Mark Strotman

Bulls have makings of a real team as game week begins

Bulls have makings of a real team as game week begins

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.

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What to watch for when the Bulls square off against Zion and the Pelicans

What to watch for when the Bulls square off against Zion and the Pelicans

The Bulls continue their preseason slate with a matchup against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans tonight on NBC Sports Chicago. Here's what to watch for.

1. Tomas Satoransky with the starters

Jim Boylen wants to see numerous lineups during the preseason, but this will be the most important one he watches. Satoransky is versatile, and he could provide some stability on a second unit that may not have much punch, but it’s critical that the Bulls put out their best starting (and closing) lineup each night.

That means Satoransky starting at point guard or, at the very least, playing in bunches with Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter. He shot just 1 for 6 in his preseason debut but filled the box score in 22 minutes, including three assists, five steals and a team-high seven rebounds. That’s exactly the kind of point guard the Bulls need around their heavy-hitters: low-usage, do the dirty work, keep the ball moving and space the floor.

Even if Satoransky isn’t the starter on Opening Night – the unanimous Kris Dunn praise hasn’t ceased from inside the Advocate Center – he’ll log the majority of the minutes at the position. Instead of looking at Satoransky’s final line tonight, consider the looks he’s able to get LaVine and Markkanen and how often he keeps the offense flowing.

2. Daniel Gafford against a big Pelicans frontcourt

Daniel Gafford did on Monday what he did in Summer League: Dominate smaller interiors with his energy and effort. He posted a monster fourth quarter in the Bulls’ loss to the Bucks, but most of his numbers came against a frontcourt of Dragan Bender, Luke Maye and Thanasis Antetokounmpo. It was promising to see him perform well, but those aren’t the types of lineups he’ll see in the regular season.

He may get a good test on Wednesday. Rookie Jaxson Hayes played just five minutes in the Pelicans’ preseason opener, but could see more run in Game 2. The Bulls could even throw Gafford out there against a Pelicans frontcourt that includes Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors.

Luke Kornet and Wendell Carter Jr. could play, so Gafford will need to make the most of his minutes when he gets them, just like he did Monday.

3. Pace, pace, pace

Small sample-size alert, but the Pelicans played lightning-quick in their preseason opener against the Atlanta Hawks. How fast? 116.5 possessions fast. To put that in context, the Hawks led the NBA in pace last season at 104.5 possessions. Behind Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday, Alvin Gentry’s group is going to get out and run any chance they can.

That’s good for a Bulls team that actively pushed pace in their loss to the Bucks. This type of game could play right into the hands of rookie Coby White, who showed off his speed on multiple occasions on Monday, including going coast-to-coast in four seconds off a made basket to draw a shooting foul at the rim.

Of course, the more important factor here will be transition defense. The Bulls struggled mightily there a season ago, and if Carter can’t play big minutes, it’ll be on those small lineups to get back and force the Pelicans into halfcourt sets.

4. Kris Dunn on the second unit

We’ve written about it before, but Dunn is best served on the second unit and staggered with LaVine. This will be an excellent opportunity for Dunn to run the show on the second unit and work some pick-and-roll action with Gafford, Thaddeus Young and potentially Kornet (on pick-and-pops).

He’s at his best when he’s driving and attacking, and having White and Denzel Valentine on the perimeter should give him an opportunity to rack up some assists. He’ll also get a nice defensive test against a Pelicans team that will run. As much as him starting on Monday was a big opportunity, tonight’s might be bigger. He can establish himself as the lead ball handler on the second unit.

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Why the Bulls' shot distribution is a sign of promising things to come

Why the Bulls' shot distribution is a sign of promising things to come

The most important takeaway from the Bulls’ preseason loss to the Milwaukee Bucks wasn’t the point guard competition. It wasn’t Daniel Gafford’s energy. It wasn’t Denzel Valentine looking healthy and comfortable from beyond the arc. It wasn’t a defense that dearly misses Wendell Carter Jr.

It was the team’s shot distribution.

Before diving in, the obvious caveat here is that Monday’s shot attempts are a one-game sample size, and the location of shots came in a home loss to Milwaukee’s B-Team. But in an era of unparalleled offensive analytics, there’s a glimmer of hope that the Bulls are hopping aboard the analytics train and riding it into a more efficient offense.

