“When the times get hard, I feel like we start to separate. And I feel like those are the times we need each other the most.”
Wise words from an NBA vet-errr, never mind. Those wise words were spoken in the visitor’s locker room at the TD Garden in Boston last night by Chicago Bulls rookie Wendell Carter Jr. Yeah, that 19 year-old kid. Remind me who the leader is on this listless team right now?
The 4-11 Bulls are looking anywhere and everywhere for answers during a brutal stretch of their schedule; trying to stay afloat while they wait for key pieces like Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine to get healthy. Zach LaVine is doing everything he can to lead their scoring efforts on a nightly basis. But when LaVine has an off-night, things get ugly rather quickly. That’s exactly what happened last night in Boston, as LaVine’s 20-point game streak came crashing to a halt and the Bulls mustered just 82 points in 48 minutes. For those keeping score at home, that’s 10 points fewer than they surrendered to the Golden State Warriors in 24 minutes of basketball earlier this season.
As Will Perdue said, where was the pride of this young and undermanned group that night at the United Center when Klay Thompson went nuts? Why did no one step up and say, “I don’t care how, but we do NOT let that guy break the 3-point record in OUR house”? It goes back to the sentiments the Bulls’ youngest player expressed after their 11th loss last night. When things take a turn for the worse, they separate instead of coming together.
“It’s not so much an offensive or defensive thing. Just coming out of timeouts, we go our separate ways. Instead of huddling as a team, we only huddle when the coach – when it’s a timeout. And I feel like that’s important. Just to talk to one another, interact with one another throughout the game so we get a feel for one another and know that we got each others’ back. I feel like that’s where we struggle right now.”
How is it that a 19 year-old rookie sounds like the most mature and insightful person in this locker room? It’s a great sign for the future of the Bulls’ most recent lottery pick. This kid has “veteran leader” written all over him. But is there no one else to do the leading in a season when his focus should be developing his NBA game? Who might that be?
The obvious options are LaVine and Dunn. One is clearly the team’s best offensive player, while the other anchors the team’s defense when healthy. LaVine deserves credit for shattering expectations early this season, scoring at will from all over the floor. But there’s little evidence of him being the vocal leader on the floor, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s no written rule saying your team’s best scorer must also serve as the vocal leader. (Let’s remember that a young Derrick Rose was not the leader of the Bulls teams of yesteryear. No, that role belonged to Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.) Honestly, LaVine should get some measure of a pass for not being a vocal leader on the defensive end given everything being asked of him on offense.
The front office duo of John Paxson and Gar Forman repeatedly laud Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez as veteran leaders for this very young team. But is there much evidence of them serving those roles on the court? Holiday might be among the team’s leaders in minutes played, but that doesn’t mean he’s leading them in any other way. Lopez has been in and out of the rotation, and it’s hard to be a leader if you’re not regularly on the floor.
Dunn is the vocal leader this team is missing. He spoke during the offseason about wanting to take on that role, and his teammates were ready to fall in line. Bobby Portis praised Dunn for helping him understand his defensive role as a big manning the baseline, recalling Dunn’s comparison to a quarterback who can see the whole field. LaVine expressed his gratitude to Dunn for calling out his defensive shortcomings after Dunn suggested to Zach that his length and athleticism should allow him to be just as strong as Dunn on that end of the floor.
But while Dunn nurses his sprained MCL, who has taken on that responsibility of holding teammates accountable? Making sure the whole team is communicating during the game and in timeouts? According to Wendell, the answer is sadly: no one.
“It’s hard. I guess it does kind of start with one voice. And we’re looking for that voice right now.”
Guess what, youngin? I think we found the voice. It’s you. Tell your teammates to fall in line until Dunn gets back.
Have thoughts on last night’s game or Wendell’s postgame comments? Comment below or continue the conversation with me on Twitter @Bulls_Peck.