Bulls' defense, offensive balance will carry team without Rose


Bulls' defense, offensive balance will carry team without Rose

Yes, the NBA's regular season just started. No, nothing will change with the Bulls' stellar defense.

Well, maybe a few things have changed. Gone are the likes of strong individual defenders such as Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer; the likes of Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson demonstrated considerable improvement during their time in Chicago, too. But even with all of the new faces, it would be out of character for Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to allow much, if any slippage.

Sure, every team is still getting out the kinks as training camp nears its end, but through the preseason, the Bulls ranked second in opponents' points per game (to the Timberwolves, who were no doubt aided by the Bulls' 75-point stinker in a defeat at Minnesota) and near the top of the league rankings in both opposing field-goal percentage and three-point percentage. There have certainly been occasions on which the Bulls haven't lived up to their lofty standards, but the team's success has been characterized by stretches

"Defensively, you never have it all figured out, so I think there have been times where we have been pretty good. We had a problem with the turnovers early on and often times, it was live-ball turnovers, so we were giving them easy baskets before we could get our defense set. When our defense is set, we're going to be hard to score upon, but if it's a live ball and we don't have floor balance, then we're just giving up easy baskets, we're beating ourselves and those are the things that you want to take care of. I think the important thing is to eliminate all the ways in which you beat yourself first. When you do that, now you're going to put yourself in a position to win. For us, we know if we defend and we rebound, and we keep our turnovers down, regardless of how we shoot the ball, we're going to be in a position to win and then if we shoot the ball relatively well, we're going to have a good chance to win. That's what we've done for three years now, so we don't want to change that," Thibodeau explained. "The challenge for us is to be a complete team. We want to be good on both sides of the ball. You want to be committed to being a five-man team on both offense and defense, so it's not going to be any one individual player. It's going to be how you can get five guys to function together and that's on both ends, and I think if we do that, we have a chance to be a good team."

Backup center Nazr Mohammed is a newcomer, but the veteran is already espousing Thibodeau's perfectionist philosophy.

"It's early and I think we're going to get better. I think we've had sections of the game where we've played unbelievable defense, where we've locked teams down, but at the same time, we've had some parts of the game where we just weren't where our standard is and what we expect out of each other," he said. "I think we're definitely one of the better defensive teams in this league, but not as good as we're going to be in a couple of weeks, months, as the season goes on."

For all of Derrick's Rose talents, his temporary replacement, Kirk Hinrich, is actually regarded as a better defensive player and with the energetic Nate Robinson backing him up, the Bulls' second unit has enjoyed better full-court ball pressure, if not superior overall bench play at this point, than its predecessors. The aforementioned Asik as an anchor next to holdover Taj Gibson is a loss, but Mohammed's veteran experience and physical nature help on the interior, while second-year swingman Jimmy Butler doesn't yet have Brewer's knowledge of opponents' tendencies around the league, but is seen as a worthy defensive heir apparent.

While Thibodeau mostly speaks in general terms when evaluating the team's defensive play to the media, the fact that he was less disapproving as the preseason went on speaks volumes to his level of satisfaction, though he harped on consistency. Still, while he expects his team's defense to improve, there isn't much to nit-pick about regarding the effort and given the preparation he requires of the players, there's no reason to think the results will differ from his first two seasons at the helm.

"You're trying to build all the habits that are necessary to be successful, so your preparation is important. How you study and how you get yourself ready to play, all those things count, so we don't want to change our approach, whether it's preseason, regular season, postseason. We want to be doing the same things and building the right habits," he said. "There's certain things we've done well, some things we've done average and some things below average, so you're always striving to get better in all areas and that's the approach that I want us to take. I think how you set the tone, your attitude and your approach to start a season is critical, and you want to maintain that throughout. I think a quality team improves throughout the course of a season, but I think it's the approach and attitude that those teams bring and we want to be one of those teams. We want to get better each and every day."

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls might not be as exciting without Rose on the court, but they will be balanced and surprisingly, Thibodeau's off-stated commitment to getting out in transition, even without arguably the league's most explosive player on the court, looks like it will be honored on a more consistent basis.

By the end of the exhibition slate, all five starters and the majority of the squad's regular reserves--with shooting guard Marco Belinelli being a notable exception, though he took a positive step in the preseason-finale win over Indiana at Notre Dame--either showcased new wrinkles to their individual games or displayed signs of a higher comfort level with the system. From the somewhat obvious, such as Joakim Noah's improved post-up game, Mohammed showing he still has something left in the tank, Robinson exhibiting more traditional playmaker sensibilities and Gibson playing with more confidence as a scorer, to subtleties like Luol Deng playing with his back to the basket more, Carlos Boozer sprinting the floor on fast breaks, Hinrich pushing the tempo and Rip Hamilton having flashbacks to his Detroit days, it's clear that the Bulls have several solid, if not overwhelming options on offense, perfect for a group that needs to use a committee approach to be effective scoring the ball.

