San Antonio Spurs

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

In ugly home opener, Lauri Markkanen gives a glimmer of hope

Keeping the game simple is often a tough task for rookies entering the NBA, but it seems Lauri Markkanen has been a quick learner in that aspect.

Through two games he’s probably the lone bright spot, especially after the Bulls’ cringe-inducing 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in their home opener at the United Center.

Jumper not falling? Okay, go to the basket.

“It wasn’t falling so I tried to get to the rim a couple times,” Markkanen said. “At the end, I was like let’s do it and I connected on a 3-pointer, I felt more open just because I was at the rim. I think that helped.”

He was asked what the difference was in the second game of his career compared to the first.

“I mean the crowd was chanting for us (tonight),” Markkanen said, referring to Thursday in Toronto.

He wasn’t attempting to display any dry wit but applying common sense seems to work for him, even though he’s been thrust into a situation after an incident that doesn’t make any sense.

With Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic out for the foreseeable future, playing a game-high 37 minutes will be more common than anomaly.

“Whatever your minutes are, you gotta play them to the best of your ability,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s being allowed to play through some mistakes right now. He’s gonna play heavy minutes every night.”

He only shot five of 14 but achieved his first double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds after a 17-point, eight-rebound debut against the Raptors Thursday.

No, someone didn’t open a door for a draft to come into the United Center on that three-pointer that went wide left, but it didn’t stop him from being assertive and continuing to look for his shot.

There was plenty of muck, easy to see on the stat sheet. The 38 percent shooting overall, the lack of penetration, the 29 percent shooting from 3-point range and 20 turnovers.

It’s not hard to imagine what Markkanen will look like with competent and effective NBA players around him, along with a true facilitating point guard that will find him in this offense.

“Markkanen is a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s aggressive, he’s smart and obviously, he can shoot the ball. He’s just going to get better and better as he figures things out.”

He received a crash course, facing the likes of Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay Saturday night. On one instance, Gay drove baseline and made Markkanen buckle with a 3-point play.

Aldridge had 24 shots in 32 minutes as a new focal point with Kawhi Leonard out with injury.

So he’s not getting treated with kid gloves, nor is he backing down from the assignments.

“He didn’t shoot the ball well but he battled,” Hoiberg said. “He had a tough assignment with Pau, who’s gonna be in the Hall of Fame one day. Good experience. He guarded Aldridge, Rudy Gay some. He battled, he fought them.”

Even with the airball, had the moment that gives the Bulls fans hope, when he drove on Gasol, spun and hooked a lefty layup while being fouled by the veteran in the first half—giving the United Center faithful something to have faith in for a moment.

“Sometimes you get labeled as a shooter. That’s the label Lauri had,” Hoiberg said. “But he really is a complete basketball player. He’s versatile, he can put in on the deck. He slides his feet very well for a guy that’s seven feet tall, someone his age. Yeah, he’s learning on the fly. He’s gonna have ups and downs, as young as he is. He’s gonna have some struggles at times. But he’s played pretty darn well for everything he’s been through, understanding two days ago he’s gonna be in the starting lineup.”

And for all the bad air around the Bulls right now, from the on-court product to the off-court drama that seems to follow them around like Pigpen, it would be even worse if Markkanen’s first two games had him looking like a corpse, or someone who would be a couple years away from reasonably contributing to an NBA team.

“He’s good, he’s very good,” Gasol said. “I like him. I like his game.”

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

22752696_10155487323821858_1170167000_n.jpg
USA TODAY

Miscues, miscommunications and missed shots: Bulls offense struggling all around

Denzel Valentine corralled a rebound and casually dribbled up the right side of the floor, unaware of the final 5 seconds ticking off the clock in the third quarter. The second-year shooting guard moved toward the basket as the buzzer sounded, only realizing his gaffe as the red lights behind the backboard lit up. It was that kind of night for the Bulls offense, and one that highlighted carelessness, a lack of talent and obvious growing pains as the rebuild begins.

Fred Hoiberg’s group finished with more turnovers (20) than assists (18), shot 38 percent from the field and were doubled up on points in the paint in an ugly 87-77 loss to the Spurs on Saturday night. Adding to the issues were only nine free-throw attempts and 28 percent shooting from deep on a night where the Bulls played well enough defensively to earn a win.

