Bulls

20 crazy (or are they...?) predictions for the NBA season

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USA TODAY

20 crazy (or are they...?) predictions for the NBA season

1. The Golden State Warriors will be better than ever this season and will repeat as NBA champions...but will have big time bumps on the road in the Western Conference.

2. Kevin Durant will be better and win his second Most Valuable Player award, even though Steph Curry is still the arbiter for Golden State’s culture.

3. LeBron James will add to his resume as being one of the top five players ever, if not higher, but won’t catch Michael Jordan for total MVPs (five)...

4. ...and Cleveland had better enjoy him this year, because come July, he’s headed out of Ohio.

5. Speaking of headed out of town, a coach will be fired after a year of leaguewide stability, for an underachieving team in the underachieving Eastern Conference...

6. ...In other words, Fred Hoiberg is safe!

7. The Eastern Conference tank-a-thon will be both ugly and necessary for a couple teams in desperate need of lottery luck, including the Bulls.

8. One of the tank-a-thon teams won’t have the stomach for the losing and will make a panic move, especially when incoming college stars Michael Porter Jr or Marvin Bagley show the slightest signs of struggling.

9. Lonzo Ball will look like a point guard in the mold of Jason Kidd, a guy everyone will flock to play with...and not even LaVar Ball can screw that up.

10. But he’ll try because he won’t shut up...and we’ll never stop listening.

10. Dennis Smith Jr. will be the best incoming rookie, but Ben Simmons will win Rookie of the Year in Philadelphia.

11. Kyrie Irving will formally enter the conversation as one of the league’s best point guards, in part because Brad Stevens will help him become a better facilitator...

12. Irving is (bear with me Chicago’s own Isiah Thomas) the greatest scorer in terms of skill set from the point guard spot in the history of the league

13. For different reasons, Russell Westbrook and James Harden will struggle with their new “helpful” teammates…But will be hell on earth in a seven-game series.

14. Remember this name: Caris Levert from the Brooklyn Nets.

15. Giannis Antetokounmpo was on my top-five MVP ballot last season…he’ll be higher this time around.

16. Jabari Parker will be traded from the Bucks this year, perhaps before he returns from injury…

17. Big names will be on the trading block from the center spot: DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside and Andre Drummond.

18. Drummond, though, will have a bounceback year in Detroit and improve from the free-throw line.

19. This year will prove the Bulls didn’t get enough in trading Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves (or TimberBulls/TimberTibs)...

20. But Zach LaVine will show he’s more than deserving of a max contract when he returns from injury.

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

It'd be a stretch to say that any rookie is having a better or more impactful season than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The Sixers are 9-7, and Simmons looks like a 10-year veteran with his decision making, athleticism and all-around feel for the game. He's the frontrunner for MVP, but there are two other rookies vying to catch Simmons and win that title. And they'll face each other tomorrow night in Los Angeles.

Lonzo Ball was the second pick in June's NBA Draft, and fellow Pac-12 freshman standout Lauri Markkanen went five picks later to the Bulls, who had traded up as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Both players were drafted to rebuilding franchises - the Lakers still working out the kinks in the post-Kobe era, and the Bulls beginning their rebuild after dealing Butler - and were expected to make immediate impacts on their franchises.

Ball's was more pronounced, as the Lakers dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Nets on draft night to free up space at the point for their prized No. 2 pick. Markkanen's came more abruptly, as the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic's fight put Mirotic in the hospital and Portis on paid leave. However they got there, both players have been impressive in their early NBA careers.

Starting with Markkanen, the Bulls knew the 7-foot stretch forward was a perfect build for the modern NBA. He set freshman 3-point and rebounding records that, since 1992, only some guy named Kevin Durant had reached. After a successful summer in Eurobasket he was set for a large role with the Bulls, and he's succeeded in just about every aspect. His 15.6 points per game are third only to Simmons and the other Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, and his 8.1 rebounds are second to Simmons. And his 2.6 made 3-pointers per game are most among rookies, and well past No. 2 on the list (Utah's Donovan Mitchell, 1.9 per game).

In fact, Markkanen would become the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 3-pointers per game. The 2.5 3-pointers would break a rookie record currently held by Damian Lillard (2.3 per game). The closest a rookie has ever come to reaching those marks was Stephen Curry, who averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie. Allen Iverson also met the 4/2 threshold, but that's a far cry from Markkanen's 8/2.5 mark. Paul Pierce's rookie season saw him average 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers.

But that's not all. If he kept those averages up he would be just the fifth player EVER to accomplish those thresholds. The others are James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Antonie Walker, who naturally did it twice.

So, yeah, Markkanen is having quite a rookie year.

So, too, is Ball. While he's had some real issues with efficiency, slashing .313/.228/.462 and has committed 2.6 turnovers per game, his counting stats have been outstanding. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and that puts him in equally impressive company.

Simmons has reached those numbers this season, too, averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists. You may have heard of the other two players, named Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

The two future Hall of Famers averaged these numbers:

Robertson: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (missing averaging a triple-double for the season by 20 assists)

Johnson: 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists

Ball is also averaging 0.9 blocks, and no other rookie guard has ever accomplished that. It might not always look pretty for Markkanen and Ball as they feel their way out in the NBA, but just remember watching these two that they're in the midst of making history in the new era of the NBA.

Lauri Markkanen has career-high 26 points in loss to Suns

Lauri Markkanen has career-high 26 points in loss to Suns

Lauri Markkanen continues to impress.

The 20-year-old rookie had a career-high 26 points in the Bulls' 113-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night. He also picked up 13 rebounds.

After the game, in which the Bulls fell to 3-11 on the season, coach Fred Hoiberg had high praise for the Finnish.

"I thought Lauri was phenomenal," Hoiberg said. "But when he is open, we gotta get him the ball. When he's got it rolling like he did tonight, guys were switching and we had him a couple of times with the point guard buried in his back and we didn't get him the ball."

Watch what Hoiberg had to say about the Bulls' tight loss in the video above.