New-look Bulls know sacrifice is key to success in 2021-22

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New-look Bulls know sacrifice is key to success in 2021-22 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

After a bustling offseason headlined by roster churn and high-profile free-agent acquisitions, the Chicago Bulls enter training camp for the 2021-22 NBA season with all the tools to snap the franchise’s four-season playoff drought at their disposal.

On paper.

But production on paper doesn’t always equate to success on the court. It’s a lesson the Bulls learned the hard way in 2021, when their trade-deadline-day acquisition of All-Star center Nikola Vučević gave way not to a postseason berth, but a finish short of the play-in tournament.

That’s why the brand of optimism peddled during Monday’s media day was equal parts palpable and cautious. Yes, there was talk of the roster’s undeniable spike in basketball IQ and versatility. Vučević called this iteration of the Bulls “the most talented team I’ve been a part of.” Zach LaVine said that, in his eight NBA years, he’s never been so excited for the start of a season.

But then there were those same players, along with head coach Billy Donovan and executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas, stressing that their work is just beginning. That it may take time for new faces and skill sets to coalesce. And that sacrifice will be crucial.

“I’m not one of those guys who sits there and says because Zach LaVine is a really good scorer and so is DeMar (DeRozan), so is Vooch (Vučević), we’ll just be able to score,” Donovan said. “I think that’s going to be a work in progress.”

Terming that trio “really good scorers” may be understating matters. LaVine is coming off a campaign in which he joined Steph Curry and Dale Ellis as the only guards in NBA history to average 27 points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field and 41 percent from 3-point range. Vučević is one of the most versatile offensive centers in the sport, a post hub that last season averaged 23.4 points and shot a career-best 40 percent from distance. DeRozan, a four-time All-Star, is a 20-point-per game scorer over the course of his 12-year career and hasn’t averaged beneath that threshold since 2013.

Each of the three have been unquestioned No. 1 scoring options throughout long spells of their NBA careers. That will change this season. So could their statistics. 

But, in the eyes of all three, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

“If we all come in with the right mindset and do what it takes to win, it’s not going to matter,” said LaVine. “Numbers really shouldn’t matter at the end of the day if we’re getting wins, because that means everybody’s winning.”

“We definitely have to adjust our games a little bit,” Vučević added. “In Orlando my role was different than it will be here, and same with Zach when he was just here (in Chicago), it was just him. Now it's DeMar and me. And same for DeMar.

“But I think that's what we wanted. We wanted to have that type of talent around us and then that's what helps you win. I mean you look at some of the best teams around the league, they all have a couple players that have had to make certain sacrifices, change their game a little bit for the better of the team. And I think that all three of us are willing to do that.”

DeRozan was again pointed in his assessment of his fit alongside LaVine, saying “it’s not rocket science” that they’ll mesh. 

Then, in a separate, extended answer on the adjustments he, LaVine and Vučević will need to make to coexist with one another, he made sure to point to their “great-IQ point guard” in Lonzo Ball as a court-organizing resource. And the temperament of the players in the locker room.

“We have great, high-character players, unselfish players and once you have that element, everything else will be easy,” DeRozan said. “On any given night, it could be anybody that could get hot. We all understand that. We’re all unselfish. For me, even choosing on coming here, it was understanding that with the character of the guys and being unselfish. 

“You need that (unselfishness). It goes a long way. It’s not about me, like, ‘I’m going to go out there and get 25 shots.’ No. None of us think that way. It’s all about winning and whatever we need to do and whatever we need to figure out to be a successful team. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Schematically, there is reason to buy the fit, particularly on the offensive end. DeRozan has grown into a tremendous facilitator during this phase of his career, and adds an element of rim pressure past Bulls teams have lacked. Vučević can play on or off the ball and playmake at a high level for a center. LaVine is a lethal cutter and spot-up shooter, and should only improve with more reliable creators around him.

“We have a lot of guys who can handle the ball,” Karnišovas said. “As many ballhandlers as we can get, then we can be more versatile. Teams can struggle defending us and (can’t) have one gameplan to stop one player. I think the versatility gives us a chance every night.”

With camp begins the process of learning how to play with one another. But that unselfish, singularly-focused mindset that LaVine, Vučević and DeRozan espouse is the first step. If the Bulls, as they say, have found the right blend of willingness to sacrifice, hunger to win and basketball skill set, a sublime season could be ahead. If not, pressure will quickly rise considering the salary and draft-capital investment it took to assemble this group.

“I think on any team there is going to have to be sacrifice,” Donovan said. “Zach was as good and as efficient of a scorer as anyone in the league last year. But you are also bringing in Vooch and DeMar. Those guys can score, too. So how do we best function where we are efficient?

“That may require some guys not scoring as many points as maybe they did if it is going to benefit the team, and the team is going to be better because of that. I feel confident because of the IQ that we can play unselfishly. I think it’s going to be how quickly can these guys coexist playing with each other.”

Then, the only number that needs to matter is the one beside the win column.

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