But they couldn’t take advantage of a Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard. The ball stopped for long periods of time in the halfcourt, the fast break was non-existent and miscommunications were frequent, even when they didn’t result in one of those 20 turnovers.

“We had 20 turnovers that led to 23 points…that’s what kills you,” Hoiberg said. “A team goes on a run and they get easy ones, pick-sixes, you’re all of a sudden in a big hole. And obviously did not shoot the ball well today.”

The struggles came from across the board. Only Cris Felicio was turnover-less of the nine Bulls who played. The backcourt tandem of Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday combined for 11 of 32 shooting. Rookie Lauri Markkanen showed flashes with eight first-half points, but finished 5 of 14 and committed three ugly turnovers. Robin Lopez made the first 3-pointer of his career 630 games in, but a 29-year-old leading the way for a young rebuilding group could be deemed bittersweet at best.

It capped off a whirlwind first week for the Bulls, who dealt on the fly with the fallout of the altercation between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. Losing Mirotic and Portis hurt from a talent standpoint, but it also threw a wrench into Hoiberg’s rotation and scheme. It thrust 20-year-old Markkanen into the starting lineup; Paul Zipser has shifted to playing more power forward (while also starting at small forward); Lopez is being asked to score more than ever, and at times be the primary option.

“With everything we’ve had going on the past week, with playing guys different positions that they haven’t played yet,” Hoiberg said, “we’re still trying to figure out exactly how we’re going to go out there and play. We’re getting stuck at times because guys are in the wrong spots.”

The Bulls opened Saturday night with a solid first quarter, scoring 21 points, assisting on nine of 12 baskets and committing just three turnovers.

The final three quarters couldn’t have been more different. The second unit again struggled like it did in allowing the Raptors a 20-2 second-quarter run on Tuesday. Even without Leonard the Spurs’ defensive length cut off passing and driving lanes, forcing the Bulls to dribble down the shot clock and turn to isolation basketball or contested 3-pointers.

The Spurs couldn’t pull away thanks to an inspired defensive effort by the Bulls, but the offensive stalling rendered it moot; the Bulls took 28 3-pointers and 37 shots in the paint, an ugly ratio when considering the nine free-throw attempts. The bench shot 7-for-19, but most of that came in garbage time.

“One thing we definitely need to work on is attacking the basket,” Lopez said. “I think there are times where we all get a little jumper-happy on the perimeter. I think we need to have a good balance.

We need to be aware of that. We’re a team that doesn’t have a lot of room for error so any time we concede the ball like that, we don’t get up a shot attempt, tat’s going to really hurt us.”

Kris Dunn may be closer than expected to returning to the lineup after dislocating his finger in the preseason. It would give the Bulls help on that dismayed second unit, knocking Kay Felder (3 turnovers in 15 minutes) out of the rotation. Once Mirotic and Portis return in November, Hoiberg will have more flexibility with his rotations as well as some insurance if frontcourt foul trouble arrives.

None are go-to scorers, and not even Zach LaVine's 19.8 points per game last season will save the Bulls once he's healthy. Season-long struggles like Saturday night are on the way for a young team searching for pieces of the future. That's expected, and in the long term it benefits them as more Lottery balls roll toward Chicago.

But in a season in which success will be judged not on wins and losses but improvement from game-to-game, but the Bulls have set the bar low in the season's first week.

MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

lebrongianniskevin.png
USA TODAY

MVP, Rookie of the Year, champions and more: Predicting the 2017-18 NBA season

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Following the wildest offseason in recent memory (perhaps ever), when a record seven All-Stars from a year ago changed teams, the chase for the Larry O'Brien trophy begins tonight in Cleveland.

While the Warriors remain the class of the league and, barring significant injury, should repeat as NBA champions, there are dozens and dozens of other storylines to keep us intrigued from now until the third week of June.

