When the starting lineup was announced ahead of Friday night’s preseason game, Billy Donovan had to know what was coming at the postgame press conference.
Almost every single question revolved around the head coach’s decision to bench starting power forward Patrick Williams. And how could it not? Not only was he the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, but he continues to be pitched to Bulls fans as a foundational piece of what this organization is trying to build. Rarely do such important players come off the bench.
The optics were bad, and there is no way around that. But the optics could have been a whole lot worse if this was some random game in the middle of December. Preseason is a time when experimentation is encouraged, which is why it’s hard to know just how much we should read into this decision. If one thing is for sure, Donovan quickly stressed that this was far more about giving the coaching staff a different look and far less about Patrick Williams: “The last thing I’d call it is a demotion.”
Do you believe him?
- On one hand, I do believe the Bulls’ leading man. Moving Williams to the bench allowed the coaching staff to test out a complete 10-man rotation and fresh bench lineup, which Donovan reiterated time and again throughout his conversation with reporters. Green also, technically, had more experience running with the starters last season than any other role player, so for this to be the first starting lineup shake-up we see isn’t all that surprising.
“I thought overall we played better, so did I like, yeah. I thought the group played well. I think there are certinatly things that we can clean up. Javonte has played with that group in the past. When Patrick was out with his wrist injury, Javonte obviously stepped in there,” Donovan said.
“Like I said, it’s trying to find combinations that work together. Patrick is certainly more than capable of being a starter, and he’s more than capable of helping come off the bench. I think right now it’s just trying to look at different combination of guys.”
- On the other hand, if Donovan was truly sold on Williams as a starter, wouldn’t he want to give him as many minutes as possible with that group this preseason? The guy played just 17 regular season games last season and is still just 21 years old. Now is the time to make him as comfortable as possible in that role … unless, of course, you’re not sure he belongs in that role.
- Again, while we should wait to see how he’s used in the coming games, the decision to play Williams with the second unit isn’t nothing. Donovan wanted to see how he looked with the bench squad, which tells us that playing him there is obviously under some level of consideration. And Donovan basically admitted as much as he kept talking last night:
“I think everyone on our team wants to start. I think if you went down and asked Dalen Terry, do you want to start? Yeah. But for some reason because Patrick is the 4th pick, he should feel a certain way about it. And I think it goes to everyone on our team. There is going to be sacrifices all around for everybody to have to make for the group.
I’m not sitting here and saying Patrick today was or was not a sacrifice. But one game of preseason, to sit there and say we’ve already made a determination that he’s not going to start is probably just not accurate or fair. Could that happen? Yeah, maybe. But I wouldn’t say that decision was made today by any stretch of the imagination.”
- My guess right now is that Williams still ends up in the starting lineup, particularly because the Bulls will need his size in the frontcourt. However, I think it’s becoming clear that Donovan isn’t going to wait around forever for him to show a bit more life in that role. If Williams wants that spot, he’ll have to prove he deserves it. I respect that decision.
- To Williams’ credit, he said all the right things when asked about the lineup change after the game:
- Even if Donovan is telling the truth and this has little to do with Williams’ play, I sure hope the youngster takes the decision personally. He may have played with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder in the second half, as he looked far more aggressive on the offensive end and went on to finish with 11 points on 4-6 shooting. But, for the Bulls’ sake, I hope he comes out against the Raptors far more involved (especially if he ends up stuck in the second unit again).
- Putting the Williams storyline aside, I was incredibly encouraged by how the team responded to a disappointing first game. DeMar DeRozan looked in midseason form with 22 points, Nikola Vucevic had another beautifully balanced game, and Zach LaVine showed off some of his playmaking with a team-high 6 assists. Even more promising, the second unit with newcomers Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond looked far more serviceable. The veteran point guard dropped 8 points in a +10 showing, while Drummond’s massive frame gave the Bulls a presence in the paint they sorely missed last year.
- Coby White also looked like the sparkplug this team wants him to be in his 18 minutes of action. The fourth-year guard dropped 15 points on an efficient 5-7 shooting with 3 assists and a couple of trips to the free throw line. Surrounding him with a lineup that can rebound and run the floor could be huge toward finally turning him into a more consistent performer.
- Don’t get me wrong, things weren’t perfect for the Bulls. But real signs of an offensive and defensive identity started to show themselves, which is about all you can ask for in the second preseason game. The Bulls moved with much more purpose off the ball in the halfcourt, and they put relentless pressure at the rim by either feeding Vucevic in the post or attacking downhill in transition. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, they used their athleticism to fly around and jump passing lanes. The Nuggets finished the night with 19 turnovers and lost the fastbreak battle a staggering 23-5.
- Speaking of defense …
- The question now is whether or not they can expand on what we just saw in the final two preseason games. Consistency was a major issue for this Bulls team as a whole last year, so now is the time to prove that continuity can solve that problem.
- Donovan said after last night’s game that Terry is likely to get more minutes against the Raptors and Bucks.
- This Bulls team sure knows how to make a highlight reel …
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