"Obviously we have a lot to work on; we will, of course. But I thought we had a good preseason. Guys got better, our bench got much better every night. That was an awesome thing for us to see. Hopefully, some of them got some more confidence. But were moving on to Sacramento, so well get ready for them," Boozer said after beating the Pacers, a contest in which all five starters scored in double figures, even with Hinrich missing the game with a groin injury. "I thought we got better every week. I thought every game, every week we improved. Were still improving. Thats not going to stop. Thats going to be our goal the whole season, to keep getting better. But I thought we got better.

"We all know us being without D-Rose, were probably going to be the underdog in every game we play in. Thats alright. Were ready for that challenge. Well take it on. You guys write what you write. Well be ready to play every game," continued the power forward, who jokingly added, "You never know! You cut the grass, you might see some snakes!" in a playful jab at pundits who picked Indiana to win the Central Division, something that the Bulls quietly want to prevent. "With us, weve got so many talented players, you never know who its going to be. Weve got guys that can put it in the whole, that are aggressive, that can score, but you never know who its going to be. One day it could be Lu, me, Rip, Nate, Taj, Jo, Marco, Jimmy, Kirk when he comes back. Weve got so many guys that can score, it makes it fun. Were not D-Rose, but we work with each other really well. I think we set screens really well and we pass very well, we cut very well. We help each other get open. I think thats the mark of a good team, when you try to help your teammate."

Robinson concurred about the Bulls' offensive balance: "Thats how we want it, but every nights going to be different. Some nights, guys are going to be on. Some nights, guys are going to be off. But as long as we bring energy and we play defense, I think were going to be okay.

"Rip and those guys are great free-throw shooters, Luol. We just try to get guys the ball that can first of all, score, and on top of that, make free throws. Every guy on our team can do that," he continued when asked about the team's supposed lack of a closer to end games without Rose, for whom a plan about whether to travel with the team or even sit on the bench during games is still not definite. "Its the real deal now. we went through the preseason, played the teams that we played. In training camp, kicked each others butt. Now the real deal is here and were ready."

As a whole, Thibodeau, who's never completely satisfied, has approved of the Bulls' level of focus during training camp. While his focus has been on the players executing precisely, one gets the feeling that the coach relishes the challenge of perceived low expectations, being an underdog without Rose and coaching up a group of experienced players to succeed collectively on a nightly basis.

"The general approach and the attitude has been good. I think weve improved, but by no means are we anywhere near where we need to be, so we have a lot of work to do. We have to come in every day, do the right things. If we do that, well improve," the coach explained. "The turnovers have gone down, so I like the way thats moving. The rebounding has been outstanding from the start of camp. The defense, overall, its been pretty good and then offensively, I think as the ball moves and the players moves, if we can sustain our spacing, we have very unselfish bigs. So, when the ball hits the paint, we play inside-out, we should be able to get good shots, and we want to play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses. If we do that, well be in position to win.

"The spacing. The ball movement, the player movement, its leading to second shots, its leading to scramble plays. I think we have some guys that are cutting real hard and as I mentioned, our bigs are very unselfish. If we search them out, the ball goes inside and we move, if you cut and youre open, theyre going to hit you and thats what we have to continue to do...I like balance. I like balance and balance in terms of our scoring. I like it in terms of how we play. I think we have to be strong on both sides of the ball. I thought we had great effort from our bench tonight, too, so thats coming along," he added. "We have to try to run because to me, I want to have a flow to the offense, so if we can defend well and rebound well, we can get out into the open floor and we want to try to get as many three-on-twos, two-on-ones, three-on-ones as you can, but its hard to sustain that throughout a game. But when the third defender comes back into the play, I want to be able to flow into our secondary action without having to reset the offense and I think we have improved in that area, but we still can do a lot better.

"I just want improvement. I think if were playing inside-out and were taking the right shots, whether its off the dribble or through the post-up and guys are taking their shots. Each guy is different, each guy has different strengths and weaknesses, so we want to play to those strengths, cover up your weaknesses. Some guys can shoot the three better than others, some guys are better drivers, some guys are better post-up players. So, if everyone is playing to their strengths, well be a good team."

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

It wasn’t an exciting night at the Advocate Center but it was a successful one in the eyes of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.

And a telling one, from their inaction as they stayed put to select Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison with their two first round picks.

