Bulls

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Observations from Bulls-Hawks: Markkanen clutch, Lopez taking the reins, Nwaba hits the glass

Lauri Markkanen had gone nearly 47 minutes without making a jumper, but he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity presented itself to seal the Bulls’ first win.

He put the six straight misses from 3-point range behind him, slipped out to 25 feet and nailed a triple with 48.5 seconds left to put the finishing touches on the Bulls’ first win, a 91-86 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.

“I guess you could say it worked out perfectly,” he deadpanned. “We knew how they were going to guard the pick and rolls. I slipped in there and was wide open.”

It wasn’t his prettiest performance but one of his most telling through four games, achieving yet another double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 30 minutes.

“Lauri was reading the way the defender was guarding him, so he slipped outside,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It was a great read. Not only did he have the shot but he had driving lanes.”

His jumper abandoned him, so Markkanen left it where it was to start the second half, going to the basket with a layup from a Euro-step and then a 3-point play following a dunk.

He seemed to enter the second half with a more aggressive mindset, not just with the drive but also going to the glass, using his length to get inside position. The vast difference in the Bulls’ offense when Markkanen is making shots, as he was in Cleveland, compared to early Thursday, when he wasn’t, shows the dependency the Bulls have on him four games in.

“When you can play through a 20-year-old kid like that, it’s pretty impressive to have a game like that when his shot wasn’t falling,” Hoiberg said.

But the fact he was willing to take the shot along with Hoiberg drawing up a play in the last seconds for his young player shows a level of progress that won’t show up in the win-loss column but will aid in Markkanen’s in-season growth.

“Hopefully,” Markkanen said about being a go-to option. “That’s why I’m working on my game. Hopefully I can be that one day.”

Apparently he has the backing of his teammates very early in his tenure.

“That’s big time. We weren’t surprised by that,” Robin Lopez said. “He knows what he can do out there. We all believe in him. He has the utmost confidence in himself, which is awesome. I’ve seen those shots go in in practice. We know it’s gonna go in more often than not.”

Ugly win: Of the games the Bulls will win this year, many of them will be of the pretty variety where 3-pointers will be flying for 48 minutes. This will be one of the few where the Bulls are grinding out a win, outrebounding the Hawks 62-40—even though the Bulls only got up five more shots.

Markkanen, Justin Holiday and David Nwaba grabbed at least 10 rebounds, which was necessary considering the Bulls shot just seven of 32 from 3-point range and just 36 percent overall.

“What did we make, like 22 percent? It shows how much we fight,” Markkanen said. “We rebounded the ball, we found other ways to score the ball.”

To illustrate their offensive struggles, Lopez was essentially the only offensive option early with 10 shots (making five) in the first quarter. He can’t even make the claim to get that kind of attention in grade school.

“I’m trying to do what I can to help the team. I’m taking a bigger role,” said Lopez, who’s scored in double figures in every game this season, as he finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.

Unexpected and bloody energy: Coaches will always find a place in a rotation for guards who play tough and are unafraid to get dirty or even take a shot to the mouth, as well as teams looking for tough-minded guards who’ll challenge everything.

Enter David Nwaba, who’s taking his opportunity for more minutes in the absence of Kris Dunn and more recently Paul Zipser (late scratch), giving the Bulls a lift with 15 points and 11 rebounds in 23 minutes for his first double-double in 24 career games.

He played with the Lakers last season and the Bulls like his energy and athleticism here, so he had no problem using all 209 pounds of his body to take contact and give it as a way to prove himself with his chance.

“David was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “In the first half we couldn’t get anything going. He got us a couple fast-break baskets, got us an and-one just by rebound and taking off in transition. He’s always going to give you a hard defensive effort.”

Holiday made note of Nwaba blocking Cavs sharpshooter Kyle Korver in a preseason game a couple weeks ago as a mark of Nwaba’s tenaciousness, and a bloody lower lip courtesy of an inadvertent elbow from a Hawks player is another example of a tough player trying to make a name for himself in the league.

“What I plan on bringing is energy,” Nwaba said. “Looking to push in transition, get to the basket. We have a lot of shooters so it’s important somebody attack the basket.”

Whether it’s here or anywhere else, he knows eyes are watching and he’s forming his own identity for how he’ll be evaluated around the league.

“Majority of guys at my position are usually shooters,” Nwaba said. “I try to help the team as much as possible whether it’s rebounding or driving to the basket. Try to do the little things to help the team out. It’s important for every team to have guys like that.”

Tough road ahead, the win was necessary: When players and coaches say they don’t look ahead to other games on the schedule, they’re lying.

The Bulls have played high-level playoff teams and on the horizon are teams with aspirations on getting beyond round one of the playoffs. To say a win was needed for overall team morale considering everything swirling around the Bulls isn’t overstating it.

A game against the Hawks, a team that has the same aspirations for lottery balls the Bulls do, won’t rank up high at the end of the season but for the moment it was critical to team sanity.

Oklahoma City, Miami and Orlando are up next, with Miami and Orlando being on the road.

