Bulls

As Bulls figure out lineups, Lauri Markkanen will miss first two preseason games

As Bulls figure out lineups, Lauri Markkanen will miss first two preseason games

Going small has been the recent trend in the NBA, with the Cleveland Cavaliers being the latest to make the trek by starting Kevin Love at center.

The Bulls are a little different in that current space, with five big men who could probably qualify for the position—although they’ll be down to four in their preseason opener as Lauri Markkanen will be out for the first two games with back spasms.

Bulls fans will have to wait to check out their new building block, but it’ll give Fred Hoiberg a chance to mess around with rotations in the meantime with games against New Orleans and Dallas on back-to-back nights starting Tuesday.

Quincy Pondexter will also miss both games with a left hamstring injury, which is about as far as Hoiberg would divulge when asked about a starting lineup, guarding his thoughts with CIA-like privacy.

As for the trend, if Hoiberg was given truth serum he might say having a center who can shoot from long range is a dream of his, but he may have to settle for streaky-shooting Nikola Mirotic at the center spot at times.

“I like the way the league is going. It's why I gained 10 pounds because I might play five. It's a joke,” the dry-witted Mirotic said. “I might play five (center) you never know, we'll see.”

Even with Mirotic at 260 pounds, he’s probably better playing against smaller lineups so he won’t be pushed around as much, and he’s a decent rebounder despite his deficiencies. Putting Mirotic and Markkanen together will be a sight seen often this year, one would think.

“I like the way they're playing it right now because last year we played some together, Bobby (Portis) and me. I think here at some point they'll play Lauri and me. It's a new game right now.”

The new game will have a bit of an old feel against the Pelicans, considering they employ arguably the two best big men in the league in DeMarcus Cousins and Chicago-native Anthony Davis, versatile bigs who can play inside-out.

[MORE: Competition in full force during Bulls training camp

“This preseason will be good for us because we’ll see a lot of different lineups,” Hoiberg said. “Starting tomorrow and playing New Orleans twice in the preseason with two 7-footers on their front line and two of the better, more versatile players in our league at the 4-5 spots.

“And then facing a guy like Love, which will be a tough lineup having to defend with their small players. Hopefully, have some things in your offensive package to counter that on the other end.”

Make no mistake, Hoiberg will throw some funky lineups out there now and when the games count, especially to show off an offensive system he’s been desperate to display in his first two years.

Considering the Bulls are where they are in terms of talent, players like Mirotic will likely be in myriad positions to make plays, whether Mirotic keeps the weight on or not.

It’s why Mirotic’s aim is to “play simple basketball”, something he hasn’t always been successful at during his first three seasons.

“I know that it's gonna be tough matchups tomorrow, having to guard (Cousins). But play good defense, play solid on offense and try to execute,” Mirotic said. “We've been working very hard the last week of camp. For me, offensively if I'm open take my shot. Run the floor, play defense and rebound the ball.”

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

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USA TODAY

NBA Draft Tracker: Arizona C DeAndre Ayton

With college teams heading into conference play, momentum is starting to build for Arizona center Deandre Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick in next June's draft.

Ayton already has an NBA body at 7-foot-1, 250 pounds and he's a lot more agile than most young big men. Watching his recent game against Texas A&M, Ayton showed the kind of footwork and explosiveness that will impress scouts and general managers. He doesn't have the Hakeem Olajuwon-like moves of a Joel Embiid, but he's already got the basic NBA post move skill set, including a jump hook and up-and-under package. Ayton exploded for 29 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Alabama on December 9, making 12 of 18 shots.

Ayton is already a force on the defensive end with his quick leaping ability allowing him to alter shots in the paint, and he has a nice touch from the outside, hitting just under 70 percent of his free throws while also venturing out to the 3-point line to attempt a couple shots.

Where does he fit for the Bulls? Robin Lopez is under contract for another season and the Bulls also have three more guaranteed years of seldom-used Cristiano Felicio. Still, all that could change by season's end, with Lopez a potential trade candidate for a contending team looking to add another quality big man. Ayton's size and athleticism could be attractive to a Bulls’ team that's already identified three young starters going forward in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, especially since the power forward position is overloaded right now with Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic. 

At this point early in the college season, Marvin Bagley and Ayton probably rank first and second on most teams’ draft boards, followed by Slovenian guard Luka Doncic and Missouri forward Michael Porter, who's out for the season because of a back injury. 

Bagley is the hot name among NBA scouts, but don't be surprised if Ayton gets consideration for the No. 1 overall pick next June. The NBA might be a point guard league right now, but the influx of quality young centers like Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic suggests the big man is still a valuable commodity.

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Giannis and the Bucks

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USA TODAY

Three Things to Watch: Bulls square off against Giannis and the Bucks

 

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo is must-watch every night. The newest megastar of the NBA has completely taken over in his fifth NBA season. He's averaging 29.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. He literally does it all, and he's shooting 55 percent and getting to the three throw line 9.7 times per game. Oh, and he leads the league in minutes per game (37.7) and can play literally any position. He's arguably the most watchable player in the NBA who didn't go to high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron. Simply put, when the Greek Freak is on your television screen you had better be watching, even if he's going to go crazy on the Bulls.

2. The Drive for Five. Don't adjust your monitor, tablet or phone. The Bulls will go for their fifth consecutive win on Friday night. That's something they didn't accomplish last season, and did it in January of the 2015-16 season (6 straight wins). And these haven't exactly been cupcakes the Bulls have knocked off. Charlotte is a team in dismay, but the Knicks, Celtics (obviously) and Jazz should all contend for playoff spots this season. So, too, should the Bucks. And in a division game anything can happen, and Bulls fans turnout should be good in Milwaukee. If the Bulls get Lauri Markkanen back it'll be one more reason they can push this unlikely win streak to five games.

3. Niko's Back! That's right. Nikola Mirotic is back with a vengeance since returning from his concussion/facial fractures. He's been a man on a mission in four games (all Bulls wins), averaging 19.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game. He hasn't recorded an assist in 102 minutes, but that just adds to the legend. Niko is looking as good as ever right now, shooting 57 percent and 52 percent from deep. Of course the Bulls aren't 4-0 simply on the back of Mirotic, but it's clear the spacing is so much better and the Bulls' offense flows more fluidly when No. 44 is on the court.