But enough with introductions. Let's get into predicting how the NBA's 72nd season will play out.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

You've likely heard the statistic by now, but it bears repeating: Last season Antetokounmpo became the first player in NBA history to rank in the top-20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He was also the fifth player ever to lead his team in those categories, joining Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Michael Jordan. Pretty good company for a player who turned 22 in the middle of that extraordinary campaign (Cowens and Pippen were 29, Garnett was 26 and James was 24 when they respectively accomplished that feat). Simply put, Antetokounmpo checks all the boxes. He's got the skill (see: the stat you just read). He's durable, having missed just nine games in four seasons. He's got the personality (dad jokes FTW). And he's got the storyline, as sidekick Jabari Parker is sidelined with another ACL surgery. The Bucks should improve on their 42 wins from a year ago, but Russell Westbrook proved last year you don't need to be on a top-2 team in your conference to win the award. He's got competition to be sure, but last year's Most Improved Player will become this year's Most Valuable Player.

Runner-ups: LeBron James, Kevin Durant

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

No other NBA award seems to have as much repetition and consistency as this one. Since the award was first handed out in 1983, there have been nine players to win the award in consecutive years (Dwight Howard won it three straight years from 2009-2011). Green will join that list after what should be yet another fantastic defensive campaign. The raw stats were impressive on their own: last year Green averaged a league-best 2.0 steals and added 1.4 blocks and 7.9 rebounds. He was second in the league in defensive efficiency and was the most talented defender on the league's best defense by a long shot. The Warriors return the same unit from a year ago, and assuming Kevin Durant doesn't miss 20+ games again the defense should only get better. Green can guard all five positions (he actually can, I'm not just helping you fill out your NBA Bingo card) and has an unmatched intensity that voters take note of. With Kawhi Leonard nursing a hamstring injury that could linger, and Rudy Gobert becoming a focal point offensively, Green should be in line to take home another trophy.

Runner-ups: Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, LA Clippers

Playing for his fifth team in as many seasons, Williams has changed uniforms but not his playing style. A finalist for the award last season (teammate Eric Gordon rightfully took home the honors), Williams averaged 17.5 points per game in just 24.6 minutes for the Lakers and Rockets. His efficiency dipped after he was dealt to Houston, as his 38.6/31.8/86.7 splits underwhelmed in the shot-happy Rockets system. A year later he finds himself in a terrific situation with the Clippers, who moved on from three-time Sixth Man winner Jamal Crawford this offseason. Williams will be tasked with being the leading scorer on a second unit that isn't exactly oozing with depth. The good news is that he'll have one hell of a passer alongside him in 30-year-old rookie Milos Teodosic. Teodosic averaged 5.5 assists in limited action for the Clips, and he'll be finding Williams early and often with that second group. Expect a bounce back campaign from Williams, with perhaps some added efficiency playing next to Teodosic.

Runner-ups: Eric Gordon, Tristan Thompson

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

You've got 24 hours until the hype train leaves the station, so hop on board now or you'll be kicking yourself all season. The top pick in the 2016 NBA Draft will finally make his debut on Wednesday night, and when he does you'll see why the Sixers believe in him as a cornerstone for this franchise. He'll be listed as a forward but Brett Brown expects him to initiate just about all of Philly's offensive sets this season. In five preseason games he averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists in just 22.8 minutes per game. The best news? He won't be on a minutes restriction after last year's broken foot. He's an absolute blur in transition, can finish with both hands and understands his limitations (his jumper is anything but reliable, yet he shot 57 percent from the field in the preseason). He's also going to be on a team that wins (see below), and the presence of Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and JJ Redick will provide ample opportunities for him to rack up numbers. Get on board, and get on quickly: Ben Simmons is about to jump to stardom in the next few seasons, and it begins with what will be a stellar rookie campaign.

Runner-ups: Dennis Smith Jr., John Collins

Most Improved Player: Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets

The casual NBA fan might not know who Gary Harris is. That will change this season. Fresh off a four-year max deal that could pay him up to $84 million, the Nuggets showed exactly how they feel about the 23-year-old wing. Injuries limited him to 57 games last season, but we'll bank on him playing closer to the 76 games he logged in 2015-16. And the Nuggets are going to give him plenty of run, which is good news: of the last 18 players to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award, none have averaged fewer than 32.2 minutes per game. After the All-Star break last season Harris averaged 16.8 points on 53 percenet shooting, and he was just as good on the defensive end. The Nuggets are going to have plenty of firepower around Harris, including Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray. But Harris is going to be a focal point in this system, and he could emerge in Year 4 as a legitimate All-Star candidate (note: the West is absolutely stacked; Harris will not be an All-Star; but his numbers could be worthy of consideration).

