Kevin Love

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.”

Cavaliers: LeBron James had never been swept by a division opponent, until this year's Bulls

Cavaliers: LeBron James had never been swept by a division opponent, until this year's Bulls

LeBron James wins a lot. This should come as no surprise, as the three-time NBA champion and four-time MVP has put together a Hall of Fame career by age 32 and doesn't seem to be slowing down.

His dominance over the Eastern Conference also speaks for itself, as James has been to an NBA-record-tying six straight NBA Finals. Widdling his success down even further, James has commanded the Central Division in his 10 seasons with the Cavaliers, and the Southeast Division in his four seasons with the Heat.

Since the NBA created in 2004 the current divisions, James has won division titles in nine of those 13 seasons; James' Cavaliers won the Central five times and his Heat won the Southeast each of the four seasons he played there. James hasn't not won a division title since 2008, a span of nine years

His divisions have featured some pretty awful teams, such as the 2012 Bobcats that went 7-59 in a lockout-shortened season. His divisions also featured the likes of the Pistons' East dominance in the mid-2000s.

In the current division format, James has played 52 regular-season series against the Central and Southeast, respectively.

In 51 of those series James earned at least one victory in the four-game* season series.

Meet the 2016-17 Bulls.

With Thursday night's 99-93 victory over the Cavaliers, LeBron James was swept by a division opponent for the first time in his 14-year Hall of Fame career.

Dec. 2: Bulls 111, Cavaliers 105
Jan. 4: Bulls 106, Cavaliers 94
Feb. 25: Bulls 117, Cavaliers 99
Mar. 30: Bulls 99, Cavaliers 93

In 10 seasons with the Cavaliers and four with the Heat, James' teams hold a 135-70 division record. That includes games against the Central's Bulls, Bucks, Pistons and Pacers, and the the Southeast's Hornets/Bobcats, Wizards, Magic and Hawks.

Of those 51 series (the Cavs still play the Pacers once more this season), here's how James has fared.

4-0: 12 times
3-1: 17 times
2-2: 11 times
1-3: 8 times
0-4: 1 time

3-0: 1 time (lockout-shortened season)
1-2: 1 time (lockout-shortened season)

And against each opponent:

Charlotte: 15-0
Orlando: 12-4
Atlanta: 12-4
Milwaukee: 26-10
Indiana: 24-11
Washington: 10-5
Chicago: 18-18
Detroit: 18-18

In what has been an incredibly odd year for the Bulls, full of unthinkable losses and improbable victories, the fact that they were the ones to sweep James for the first time is perhaps the most remarkable stat of all.

Go figure.