HoopsHype’s Michael Scotto and NBC Sports Chicago’s KC Johnson discussed Zach LaVine’s long-term future with free agency approaching, the NBA’s investigation into the Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade, the expectations for the Bulls this season, and more. The duo also discussed Ball’s development, DeMar DeRozan’s fit, Coby White’s injury update and trade potential, Patrick Williams’ role this season, and Billy Donovan’s chances to win Coach of the Year.
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1:37 Expectations for the Bulls internally
Johnson: It’s been pretty clear since the Nikola Vucevic trade, this regime is pretty hell-bent on winning and ending the playoff drought. These guys came in and inherited a roster that was not theirs, evaluated it, quickly concluded they didn’t like it, and went about changing it to their vision.
4:54 KC Johnson’s expectations for the Bulls
Johnson: I had them for a Top 6 finish in the East. I thought they’d be in the 45-win range. It’s a pretty big jump. They won 31 games last year in the shortened season… They’ve got really poised players. They’ve got aggressive and hungry players. DeMar DeRozan keeps talking about the collective group having a chip on their shoulder. They’ve all kind of had individual success along the way, but other than Alex Caruso who’s got a championship and DeMar’s one trip to the Conference Finals with the Raptors, they haven’t really experienced much team success.
Scotto: That’s kind of where I had them on the border of six. If you look at the East, the Celtics improved, the Hornets improved, the Bulls did, and the Knicks got better as well. Atlanta’s young core is getting better. I think the East is as interesting as it’s been in a long time.
7:45 Lonzo Ball’s development
Johnson: Man, he’s good. He’s way better than I thought he was. When you see him on a nightly basis, you see the selflessness offensively, the commitment to being about the team, the humility off the court, and the team-first answers in media sessions. It’s never about himself. The pace with which he pushes the ball offensively and his improved three-point shot. Defensively is where I’ve been blown away.
I think they’re getting him at the right time. He’s on his third team. He’s talked about this organization embracing him for who he is rather than who he isn’t, which if you look at the expectations he had in LA as the No. 2 overall pick, that’s a lot. He talked last year about being in more of a 3-and-D role with the Pelicans. It was clear they didn’t really value him for their future. He’s just been a guy at ease because he knows this is an organization that not only aggressively pursued him in free agency but tried to trade for him at the last trade deadline in March.
10:40 Where the NBA stands on the Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade investigation
Johnson: I was on the conference call with Adam Silver, who was asked about it, and he quickly dismissed it, saying the investigation is ongoing and there’s no update or timetable. I was erroneously under the impression that it would have a soft deadline of when the regular season opened because that’s when the Bogdan Bogdanovic investigation concluded last year. It’s the only comparison you have for this situation… It’s not like they’re going to be undoing the transaction. It’s just what kind of penalty, if any, is handed down if guilt is found. We can assume it’ll be monetary or draft capital or a combination thereof.
Scotto: Looking at it from the outside, I wondered the further it was going on if it makes you wonder if maybe they are finding stuff. It’s unclear, but food for thought.
12:41 DeMar DeRozan’s fit and All-Star chances
Scotto: I wondered how he was going to fit in a big three with Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine because most of his career, he’s not a guy that’s stretched the floor. He’s a guy who’s shot long twos and had post-ups.
Johnson: Here’s where I think the local perception contrasts with the national perception of that signing. We watched this team struggle last year with three critical areas. They never got to the free-throw line. They struggled with ball security. They struggled with clutch scoring. If you look at DeRozan’s resume over his 12 years in the NBA, that’s what he is. He gets to the line, he takes care of the ball, and he’s a great isolation clutch scorer.
17:05 Zach LaVine’s free agency future
Scotto: Behind the scenes to my knowledge, Zach definitely wanted to win this year and he wanted to give Arturas (Karnisovas) a chance to build around him as the focal point of this team.