Runner-ups: Josh Richardson, Clint Capela

Coach of the Year: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets jumped to 33 victories in Malone's first year with the Nuggets, and last year made a seven-win jump and nearly made the postseason. Denver won't need to sweat out the final week of this season to see if they're playoff-bound. Their budding stars in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, while replacing Danilo Gallinari with four-time All-Star Paul Millsap, could potentially move them into the top-5 in the West. The Timberwolves will make headlines as the team expected to make "the jump," but watch out for Denver. Malone has taken an offense left for dead and improved them from 21st to 20th to 5th in offensive efficiency. There are certainly questions about their defense, which could be a recipe for disaster in the Western Conference, but expect Denver to flirt with 50 wins this season, making Malone an easy choice for Coach of the Year.

Runner-ups: Erik Spoelstra, Jason Kidd

Eastern Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
2. Boston (55-27)
3. Washington (51-31)
4. Toronto (46-36)
5. Milwaukee (45-37)
6. Miami (44-38)
7. Philadelphia (41-41)
8. Charlotte (38-44)
9. Detroit (35-47)
10. Atlanta (30-52)
11. Indiana (30-52)
12. Orlando (29-53)
13. Brooklyn (24-58)
14. New York (24-58)
15. Chicago Bulls (21-61)

Western Conference Standings (projected record)

1. Golden State (70-12)
2. Houston (60-22)
3. Oklahoma City (54-28)
4. San Antonio (53-29)
5. Denver (49-33)
6. Minnesota (47-35)
7. LA Clippers (45-37)
8. Utah (43-39)
9. Portland (41-41)
10. New Orleans (39-43)
11. Memphis (37-45)
12. Dallas (35-47)
13. Los Angeles Lakers (33-49)
14. Sacramento Kings (28-54)
15. Phoenix Suns (26-56)

NBA champions: Houston Rockets

Oh, come on. Picking the Warriors is no fun. Let's think outside the box for a change and act like Golden State won't win its third title in four seasons. That's too easy. Then again, it may not be too much of a stretch to consider that the Rockets could top them in a seven-game series. Let's start with the obvious: Chris Paul joining James Harden is going to make the Rockets one of the most efficient offenses in league history. Moving Harden off the ball means he won't lead the league in assists again, but he should improve his shooting efficiency (44.0/34.7/84.7 last season). Meanwhile, Paul continues to be overlooked as still one of the game's great point guards. Crack all the conference finals jokes you want; he just averaged 18.1 points and 9.2 assists in his 12th NBA season.

Moving to the wings, the Rockets shored up a defense that ranked 18th in efficiency by signing plus defenders in P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Add Trevor Ariza to that mix and the Rockets tout three capable defenders to counter small-ball lineups Golden State might deploy. It remains to be seen if Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon could be used significantly in a series against the Warriors, but Houston can cover up those defensive weaknesses with this offseason's moves.

Clint Capela shot 64 percent last season, obliterating defenses on pick-and-rolls with Harden. Now he gets Paul, the league's best pick-and-roll ball handler? Unfair. Depth could be a concern, but in the postseason Mike D'Antoni can try an eight-man rotation - or add someone at the trade deadline.

There's no easy way to beat the Warriors, and the last three seasons there hasn't been any way, really. The Rockets don't need to shoot the ball better than Golden State for 82 games. They need to shoot it better than Golden State for two weeks in late May. Chemistry shouldn't be an issue once the Western Conference Finals roll around, and D'Antoni will have found a good minutes stagger to utilize Paul and Harden best. Houston has sneaky flexibility with the aforementioned wings, and that's the only real way to stick with the Warriors and their abundance of rotation options.

Assuming Cleveland comes out of the East, the Cavs would make for an incredible test in the NBA Finals. But after toppling the defending champions, Harden and Paul would be playing with unprecedented confidence. They win it in seven games on their home floor.