Bulls’ Billy Donovan addresses DeRozan, LaVine’s late-game dynamic

Donovan addresses DeRozan, LaVine’s late-game dynamic originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Remember Chicago Bulls training camp ahead of the 2022-23 season? When “random” was an even more popular buzzword than “continuity?”

That was head coach Billy Donovan’s way of emphasizing the need for his team to be more unpredictable at the offensive end rather than devolving into the isolation-heavy style that yielded some gratifying moments in 2021-22 but ultimately stagnated when the games mattered most. It’s a mantra that has yielded inconsistent results overall.

And yet, in the deepest annals of crunch time, the Bulls are often as predictable as death or taxes. In a one-possession game, with the clock winding down, it is a safe bet the ball will find DeMar DeRozan and, from his hands, be propelled towards the rim.

To be clear: This dynamic is not necessarily a bad thing. As Bulls fans well know, DeRozan’s rolodex of heroic plays is lengthy; this season, hey leads the league in “clutch” scoring with 104 points on 47.1 percent shooting. He is sure-handed with the ball and not prone to reckless turnovers. Difficult shotmaking is his most elite skill — with drawing fouls not far behind.

Plus, while the Bulls are 7-13 in “clutch” games this season, they also rank fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage on shots taken inside the final minute of a one possession game (20-for-39, 51.3 percent) . And it’s common practice to place such high-profile shots in the hands of a team’s leading scorer.

Still, DeRozan has monopolized those shot attempts, which should surprise no one who watches the Bulls on a nightly basis. According to NBA.com, DeRozan accounts for 20 of the Bulls’ 39 field-goal attempts taken inside the final minute of one-possession games (meaning the scoring margin is within three points in either direction). He has also taken 15 of the Bulls’ 25 field-goal attempts inside the final 30 seconds of one-possession games and eight of their 13 attempts inside the final 10 seconds of one-possession games.

In each of those shot types, DeRozan is 9-for-20 (45 percent), 4-for-15 (26.7 percent) and 1-for-8, respectively, although those numbers are high-variance because of fluctuating time and score scenarios. They also would look slightly better had he drawn deserved foul calls in losses to the Cavaliers and Wizards.

Nevertheless, DeRozan’s attempt volume ranks first in the NBA for all — and there is a drastic gap between DeRozan and the rest of his teammates.

Bulls’ Shot Attempts In One-Possession Games

time

DeMar DeRozan FGA

Next Closest FGA

Last Minutes

20

6 (LaVine)

Last 30 Seconds

15

2 (Dosunmu, Williams, LaVine)

Last 10 Seconds

8

2 (Dosunmu, LaVine)

So when Caris LeVert said “the whole world knew” where the ball was going on the final possession of the Bulls’ New Year’s Eve loss, he was not the only one.

These dynamics, which date back to the stretch run of last season, prompted a lengthy line of questioning to Donovan before the Bulls’ 121-112 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. Donovan began by pushing back on the notion that non-DeRozan players — specifically, Zach LaVine — are uninvolved in the team’s offense down the stretch.

“I don’t think that’s a fair assessment,” Donovan said. “One is, just going back to the last couple games, the Cleveland (Cavaliers) game at home, the option was for him (LaVine). He was an option on the play. He’s been an option on all the plays.

“It’s not like we’re taking Zach and sticking him in the corner and just saying, ‘Hey, listen, stand there.’ He’s been involved in all that stuff. I go back to the shot DeMar made against New York at the end of the game. Zach was involved in the action. We’re putting him in actions.

“Although he (LaVine) maybe hadn’t gotten the ball in those situations, it’s not like he hasn’t been involved. And Zach’s always been a team player, I think he trusts DeMar. And I’m always gonna incorporate him in actions where if he’s open, we’ve gotta give him the ball. He’s that kind of player.”

When Donovan says LaVine is involved in “actions,” he means LaVine is a cog in the grand scheme of many of the Bulls’ crunch-time plays — albeit off the ball.

In the Cleveland play Donovan referenced, LaVine was sprinting off a screen at the top of the key and an option for DeRozan to pass to before DeRozan broke off the play when he thought he saw an opening to drive. In the New York game, LaVine screened for DeRozan, forcing a switch, and popped out to the 3-point line, leaving DeRozan to size up Quentin Grimes and drill a game-winning jumper in his grill.

All of which is to say, there is more nuance to the Bulls’ late-game offense than hand DeRozan the ball and let him cook.

But DeRozan is typically the one initiating these sets. Thus, he is typically the one who processes the “options” in a given play-call. Thus, he is typically the one taking the shots.

Donovan waved off a follow-up question asking if he has considered shaking up who initiates late-game plays.

“I totally trust Zach and I have no problem with Zach with the ball in his hands and I have no problem with Zach shooting the ball at the end of games at all,” Donovan said. “But I also think everybody here would agree that what DeMar has done at the end of games has been pretty powerful. If we just went to Zach all the time, you’d be asking me, You’ve got one of the greatest closers, why is DeMar not an option?’ You gotta somehow incorporate both of them.”

Ultimately, it is hard to argue with the process Donovan has used to do just that, even if the results have been lopsided. DeRozan is more reliable with the ball in his hands than he is and has never been an accomplished spot-up marksman. LaVine is a devastating off-ball shooter and slasher, but has had bouts of questionable decision-making late in gamesespecially this season.

“I think all of those things become involved,” Donovan said when asked specifically about DeRozan’s ball security and foul-drawing ability. “You try to get DeMar to areas of the floor where he can create. And there’s other times where, for a guy like Zach, you’re trying to get him in space where he can catch the ball and use his elite speed and ability to shoot the basketball and generate jumpshots.”

LaVine, for his part, downplayed any strain by DeRozan’s shot-dominance late in close games in comments to NBC Sports Chicago earlier this week. While he has supreme confidence in himself as a two-time All-Star who has hit multiple last-second game-winners in his own right, he also consistently espouses a team-first mentality and has faith in DeRozan’s track record.

“You understand what he’s done in his career. He’s made a lot of those shots. I’ve also made a lot of those shots. So you live with the decision,” LaVine said. “I ride or die with him every time he takes a shot like that because I’ve seen him make more than he missed.”

But for a Bulls team searching for identity, and a sustainable formula for postseason success, it is a dynamic worth monitoring. Particularly if close losses continue to pile.

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