Bulls still have some glaring issues, but the bench isn’t one of them

There weren’t just subtle hints of what was coming.

Not for DeMar DeRozan at least.

“Oh no, there were some days that they were kicking our ass,” the veteran recalled recently when discussing the reserve squad and the intrasquad scrimmages from fall training camp. “That was their mentality.”

A mentality that hasn’t relinquished.

While the Bulls have muddled through the first 13 games of the regular season as a whole, the players that have made up the bench came into camp looking to do some damage, have backed that up, and then some.

Goran Dragic was leading the team with a plus-minus of plus-74. Following the “Dragon” was Alex Caruso with a plus-72, Andre Drummond with a plus-42, Javonte Green at plus-34, and then Derrick Jones Jr. at a plus-25.

The nearest regular starter in that category?

Zach LaVine at a plus-7, and oh by the way the same LaVine who has spent a lot of his playing time staggered with the second unit.

“You can see when [the starters] get a little stagnant and we’re not playing with the right energy,” Dragic said. “I look at it as it’s my job to bring that energy, try and make sure we’re organized and doing what we need to do.

“The best way to do that is through your actions. That’s my mentality and the mentality of a lot of these [bench] guys. And if we want to be objective, we’ve been missing a few of our guys with ‘Drum’ [Andre Drummond] and Coby [White] injured.”


“We can be even better,” Dragic said.

Coach Billy Donovan hopes so.

It isn’t that Donovan’s starters have been awful so far this season, but they have been inconsistent, especially with the way they’ve started and finished games. Too many careless possessions, too many turnovers, and not enough urgency.

Donovan has been trying to change that, and there were signs in the loss to the Pelicans on Wednesday that at least those early-game bad habits were being dealt with, but a 6-7 record isn’t cutting it.

In the loss to New Orleans, the Bulls did play the visiting team to a 22-22 tie in that opening quarter, only to see the game slip away late, which is yet another issue with this team.

The Bulls have been terrible in “clutch” moments this season, which the NBA defined as five-point games with five minutes less. Six opportunities for the Bulls and six misses, with an 0-6 record in those situations as a result.

But the bench? That’s been a real strength. With Dragic, Drummond when healthy, Caruso, and the mix of Green and Jones, tied in with LaVine, Donovan has stumbled on a unit that he hopes has staying power.

“When you’re playing against each other every day in practice, you see the second unit playing and they were playing really well together, but it’s only against us,” Donovan said. “As we started to see other opponents, and then staggering it a little bit, putting Zach in there with that unit, they’ve played really well for us.

“They play really fast, they’ve gotten out in transition. Andre is an elite runner, an elite screener, Goran and Alex are really good in transition with the ball in terms of advancing it or creating action. It’s been encouraging to see them play the way they have because I didn’t know what it would look like.”

That’s why Donovan might not be done tweaking it.

He actually used DeRozan rather than LaVine a bit more with that second group against New Orleans in that third quarter and saw some success.

“I just think with some of these guys you’ve got to try different units and see what it looks like,” Donovan said. “How sustainable it will be for us, we’ll see.”

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