The Bulls attempted 98 shots on Monday. Of those, 40 came in the restricted area and 38 were 3-pointers. That’s nearly 80% of their attempts coming from the most efficient spots on the floor, and that percentage would have been higher had it not been for their 38 free-throw attempts (another sign of positive efficiency).

The end result of those looks was just eight midrange (MR) attempts in a game played at 112 possessions. Of those attempts, the only make came midway through the first quarter when Otto Porter took a step inside the 3-point line and buried a jumper over center Brook Lopez, who was on his heels and giving the Bulls’ swingman plenty of space to shoot.

Those eight attempts were an excellent sign for a Bulls team that took far too many MR attempts last season at an ugly clip; in 2019, the Bulls ranked 12th in MR attempts (14.5 per game) and shot just 37.1% on those looks, the third worst mark in the league behind Atlanta and Miami.

Zach LaVine and Otto Porter played just a combined 39 minutes, but they took just one midrage jumper between the two of them. Last year Porter averaged 4.6 midrange attempts per game, while LaVine averaged 3.2 per game.

Certainly Jim Boylen deserves credit for practicing what he preached in the offseason, that the Bulls would run more and attempt more 3-pointers. But he deserves equal praise for his offseason hires, employing former Brooklyn Nets assistant Chris Fleming and former Rockets assistant Roy Rogers.

It’s no coincidence that those two teams ranked last (Houston; 4.8) and third-to-last (Brooklyn; 8.2) in midrange attempts per game last season. In fact, Houston and Brooklyn ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts in 2017 and 2018, too. (Ironically enough, Houston and Brooklyn are also ranked last and second-to-last in midrange attempts very early in the 2020 preseason.)

Those principles and offensive philosophies are carrying over to a Bulls roster that’s loaded with above-average 3-point shooters and some of the game’s best players around the rim.

"We hope it's sustainable," Boylen said Tuesday at the Advocate Center. "It might not be 38 (3-point attempts) and 38 (free throw attempts) every night. Historically, there are more fouls in preseason games. So I don't want to overreact to it. It is nice when your team does some of the things that you emphasize. Getting downhill, getting to the free-throw line has been an emphasis.

"Getting more 3s, getting good 3s---the way we charted it, we had eight wide-open 3s we missed. I think we had games last year where we took eight. That was a joke.

"We got a lot of work to do, but it is nice when some of the things you emphasize come to fruition. And we're going to keep emphasizing them."

And while the sample-size snobs will come out in droves for analyzing one preseason game in which the Bulls’ core players didn’t play their full allotment of minutes – and Wendell Carter and Luke Kornet, two expected rotation players, were out – the Bulls were already trending in the right direction last season. Consider the Bulls’ midrange attempts per game by month under Boylen:

December: 15.7
January: 13.8
February: 12.8
March: 12.8
April: 11.8

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the Bulls also averaged more shot attempts in the restricted area each month under Boylen. They went from 28.1 RA attempts per game in December all the way to 36.6 attempts per game in April. In the 17-game span with a healthy Otto Porter on the roster (he played in 15 of them), the Bulls averaged 13.1 MR attempts (15th fewest) and 31.1 RA attempts (12th most).

There’s a misconception that midrange shots are bad shots. That isn’t the case. There’s a time and place for them. The Golden State Warriors’ juggernaut offense ranked second in midrange attempts per game last season. Last year, five of the top six teams in midrange attempts per game made the postseason, and eight of the top 10 teams in midrange field goal percentage qualified for the postseason.

Midrange success is a result of being elite in the other two areas (at the rim and from beyond the arc). Teams either pack the paint to defend against drives to the rim or over-defend on 3-point attempts, allowing space in the midrange for open looks.

Consider Porter’s jumper over Lopez. It was a clear mismatch on a switch, and the Bucks center knew it. He gave Porter space to step into a one-dribble jumper that, despite being a midrange shot, was a high percentage look for one of the best shooters in basketball.

There were bad looks, too. Lauri Markkanen took a contested baseline fadeaway jumper, and Coby White took two errant jumpers early in the shot clock that probably shouldn’t have been taken. Over the course of a 48-minute game, those will happen. But the Bulls appeared to make a concerted effort to minimize them by attacking the rim, moving the ball on the perimeter and finding open 3-point shooters.

It’s something to watch as the preseason progresses, and especially once players like Carter (elite around the rim) and Kornet (one of those above-average marksmen) are back in the fold. It was just one preseason game, but it was a promising one in terms of shot distribution.