The Chicago Bulls bench has been a consistent strength this season, a veteran unit that has flipped the tide of some games and has done its best to keep the team in others.
The reserves provided a boost again Monday night, adding 48 points — including a near triple-double from forward Thaddeus Young (16 points, nine rebounds and nine assists) — to complement 30 points from Zach LaVine. It was an underwhelming performance from the rest of the Bulls starters that led to their 119-103 loss to the Boston Celtics at the United Center.
The Bulls were dominated with their starters on the court; all five finished with a negative plus/minus.
Coby White was a nonfactor, limited to five points and one assist. Patrick Williams played 10 minutes and shot 1-for-4 from the field. Daniel Gafford started in place of Wendell Carter Jr. — who missed his third straight game with a bruised quadriceps and will be out at least four more weeks — but Gafford did not score in 11 minutes. Lauri Markkanen was quiet in the first half but scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half as the Bulls tried to mount a comeback.
“Obviously we can play better; it wasn’t a great game from us,” Markkanen said of the starters. “Just both ends of the floor. … We just have to do better. We didn’t play up to our standards tonight.”
It was the second straight loss for the Bulls (7-10) and a bit more disheartening than Saturday’s blowout loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. It’s starting to become a common theme that the bench has to rescue the struggling starters.
The Bulls were plus-4 when Young was in the game Monday, plus-9 with Garrett Temple (eight points, five rebounds and two assists), minus-1 during Otto Porter Jr.’s minutes (13 points on 4-for-7 3-point shooting), even when Denzel Valentine (eight points on 3-for-10 shooting) was on the floor and plus-6 while Tomas Satoransky (three points, six assists) was running the offense as lead guard.
“The first unit and second unit is two completely different units,” Young said. “It’s a veteran group coming off the bench that understands how to play with lots and lots of experience, lot of playoff experience in that group. The first unit doesn’t have that.
“We’re just teaching those guys along the way and trying to get those guys brought up to speed as far as how we need to play and how that group should be playing … to get us some victories.”
A question the Bulls might need to ask themselves soon, however, is whether their starting lineup needs adjusting.
When Carter was healthy, the Bulls loaded up the first unit with their entire young core — five players all 25 or younger. That lineup has been on the floor together for 172 possessions, as tracked by Cleaning the Glass, and has been outscored by 15.8 points per 100 possessions. Of the team’s five most productive lineups, Temple appears in all five combinations and Young appears in four. (LaVine also appears in four.)
Although coach Billy Donovan acknowledged the need to get more from his starters, he didn’t sound like he was considering any changes to the group as he manages minutes for his veterans coming off the bench.
“The hard part is you start those guys, the game becomes a lot longer for them,” Donovan said. “I don’t want to put them in a situation, certainly for as long as they’ve been in the league, where the minutes night in and night out are out of control for them and then they become less productive or effective.
“It is good, the fact that we know we can go to our bench and the bench generally kind of rights the ship for us. They do a pretty good job of just maintaining some calm and some peace and some order there. We can kind of gather ourselves and we can generally manufacture or generate good things on offense, and they’re crafty enough on defense.
“Those guys have done a really good job for us. We need them, but at the same point, it’s really hard to start playing some of those guys in the mid- to high 30s (in minutes) on a nightly basis.”
And the Bulls would not have easy decisions to make if they did decide to tinker with their starting lineup.
On most nights, they still lack a true lead playmaker, evident in their consistent turnover problems — they had 18 Monday, matching their NBA-worst season average and leading to 34 Celtics points. The team is not ready to give up on White as the point guard of the future, even though he is struggling recently, averaging 9.4 points and 4.2 assists and shooting 33% from the field in his last five games.
Williams did not play much Monday, picking up a couple of early fouls and never getting into a groove. The Bulls want him to take on the task of guarding the opponent’s best player each game, but Donovan has started to sense for the first time that maybe things are overwhelming for the rookie.
“There’s going to be some peaks and valleys with Patrick, there’s going to be some ups and downs. It’s part of being a rookie,” Donovan said. “Now, he has not told me he’s overwhelmed. I’m guessing that because I think most rookies get overwhelmed. And this is 17 or 18 games coming quickly.”
When the games are close in the fourth quarter, Donovan hasn’t felt compelled to stick with his starting unit, mixing in veterans Young, Temple, Porter and Satoransky and remaining flexible on how he uses his closing lineup.
The reality for the Bulls, however, is that success this season will be tied to how much they can develop their young roster. Aside from LaVine, they are looking for someone else among the core to take a step forward, but the results continue to be mixed.
Their veteran bench mob has shown the ability to contribute to wins, but the Bulls will have decisions to make before the trade deadline in March. Some, if not all, of these veterans almost certainly will be traded to help a contender.
So if the Bulls are going to set themselves up for success going forward, they need more from their youthful starting lineup.
“I do think they’re trying to be better,” Donovan said. “It’s been a really good group to work with. It’s good guys. But I’ve said this for a while now: They’re all going to need to learn how to win.
“And I wish I could snap my finger or pour something on it to make it just happen, but it doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately, before you win, there’s generally a lot of suffering.”