“We expect to win those games, too,” Holiday said. “With the games we’ve had to this point, this was one we wanted to start that confidence and get going. Hopefully we can move this to Saturday and surprise them.”

After the Hawks got up 86-85 with 1:48 left, Holiday slipped backdoor from Kent Bazemore for a layup that restored order, a change from his usual drifts to the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

Count Lopez among those impressed with the team’s approach and lack of panic.

“They got up on us late in the fourth quarter so to have that mental fortitude, make the plays and get the stops, win the game, that’s big for us,” Lopez said. “Nobody has been able to question our effort so far.”

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

nwaba-220.jpg
USA TODAY

John Paxson delivered transparency, not Brazilian music

It’s what every fan base deserves, along with players on a roster where tough conversations must be had to set a course for the present in order to secure a better future.

Transparency.

It’s ugly and while not aesthetically pleasing to the eye, everyone can see what the Bulls are doing for the remainder of the NBA season. For the paying customers who still fill the seats at the United Center, it’s a “cry now so hopefully you laugh later” proposition.

Bulls Executive-Vice President John Paxson addressed the media Tuesday and said what we all knew to be true, what everyone knew what was coming.

He didn’t stand up in front of cameras and tape recorders and ask, “Do you like Brazilian music?”

They’re tanking.

They’re putting a little bit more sugar to go with it but it’s old-fashioned ‘tussin for the next several weeks.

All of this is due to sight unseen—unless you watch college basketball or cue up European basketball highlights.

When you see Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson take two hard dribbles from the top of the key, spin and dunk while being fouled, it makes sense.

When Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton help on a driving guard to cut off a lane, recover to block a 3-point shot and run the floor for a layup in a six-second span, it makes sense.

When Duke’s Marvin Bagley III seals his defender with one arm, catches with his left hand and finishes on the opposite side of the rim with ease, it all makes sense and kudos to the Bulls for not trying to fool a smart public with useless rhetoric.

Every loss counts, of course, but the key thing about the NBA is this: No matter where a team picks, bad franchises make the worst of a good opportunity and good franchises make the best of any situation.

If the Bulls are the latter, it’ll show itself whether they pick fourth or second or sixth. This draft’s best player went 13th, Donovan Mitchell from the Utah Jazz. Lauri Markkanen is in competition for best player after Mitchell and he went seventh.

This was inevitable from the moment the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler on draft night. Although Kris Dunn has turned out to be a revelation and Markkanen could be a superstar, none of the micro wins should take away from the macro vision of this franchise, chief reason why Paxson has reasserted himself in the last year.

Paxson just framed it in the vein of long-term evaluation in announcing Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba will replace veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday in the starting lineup, while Jerian Grant will see his playing time cut for Cameron Payne.

“Seeing some of our young guys play consistently, we’ve learned a lot about them,” Paxson said. “The hard thing when you do things like this is you’re asking certain people to sacrifice roles and minutes. And oftentimes, it’s veteran guys. That’s what we’re asking some of our vets to do right now—sacrifice some time on the floor and roles they’ve been very good in. That’s never an easy thing.”

Lopez and Holiday have been good soldiers through this process, especially helping navigate a fragile locker room after the crazy start to the season when Bobby Portis had enough of Nikola Mirotic in a practice and unleashed holy hell on a season that was supposed to be a quiet, boring losing season.

“I know what it’s like to be asked to take a lesser role,” Paxson said. “Players have pride. So it’s hard. I don’t take that lightly at all. It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37 with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Lopez has had a solid season, with career-highs in scoring and assists. Holiday’s scoring has nearly doubled this season and he’ll garner some attention around the draft in the trade market.

But with the Bulls being eighth of the eight bad teams, they need to get Super Bad (with a nod to James Brown) in the next several weeks. It’s not that the rebuild is steps ahead, it’s that other teams are better at being incompetent than the Bulls—and they’ll also be doing whatever’s necessary to secure a draft position.

At least the Bulls’ competence has come in the form of long-term answers. Certainly at the end of the year, one can lament Zach LaVine saving the Bulls from losses to the Timberwolves and Magic with late-game plays that cements the belief he could be a front-facing player—especially with restricted free agency coming this summer.

If Payne happens to be a useful NBA player in the process, it’s gravy but the Bulls aren’t really expecting it.

Fred Hoiberg has been pumping up Payne publicly by referencing him playing the role of Isaiah Thomas in the playoff preparation last spring, but he hasn’t played NBA level basketball in over a year.

And when he was on the floor, for that ill-fated period after last year’s deadline when Hoiberg was playing 11 guys without a real plan to win, Payne looked overmatched and overwhelmed.

“We want to see him as a point guard, especially when you’re running with the second unit, and the way Fred wants to play, play with pace, defend your position, compete every night and stay within yourself,” Paxson said. “His role is to get us into offense quickly and efficiently and make the right play with the ball.”

Felicio has taken a step back in terms of his development after steady improvement over the last two years, but in the big picture they’re casualties in the NBA’s cost of doing business.

And if you believe it’s anything else besides what you’re seeing, you might believe Paxson is truly asking if you like Brazilian music.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

krisdunnbulls.png
USA TODAY

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.