Johnson: I’d say every indication I’ve been given both internally from his side and the organization is this is a match made to move forward together. I don’t think you expend the draft capital this regime has doled out in the Vucevic trade and the DeRozan acquisition without doing everything in your power to appease your No. 1 player and to try and win now. We know the Bulls have the ability to pay him more than any other franchise. There’s also not a lot of cap space out there this summer. With the funky situations with Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving, are there some All-NBA spots up for grabs in the backcourt in the league? If he earns that distinction, he’s super-max eligible. There are a million reasons why I think he’s going to be here long-term. He has really embraced being the face of the franchise ever since the Jimmy Butler trade, even when they were bad. He’s always been front and center as the star of the team, always available media-wise, he’s a good representative of the franchise, he loves living in Chicago, he loves the history and legacy of the franchise. I personally have always felt this was headed for a long-term extension.
There was the storyline they could’ve extended him this summer where they could’ve re-negotiated and extended him, but then they wouldn’t have been able to add the pieces they made. Zach was a big part of those pieces being added. He was involved in that process with management, which is another sign of the trust that’s being built between those two parties. Zach was on board with all these additions. He knew what they were doing in terms of his future pushing his contract situation until next summer.
We’ve asked him about it ad nauseam, and he’s not engaging in it. He’s said all along, “I want what I’m worth, but I’m happy here, and it’s going to take care of itself.”
20:50 Behind the scenes of Lauri Markkanen’s Bulls restricted free agency
Johnson: The Hornets had interest, the Spurs, the Mavericks. The Bulls were never against bringing Lauri back. It was clear Lauri wanted a fresh start. If you look at their roster, he kind of fits. He wouldn’t be starting, and he made that clear a starting role was important to him, but the Bulls were open to having him back on their terms. They made a good faith offer before the last season for the rookie extension. It’s just Lauri and his representatives had the right to turn that down.
Scotto: He got a starting spot with Cleveland and a focal point of that young core. I think Cleveland’s offer ended up being better than Chicago’s, from what I heard.
23:15 Coby White injury update
Johnson: We were told mid-November for the next update. That’s in line with the timeline for surgery to repair a torn labrum. I don’t think that means he’s back then. I think that means maybe an update and cleared for contact on the court and stuff. I think if all things go well, maybe you’re talking the end of November or sometime early December for his return to the court.
24:41 Coby White trade possibility
Scotto: A couple of executives around the league I spoke to believe that Coby White is a trade candidate for the Bulls because he was a part of the old regime, and he’ll move to that bench role as a combo guard.
Johnson: I think he’s still got a pretty big role because bench scoring has been a huge issue. I think the way Billy Donovan is coaching, he’s staggering DeRozan with the second unit. I think those two guys playing together could do some damage with that second unit… If a deal presents itself where they can add a big man, I certainly think that’s something they have to consider given the size concerns for this roster.
27:20 Patrick Williams’ breakout potential
Scotto: I polled executives on players who could be breakout candidates for this year, and Patrick Williams came in fifth in our HoopsHype executives poll.
Johnson: Defensively, I think he’s got a lot of potential, but there’s a little consternation among the fan base here about his passivity at times. He can tend to drift and disappear, particularly offensively. Rebounding has been a little bit of an issue. The physical tools are clearly there. The athleticism is clearly there.
Billy Donovan, in kind of an unsolicited fashion after the third home victory over the Pistons, offered a pretty passionate defense of him telling everybody to preach patience, basically saying this is a guy who played one year of college basketball, didn’t have a legitimate training camp yet because his rookie year was affected by the pandemic and there was no Summer League. This year after Summer League, he missed all of training camp because of an ankle injury.
30:20 Alex Caruso’s impact
Johnson: He’s already gotten “MVP” chants at the free-throw line at the United Center. That’s happened every home game, and it’s gotten louder… He leads the NBA in deflections right now. He’s second in the league in steals, and he’s only playing 27 minutes per game. The guy does what he does. He’s an annoying physical pest at the point of attack, and he doesn’t stop defensively.
He’s closing games over Patrick Williams. They’re playing DeMar at the four. The tight games the Bulls have had it’s been Ball, Caruso, LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic.
32:45 Billy Donovan’s Coach of the Year chances
Scotto: For me, Billy Donovan is a strong Coach of the Year award candidate. I picked him to win the award. As you said, I think Chicago could win in the mid-40s and be a potential six seed or so.
Johnson: The one common denominator I’ve always noticed and appreciated is how well his team defends. He had four top-10 defenses in his five years in Oklahoma City, and even last year, with a disjointed year, changing personnel, and a young group to start the season, the Bulls’ defensive rating was 12th. He gets teams to defend.