Coach Billy Donovan has done what he can with the Bulls as currently composed. They’re more efficient on offense, their rebounding is stronger, they’re mentally tougher and they’re five games better in the standings than they were at this time last season.
But there’s only so much make-up you can put on a pig.
Wednesday’s 106-99 loss to the Spurs was a reminder of how much more work Donovan and his staff have to do with this group. More important, it was a message to the front office that while there are a few pieces in place for this retooling, they aren’t nearly enough — not if the postseason is the immediate goal.
The major concerns during the first week of the season were turnovers and fouling, and coming out of the meltdown against the Spurs, little has changed. The Bulls entered their day off Thursday last in the NBA in ball security, averaging 15.2 turnovers per game, and were ranked 18th out of 30 teams in fouls with 20 per game.
The fouling is likely fixable. Young players learn the league, learn tendencies and self-correct. But turnovers and easily blinking when put in conflict situations may be innate problems for some of the Bulls’ personnel. Tomas Sator-ansky is a combo guard who sees the floor well, but he isn’t breaking ankles. Second-year point guard Coby White has great north-south speed but can get careless with the ball, doesn’t always see the floor well and doesn’t have a lot of shake in his handles. Zach LaVine is an improved decision-maker and an above-average ball-handler for an off guard, but that’s the problem — he’s an off guard.
This has all created a convenient blueprint for teams facing the Bulls, but the visiting Spurs took it to another level Wednesday. Down by 23, they went to an attack-pressure defense in the second half, leading to careless Bulls turnovers and knocking the Bulls’ offense completely out of sync.
“We had a pretty substantial lead,” LaVine said. “They just kept cutting it down. When they put the pressure on us, some of us handled it well. And then they played the shot clock against us, so when we finally got it over, we were running our offense late. And then they were making us take some tough shots where we didn’t even get a shot off. That’s what’s going to happen when you can’t execute.”
The Spurs also shot 22-for-30 from the free-throw line, while the Bulls were 8-for-9. The Spurs committed nine turnovers, the Bulls 17.
“I do think that your habits and things like that get exposed under the most pressurized situations,” Donovan said.
It falls on Arturas Karnisovas, the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, to start some repairs. Just because a player has improved his ballhandling under Donovan doesn’t make him a ballhandler. Just because there’s improved playmaking doesn’t mean the Bulls have playmakers.
While it’s not clear exactly where things are headed as next Thursday’s trade deadline approaches, there are some indications already from the Bulls. There’s a reason White is no longer the starting point guard and 32-year-old Thad Young has been moved into the starting center role.
While there’s still a honeymoon period ongoing between Karnisovas and Bulls fans, this roster is flawed and needs fixing — if not by next week, then definitely by this summer.