The idea of tanking for Zion Williamson remains an afterthought for the Bulls
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The Bulls’ priority list for the last 24 games of the regular season should be a short one.
Positioning for the draft lottery should be 1A and 1B on the list.
But don’t tell that to coach Jim Boylen.
With the team reconvening at the Advocate Center for a post-All-Star-break, early-evening practice, Boylen was his usual amped-up self.
“I’m hopeful, I’m excited,’’ Boylen said. “I like how we’ve improved and the additions we’ve made. I feel really good about it. We’re playing competitive basketball. We’re starting to get a feel for each other.
“I think Lauri Markkanen has had as good a 30 days as a guy I’ve ever coached. That’s exciting for us. We’re going to keep trying to grow and coach and teach. Our spirit has been good. Our soul has been good.’’
Maybe too good when it comes to the big picture, especially if that picture contains 6-7, 285-pound man-child Zion Williamson, who sprained his right knee in the first minute Wednesday and left Duke’s game against North Carolina.
The Bulls closed the first half by adding Otto Porter Jr. in a trade with the Wizards, then promptly went 2-2.
They will begin the final stretch with the fourth-worst record in the league, hence the tightrope Boylen has to walk.
He wants his players to improve and continue to learn winning habits but also knows there could be an organizational-changing prize in this year’s lottery.
“From my vantage point, I’m worried about us growing, and you grow when you have pressure put on you,’’ Boylen said. “You grow when you have something at stake. So I’m going to keep pushing these guys to grow as a team and — I’ve said it before — push them without being combative, push them without having them get frustrated. The benefit of that for the team and the franchise is valuable, too.
“I don’t make all those big-picture decisions. I’m doing what I’ve been asked to do, which is coach the team as hard as I can in the best way possible. I’m just trying to do that, and our guys have been great, and they’ve improved. We’ve got to get more out of them, and they’ve got to improve more, and we’re going to coach them that way.’’
So expect the same intense antics on the sideline, the same boot-camp mentality in practice. For Boylen, Williamson and the big picture are secondary to the now.
“My marching orders are to continue to coach and develop and demand good basketball and better play and honor the things we’ve talked about — playing for the Bulls across their chest, competing at a high level, playing the right way,’’ Boylen said. “That’s what I’m focused on and what I’ve been asked to do.’’
And if Bulls fans were somehow hoping the players would entertain the idea of piling up losses for a better chance at landing Williamson, well, that’s not happening.
“That’s for the fan base and the people above my pay grade to make those decisions,’’ guard Zach LaVine said. “I don’t think the fan base wants a team to go out there and lose on purpose. I think they want players who are competitive and want to win. I want to win every game, so I understand what some people may think, but, to be honest, I’m going out there and playing for myself and my teammates not to lose.
“I’ll let the chips fall where they may, and at the end of the season, we’ll see what we are doing.’’