feel they’re closer than they were after we got back from the All-Star break. I don’t spend a whole bunch of time worrying over when they’re going to be back, how’s it going to happen, I have to coach the guys I have now in the moment and prepare them to have success.”
That optimism has been consistent from Boylen through adversity — injury-related and otherwise — all season. Now, entrenched in a season-long seven-game losing streak, the team needs something positive more than ever.
“Jim's a positive guy, and he always wants guys to be ready for the next situation at hand,” Arcidiacono said. “I think that with all the injuries that are happening it's next-man-up and he still expects us to win and go out there and compete every single day.”
“I don’t wake up saying, boy, this is a tough moment, this is a tough day, or we’ve got eight of our 17 not playing. I don’t do that. It is what it is,” Boylen said. “My job is to teach and coach this team. I think my staff’s doing a great job of getting us ready and staying positive and organized, and I just don’t go there. I’m not going there. I’m not going there for the team, I’m not going there for my staff, I’m not going there for the organization.
“Our guys have been great. Our guys have been very resilient, our staff’s been very resilient. Front office has been very supportive. It’s a difficult moment, that’s the way it is.”