Bulls

Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

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Around the NBA: Bulls measure up to rivals

It's still a bit premature to anoint any team as a prohibitive favorite this early in the season, but based on early returns, the Bulls could, at the least, make a case.

Dogged by injuries all season, the Bulls' depth has been on full display, While nothing as extreme as third-string point guard John Lucas III scoring 25 points and nearly notching a triple-double in the absence of Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson--let alone the fact that another member of the backcourt, Rip Hamilton, was also out and Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and fill-in starter Ronnie Brewer were virtual non-factors Wednesday evening--Tom Thibodeau's repeated message that the team "has more than enough to win," even with key players sidelined, has often fulfilled its prophecy.

Defense has been the key for the Bulls and except for a few hiccups--most notably, the loss to Golden State in the second game of the season and a blowout defeat to Atlanta last weekend--Thibodeau's defense has looked to be in midseason form.

Additionally, an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition and the ability of players other than Derrick Rose to contribute scoring on a nightly basis, something that should be even more potent when shooting guard Rip Hamilton returns to health and gets completely comfortable with his new squad, have also been significant in the team's success.

Various teams that were expected to be league powerhouses this season have got off to slower, more uneven starts, as the likes of the Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks, Grizzlies and Celtics have looked disjointed at times, mostly due to having to incorporate multiple new pieces and injuries.

Cohesiveness, with Hamilton being the only new rotation player, is another area where the Bulls have an advantage, along with squads like the Heat, Thunder and surprising 76ers, coached by former Bulls head coach Doug Collins.

While Oklahoma City, despite dealing with the fallout of the on-court argument between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Miami were supposed to be the cream of the crop, Philadelphia has shocked many observers.

Collins' Sixers are young, athletic, versatile and while they don't offer much in the way of star power, their defensive mindset, unselfishness and a strong bench enable them to compete on a nightly basis and potentially ride their strong start to an Atlantic Division title.

But the team the Bulls have their eye on in the East is the Heat, who dropped their second consecutive overtime contest Wednesday night to the Clippers. While it wouldn't be fair to compare Chicago's decisive victory over former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro's bunch to the Heat's loss, which took place after "Lob City" had more time to jell, it's worth remembering for the future.

Speaking of L.A., Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant's back-to-back scoring outbursts--48 points to lead the charge against the Suns, followed by 40 points last night in a win over the Jazz--seem like statement games, showing that despite his advancing age and the Lakers being written off by many, the veteran shooting guard doesn't intend to go down without a fight.

It isn't like he hasn't had to carry a team before, but center Andrew Bynum is a lot more experienced this time around and surprisingly, new Lakers head coach Mike Brown's offense hasn't inhibited Bryant's scoring prowess thus far, while still keeping big men Bynum and Pau Gasol involved.

Rose's eye-popping scoring numbers from last season are down early in the campaign--though his assists are up and the Bulls point guard couldn't be happier about it--and if that trend continues, no matter how successful his team is, a repeat MVP season is probably unlikely.

But how many people thought, before the season started, that Bryant would be the early-season favorite to take home those honors?

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.