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Bulls guard Zach LaVine feeling free with new coach Billy Donovan

Under former coach Jim Boylen and the analytics department, players such as LaVine felt like they were playing with “one hand behind your back’’ in an offensive philosophy that frowned on the midrange game. Expect that to change under Donovan.

The Bulls’ Zach LaVine is ready to turn his back on Jim Boylen’s system.
The Bulls’ Zach LaVine is ready to turn his back on Jim Boylen’s system.
AP

The duct tape is off, and the other hand is now free.

Without even coaching guard Zach LaVine up a single minute yet, new Bulls coach Billy Donovan already has given him a weapon he begrudgingly had stripped from him by the old regime.

Yes, the mid-range jumper is back in LaVine’s arsenal, and he couldn’t be more excited to unleash it.

‘‘I feel like it’s going to be a lot better for guys, especially for me,’’ LaVine said in a Zoom call Thursday when discussing Donovan’s coaching philosophy with the mid-range jumper. ‘‘Like, if you have that part of your game, now you can use all of your tools instead of almost playing with one hand behind your back. You’re supposed to shoot a shot that’s open. Don’t pass on the best shot. I’m not saying that we should be taking strictly mid-range jumpers, and I know [Donovan] doesn’t think that, either. But if it’s a good shot, you should take it. And you shouldn’t feel bad about it, either.’’

Hear that, Bulls analytics?

Former coach Jim Boylen heard it loud and clear last month. He was fired by executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas for many reasons, including a different vision of what the Bulls’ offense should look like.

Not that Boylen should have been the only fall guy for the Bulls’ offensive woes last season. After all, he was just following orders. Looking to appease his bosses, Boylen and the coaching staff let the numbers guys try jamming a square peg into a round hole and frowned on players who took mid-range shots.

The marching orders were to attack the rim or shoot a three-pointer. It was described as ‘‘modern basketball’’ by the guys with calculators, even though it turned several three-dimensional players into more two-dimensional ones.

Lost in that philosophy is understanding basketball. LaVine, as well as players such as forward Lauri Markkanen, center Wendell Carter Jr. and guard Coby White, saw how easily teams were able to defend them, especially late in games.

The opposition knew that if the three-pointer didn’t go up, it had to be prepared to defend the rim.

‘‘That’s why [the Thunder] were so hard to guard this year,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘Sometimes you go into games and know these guys don’t shoot a lot of two-pointers or mid-ranges, and you can almost bait them in and see, ‘OK, they’re either going to shoot threes, or they’re going to go all the way to the cup.’ ’’

Donovan believes in arming his team with more options.

‘‘Analytics is a tool,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘There are players — and I had one last year — Chris Paul may be as good as there is playing in the mid-range. I think it all comes down to the confidence of a player. If you’ve got a team that maybe is not a great three-point shooting team or you have a team that has some players that like playing in the mid-range . . .

‘‘I had Carmelo [Anthony, and he] liked doing that. So did Paul George. Those guys were elite offensive players for their entire careers. So you don’t want to take away what’s made them who they are.

‘‘But what are the things you have to do to offset a lot of those three-point shots that are going up? Well, one is you can’t turn the ball over. Two is you have to rebound really, really well, and then you’ve got to get to the free-throw line. I think you want players to play to their strengths.’’

Donovan isn’t afraid of using the three-pointer, but he gets coaching. If the Bulls wanted a lot of three-pointers, then they probably should have built a roster with good three-point shooters, not one that finished 11th in the league in three-point attempts but 22nd in three-point percentage.

‘‘I still do believe quality of shots, distribution of shots and generating good shots are really critically important,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘But I’ve always said . . . if you don’t want to take non-paint twos, then you can’t have non-paint twos players. If you want to be a three-point shooting team, you’ve got to put all three-point shooters out there. So as more and more threes have gone up, I do think the numbers will prove, for certain players, it’s not a great shot. I think there’s certain players that feel more comfortable under 15 feet.

‘‘I know with Chris Paul, just being with him last year, seeing him shoot the ball, he is an amazing mid-range jump shooter, and I would never want to take that away from him because it makes him who he is. You want to utilize those things because that’s what’s made him great.’’

LaVine is undoubtedly the best player on the Bulls’ roster. But while the hiring of Donovan most likely will affect him most, he won’t be alone in that category:

Lauri Markkanen: The big man was nothing more than a big decoy far too often last season and privately ripped on Boylen and the offense he was asked to play. Whenever the 2020-21 season begins, it will be a huge one for Markkanen. He not only will be looking to reclaim his spot as an up-and-comer, but he must show the Bulls he is a commodity worth investing in moving forward. This will be Donovan’s most crucial fixer-upper.

Wendell Carter Jr.: The draft will show the Bulls’ hand. Will they select a center at No. 4 and allow Carter to move to power forward, the position he had played his entire basketball life before the NBA? He was all but an afterthought in Boylen’s offense, and it feels as though he has a lot of untapped potential.

Coby White: The shoot-first guard wants to play the point and wants to start. It will be up to Donovan to find out if White is lead-guard material, then get him to understand the importance of decision-making and putting teammates in the best position to succeed.