Sam Smith previews Sunday’s Bulls-Bucks preseason game

The 2023-24 Bulls basketball extravaganza returns to the big city Thursday at the United Center with a preseason game against the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets. So it’s time for a small regional theater preview off-Broadway on Sunday at noon in Milwaukee before the big show comes to the big city.

This point of view may be a little cliché, considering that the small-town boys, the Milwaukee Bucks, with the addition of star guard Damian Lillard, are currently considered betting favorites along with the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship this season.

So the Bulls, at least for now, after a week in Nashville for preseason training camp, will be focused on measuring their strengths before they measure themselves against the rest of the league, the Eastern Conference and the west side of Lake Michigan.

This means getting down to business first.

Or find out who is starting there.

This is one of the few personnel issues for the Bulls, given that this is the start of the second straight season in which continuity will be greatest, if not greatest.

Coby White, Ayo Dosunmu and Bucks free agent rookie Jevon Carter are considered top candidates for the point guard role. Although Bulls coach Billy Donovan said it depends on how they play and who they suit.

“The way you potentially start at point guard on the first night could be completely different by Game 35,” Donovan said last week. “Sometimes you change the rotation. It could be someone who starts and gives a boost to someone on the bench. I really admired Kobe last year. Just from the standpoint that he started my freshman year and then started coming off the bench a little bit. Last year he really took full advantage of it. So, you also want to try to put guys in the best position. When I’ll actually make that decision, I don’t know. I think you need to let these guys play a little. We could potentially take one of these guys and then decide it has nothing to do with them per se, but it might be better to have them in our rotation, maybe play in the second unit or bet on that the other person’s position. Obviously, on opening night, someone will be there starting. I couldn’t answer whether it would continue for all 82 games.”

I’m guessing it will be Carter as he is the most defensive-minded player capable of balancing out the offensive regulars Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. These three are also not among the team’s best defenders. So Carter, in theory with Patrick Williams presumably starting at power forward, could provide two defensive-minded players to start against the opponent’s top inside and outside scorers.

Carter also looks similar in style, if not talent, to the closest thing to injured point guard Lonzo Ball with a good three-point game on the perimeter and aggressive on-ball defense.

While there are signs in training camps that reporters are not allowed to observe any parts of practices, White has played more with the Big Three veterans.

This could mean Donovan leans toward the offensive line to jumpstart an offense that often lagged early in games last season.

Or it could mean Donovan is eyeing the potentially attractive prospect of a two-unit, hellish 48-minute defensive second unit with Carter, Alex Caruso, Torrey Craig and perhaps Ayo Dosunmu to apply full-court pressure and disrupt the game.

It may also mean nothing since results don’t count, regular players will only play for about 15 minutes, it’s a rare midday game after a week of late nights at honky-tonks (no, I don’t believe they did that) and everyone will be in a rush , so you don’t miss the 49ers-Cowboys game on Sunday night.

It seems most likely that Williams will start at power forward. But with the arrival of seasoned veteran Craig, Donovan may decide to bring Williams off the bench. Which is something Donovan did often in the final six weeks of last season as the team’s results improved. Although Williams is also on the verge of considering a contract extension and remains the main young talent on the roster.

“Often people get hung up on starting and not starting. I don’t want to sit here and say this is our starting lineup right now because I don’t know,” Donovan said. “Patrick spent most of his career here as a starter. He also came off the bench and helped us. I think we want to put all of our guys in a position where they can be successful. He (Williams) really made it in the second unit. That doesn’t mean he’s going to come off the bench. But that could indicate that he’ll start the game, and then we’ll potentially put him back there with the second unit where he could be in situations where he can be more aggressive. Patrick had a good summer. He worked. I think he’s gotten better. I give him credit for how much he has improved his shooting from his rookie days to this day. Him, Ayo and Kobe, these young players, we need to take the next step.”

The regulars don’t appear to be playing that much just yet, although I imagine we could see some competition when the Bucks introduce their new superstar duo with Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic might like the first word.

Although rumors about these three also continue to cause concern for the Bulls. Shouldn’t they be producing more?

“You look at Zach, DeMar and Vooch, those three guys especially had career effective field goal percentages (last season),” Donovan said. “All three of these guys were among the best, those were their two best seasons. So how do you have three guys of that caliber on offense and deal with the fact that we’re the 24th ranked offense? We shot the ball 11th best in the league and our effective field goal percentage was good. The key for us was that we didn’t get to the free throw line. We were 24th or 25th there, but on the other hand, we didn’t have many opportunities for offensive rebounds. Our biggest problem with this group is that we need to get into it. It’s not about games and other things because I know we used to get pretty predictable with some injuries, becoming so dominant by relying on DeMar. But we need to distribute jobs better, work on the paint better. The best opportunities for offensive rebounds are these shots (Craig is considered the best offensive rebounder). And thirdly, you get C’s. This should be the real focus for us. We not only need to play fast, but we need to play with purpose and put ourselves in situations where we have a mentality that can change our shot profile. I think what changes our shot profile is how well we can attack the paint.

“We struggled from an offensive standpoint (not) that much that we didn’t shoot the ball well or didn’t make any improvements on the fast break. We weren’t getting to the free throw line fast enough and we weren’t getting to the offensive glass enough,” Donovan said. “Part of it is where we throw the ball, and frankly, we (were) one of the worst teams in the league last year as far as defense goes. We need to create space for this. So it’s not so much that I want these guys to change their playing style, but whether they can focus more on thinking and understanding how the game is evolving with trends. You have to be able to play basketball to open up opportunities for offensive rebounds and free throws.”

Which probably won’t be known after Sunday’s game.

Apparently, this also provides a look at some of the new guys from the Windy City. Like second-round rookie Julian Phillips, Turkey’s Onuralp Bitim, Adama Sonogo, Carlik Jones, Justin Lewis and Henri Drell. If there is a role for last year’s first rounder this season, take Dalen Terry. And what will happen to Andre Drummond, who is still a big player? Donovan continues to talk about small-ball lineups, with Caruso possibly being a power forward as well, and Williams indicating he’ll be on the wing.

Perhaps most importantly, do not forget about proper planning. It’s getting colder and the Bears aren’t playing this weekend. A good time to take a first look at the 2023-24 Bulls.

Have a question for Sam?
Send your question to Sam at Asksam@bulls.com.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its basketball operations staff, parent company, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls, and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that come with his status as an accredited member of the NBA media.

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