Folding Under Adversity

Patrick Williams, Wendell Carter Jr, Lauri Markkanen, and Coby White confer with each other mid-game.

“I saw them come out of the huddle, and they just all looked totally dejected. The bottom line is, this is professional basketball, and you’ve got to be able to respond and deal with adversity. If you can’t handle that, it’s hard to be a great player at this level.” Billy Donovan, Bulls Head Coach, addressing the media after Saturday’s abysmal 125-106 loss to the Indiana Pacers. The Bulls have only played two games this season, and have been thoroughly whooped in both of them.

Over the last season and a half, we fans did little else but berate former head coach Jim Boylen for his failure to turn this team into winners. He was our punching bag. Most of the time it was justified, but in one sense maybe it was not. After two awful basketball games to start this 2020-21 season, the Chicago Bulls have quite simply folded under adversity.

It was a big talking point for Jim Boylen last season; taking pride in your play, and players playing for the Bulls across their chest, how high their care factor for the game was. Boylen had a lot of odd ways of saying what Donovan plainly laid out in his post game interview, but it boils down to the same thing: These Chicago Bulls players don’t respond well to the competitive challenge of NBA basketball.

“As young guys, … all of a sudden the talent level maybe evens out [from what they’ve experienced in high school and college]. Maybe even certain nights, the talent level is greater than them, and you have to find something to hang your hat on. I think the one thing they all have control over is how they respond to the competitive challenges night in and night out.” Donovan continued after the game. “We have to be responsible for digging ourselves back out of a hole. I do think it’s a mentality. I do think it’s a disposition. I do think it’s an attitude.” Donovan again, eerily echoing sentiments we’ve heard previously expressed by Jim Boylen.

There have been a lot of Bulls players hanging their heads, or muttering to themselves out of frustration, the past two games. Understandably so. With a new head coach comes a new approach to all aspects of the game. With a new front office comes job insecurity and the constant pressure to succeed. I know I’ve said it’s a “prove it” season for Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr, but really it’s a “prove it” season for the entire roster. No one is safe from the threat of roster turnover. That being said, the same issues that seem to plague the team this season, i.e. rising to the level of their competition, bothered them last season under Boylen, and two seasons ago under Fred Hoiberg.

“As young players, when you’ve experienced losing, it can beat you down. As they get further and further beaten down, they have to be responsible for their own rescue. If someone throws a life raft out there, you actually have to swim to it. You can’t just say, ‘Bring it to me.’” Here is the critical split in coaching between Billy Donovan and Jim Boylen. Boylen was obsessed with saving his players. Whether it was mass substituting the entire starting line up, or benching Zach LaVine as an object lesson, he always did it to “save them from themselves.” Not so Billy Donovan. It’s sink or swim time for the Chicago Bulls. The life raft is sitting out in the deep end, it’s time for this roster to swim to it.

Billy Donovan adjusts his mask.

That’s not to say that Donovan won’t try to keep his young players from getting overwhelmed. But he’s not going to let the failures of a few individuals disrupt the entire team. “We’ve got to fight together, do it together. We’re probably on most nights, not going to be the most athletic or most talented or the most experienced, but we can be a team… that can have a lot more fight in ourselves.”

With that in mind, we could see some changes to the line up and rotations coming as soon as today’s game against the Golden State Warriors. Veterans Otto Porter Jr, Tomas Satoransky, and Garrett Temple, have all looked good coming off the bench, even as the young core of Coby White, Zach LaVine, Patrick William, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter have struggled in their starting roles. While the vets might not break into the starting line up, their minutes might increase substantially, and the roles they play might become more important.

So far, the Coby White as lead ball handler experiment is not going as well as it could. Wendell Carter Jr has also faltered in his role as defensive anchor. Predictably, the defensive backcourt pairing of LaVine and White has proven disastrous, with both the Atlanta Hawks and Indiana Pacers using simple screens to easily discombobulate the two guards.

“It’s easy to say, ‘There’s adversity. You’ve got to respond!’ For a lot of [young players] they need help how to respond. It’s going to be a process to get them over some things.” This is the best part about Billy Donovan, the Coach; First, he acknowledges that his players are failing to live up to the competitive nature of the NBA. Second, he also acknowledges that it’s a sink or swim business. Finally, he acknowledges that it’s not only his job to throw out the life raft, he also has to teach these young players how to swim.

Boylen tried the tough love approach. Hoiberg tried killing them with kindness. Donovan is known as a “players coach,” but that doesn’t mean he won’t hold his team accountable for their failings. The Bulls have a lot to work on this season. Billy Donovan has a lot of young players (and some slightly older ones ~Zach LaVine~) that need to learn how to swim. We’ve still got 70 games left in this “prove it” season. They have a whole lot of basketball left in which to learn how to swim. The Bulls have been wretched through two games, let’s see how they handle the adversity of game number three against the Warriors. Until then, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!

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