The next time the Bulls take the floor – Wednesday night in Charlotte – they’ll be playing for keeps, looking to make good on their verbalized goal of making the postseason for the first time in three seasons. They’re lofty goals for a team that won just 22 games a season ago, but they put the finishing touches on a promising preseason in their 111-93 victory over the Atlanta Hawks that has them feeling confident in what’s ahead.
True, it came against a Hawks team playing a rare back-to-back (with both games on the road) and one that was resting John Collins, but the Bulls once again shared the ball, played with urgency and continued their 2019 style in a game they led the final 38 minutes.
Coach Jim Boylen treated the game as a dress rehearsal for the season opener against the Hornets in six days, solidifying his 10-man rotation and getting significant contributions from both units. With star power in Zach LaVine and (hopefully) Lauri Markkanen, a supporting cast that’s buying in and a few promising youngsters, the next stage of the Bulls rebuild is shaping up nicely.
“I thought each guy had moments,” Boylen said after the game. “I thought we did a good job of getting the ball to the open people or the hot man…That’s what good teams do. They find the guy that’s got it rolling. They keep it rolling as long as they can. And then we pick each other up when maybe a group or section of the game where we’re struggling. I’m happy for that.”
It once again began with Zach LaVine, who finished a terrific preseason with 23 points on 11 shots in just 25 minutes. He was a model of efficiency – he didn’t attempt a midrange shot – and finished his four-game preseason stretch with 93 points in 96 minutes, shooting 32 of 54 (59.2%) and making 14 of 25 3-point attempts (56.0%). Every completed rebuild needs a player like how LaVine is playing right now. It should be an All-Star season for the 25-year-old.
Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter were quiet in the preseason but there’s not much to read in to about their performances. Wendell Carter Jr. shook off a couple injury scares and put together his best performance of his limited preseason, finishing with 8 points and 8 rebounds and drawing some praise from Boylen for his off-ball intangibles. He should be full-go in five days when the Bulls begin playing for keeps.
Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky did exactly what they’ve done their entire careers: They were quiet but effective, with the latter forming a solid tandem with any frontcourt player he appeared with, and the latter grabbing the starting point-guard reins.
The second unit remains a question mark, but it will enter the regular season with some serious momentum. Despite being officially demoted to the second unit just days earlier, Kris Dunn again drew praise from Boylen for his effort and energy that sparked the Bulls in the second quarter.
“I thought Kris Dunn’s energy off the bench changed the game,” Boylen said. “He got us going. His effort, his energy, his focus was great. Some nights we’re gonna be in mud, we’re gonna be a little sluggish. And he’s been practicing really hard and I was really proud of what he did in that moment to kind of get us going. I’m happy for him.”
Dunn may be able to stay on the floor thanks to the scoring prowess that rookie Coby White is showing. The seventh overall pick scored a game-high 29 points and made 6 of 8 3-pointers. That 3-for-30 effort in the Las Vegas Summer League feels like forever ago, and for a bench that lacks much scoring, White’s ability to do just that becomes even more significant. His last three preseason games: 23.6 points in 25.3 minutes. He had just one assist, but the Bulls will take that scoring and shooting right now.
Boylen called his stretch of triples in the third quarter “as good as we’ve seen in this building in a while.”
Luke Kornet has won the backup job over Daniel Gafford, while Ryan Arcidiacono (and presumably Chandler Hutchison when he returns from a hamstring injury) is ahead of Denzel Valentine, who Boylen said needs to “stay ready” despite not being in the 10-man rotation. The bench is the Bulls’ weakest spot, but even Boylen admitted they’re starting to get a little rhythm together.
The caveat, of course, is that it was just preseason. Everything changes when the games start counting. On the one hand, the Bulls’ first five opponents include one projected playoff team (Toronto), On the other hand, four of those first five games are on the road. What worked in preseason isn’t guaranteed to work in the regular season. But for what the Bulls could have proved in the preseason – that they’re forming a team with specific roles and players buying into them – they did to a T, and it should make for a promising Year 3 of a rebuild.