Bulls season begins tonight: Donovan hopes to ease reliance on DeRozan

Billy Donovan has issued some buzzwords for the Bulls' offense: random, spacing, get downhill.

It sounds good in theory, but the most effective offense for the Bulls last season was give the ball to DeMar DeRozan and let him do his thing. That formula worked again in preseason.

The Bulls appear to be facing a tough task in 2022-23, trying to take another step forward in an improved Eastern Conference. Iso-ball often gets a bad rap in NBA, but the Bulls don't want to break their most successful strategy, either.

"I think even in those situations last year, it was too much," Bulls coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "I think even if you ask DeMar, as great and as elite as he is, that's a heck of a load to constantly carry. Is that sustainable if we want to make a jump?"

The Bulls are basically running it back with last year's 46-36 team, adding two veterans in guard Goran Dragic and center Andre Drummond. Lonzo Ball figures to be out for at least a couple months rehabbing from knee surgery, which presents its own problems.

The regular season begins in Miami tonight against Jimmy Butler and a physical Heat squad that swept the Bulls last season.

Donovan thinks there's room to play fast and move the ball off defensive stops, while still leaning on DeRozan when the game slows down and opposing defenses are set.

"There's no question as good as DeMar has been at closing out games and as good as he's been in crucial situations, we don't want to lose that," Donovan said. "With the injuries we had, there was a heck of a load he had to carry and he was remarkable doing it, but it's probably not as sustainable as it needs to be."

Zach LaVine took it easy in preseason, since he's coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery in May. So it's not clear if he and DeRozan will have more of an equal scoring load. Last year, DeRozan was clearly the alpha scorer, partly because he was better at it and partly because LaVine was dragging with the sore knee later in the season.

We'll soon be three years removed from LaVine's signature game, the 49-point, 13 3-pointers, game-winning-basket performance at Charlotte on Nov. 23, 2019. Another important question as the new season begins is if LaVine can take a step toward being an MVP-caliber player.

Last year, Donovan worked out a rotation where either DeRozan or LaVine was on the court at all times. Now, there's talk of a 10-man rotation, which would lead to a subtle but significant change in personnel.

There were two areas last season where the Bulls excelled. One was DeRozan's efficient scoring. The other was when Ball and Alex Caruso created havoc on the defensive end and created turnovers.

When the ball is tossed in Miami, Ball will be in street clothes and Caruso will likely be the first player off the bench. Donovan sent a warning about this scenario when he spoke to reporters Tuesday.

"We've got to get better defensively," Donovan said. "Offensively, as we've played faster, we've kind of tried to move the ball a little bit more. One of the things that's happened that's been a negative is we've turned it over a lot more."

Teams like Miami and Dallas demonstrated in the playoffs last spring you don't need five great defenders to play solid team defense. But you probably need at least two.

DeRozan, LaVine and Nikola Vucevic aren't really regarded as top-notch defenders. So that puts some pressure on the two youngest players in the starting lineup, Ayo Dosunmu and Patrick Williams, to hold things down on that end.

"(Point guards) start off that defense up front, stopping guards, stopping the pick and roll; just being that guy the team can lean on," Dosunmu said. "I think if I lead by example doing that, then a lot of the guys will follow."

The game plan for Bulls improvement sounds feasible on paper. But every team has a solid plan until someone like Butler locks in on defense. Then what?

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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