They’re not looking to press the fast-forward button on this methodical process, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves that they’re nowhere near ready to embrace.

But perhaps, it was necessary.

Trade offers were around, and the Bulls were enamored with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in addition to their interest in Mohamed Bamba. But the price of swapping picks, along with giving up the 22nd spot and a future first-rounder was too rich for the Bulls, according to sources.

“We’re always looking and probing for opportunity. How close we got, we don’t know,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “We looked into some things. We thought it was more than a six-player draft. And Wendell is a guy we’ve been high on for quite awhile.”

They believe they’ve opted for prudence instead of panic on a night where bold, confident steps are expected.

After a painful march to the end of an unsatisfying season and dropping a spot in the lottery, a trade would’ve been a do-good when many felt the Bulls should’ve been at the top of the draft order.

After all, so much was made of their scouts and staff spending so much time during the year to assess the top talent—nobody wanted to see all that unspoken promise result in a mid-lottery seventh selection.

“We feel we’re in a situation at this time of our rebuild that to give up assets, important draft assets to move up a spot or two, that didn’t make sense to us and the way we’re planning,” Paxson said. “We continue to talk about being patient and disciplined in how we make decisions.”

One can look at it as the Bulls being unwilling to embrace what comes with taking a top-four talent—especially with Jackson being viewed as a long play as opposed to an instant impact prospect—the word “playoffs” would’ve been swirling all around Madison and Wood for the next several months.

Or one can view it as a sober approach, that Paxson and Forman know there’s far too many unanswered questions about their core, that a slightly better-than-expected regular season wasn’t going to seduce them down a costly road.

They don’t seem to be completely sold on Kris Dunn as the unequivocal point guard of the future, unafraid to take Trae Young if he fell into their lap.

Zach LaVine didn’t play to his expectations, the franchise’s expectations and he didn’t look comfortable playing with the Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, in part because they didn’t have the opportunity.

He enters restricted free agency and nobody will know how much the Bulls value him until they put an initial offer in front of him, likely on the eve of free agency a week from now.

As much as the last 12 months were about hitting the reset button and trading Jimmy Butler to put themselves in this spot, the months of October to April didn’t shed as much light as many anticipated—hence the talk from Paxson about patience and not being in a rush with the rebuild right now.

Because honestly, there’s nothing to rush—the last thing this distrusting fan base wants to hear.

Carter can be exactly what the Bulls need—some ways immediately, other ways in time provided the roster construction is competent and not done at a snail’s pace, the biggest fear from this jaded fan base.

Having to sacrifice at Duke once Bagley III reclassified to get to college, his offensive game didn’t develop as much as it could have—and it’s not like he’ll be featured early on in Chicago with Markkanen and LaVine penciled in as main scoring options.

“As much as you wanna talk about the game getting away from bigs, big guys and their ability to score, the way the game’s going,” Paxson said. “He wants to set screens for guys. This is a young man who’s gonna fit into the team concept that we want to have. And Chandler will do the same.”

Carter had to submerge his talents and gifts during the one season he had to showcase it for the greater good. It speaks to a certain emotional maturity the 19-year old has, a sober approach to look at the bigger picture while still making the most of his not-so-plentiful opportunities.

“Wendell is still a young guy,” Paxson said. “Very few draft picks are finished product, especially in our game where we’re drafting so young. He’s got a lot of room to grow. Defensively as a rim protector, he’ll do really well. Verticality at the rim, he’s been taught really well. Smart kid, we think he’s gonna be really good.”

Hutchison isn’t the high-upside talent Carter is, having played four years of college ball, improving each year to the point that the Bulls supposedly made him a promise very early on in the draft process.

Their unwillingness to give up the 22nd pick, whether they like the perception or not, stems from their belief Hutchison can be an impact player.

“We like Chandler a lot,” Paxson said. “We scouted him early, scouted him often. He knew we liked him. He addresses a position of need. We had debates on wings and players at his position. His ability to rebound and take it off the board, those things are really valuable, especially the way we want to play.”

Paxson alluded to tense discussions leading to the draft, where one can surmise there was serious consideration about not just going with the status quo—their reported interest in point guard Collin Sexton should be proof of that—and that should come as a positive sign for Bulls fans, who feel the front office is satisfied with a slow-rolling, low-accountability approach since they aren’t saddling themselves with high expectations.

To paraphrase Forman, the Bulls are “still building up our asset base” and subtly saying they expect to be in a similar position next June.

Soberly saying winning and contention isn’t on the horizon can be refreshing to hear, but they walk a fine line of expressing too much comfort in things staying the way they are.


The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls had a decision to make Thursday night at No. 7.

Staring them in the face was Michael Porter Jr., undoubtedly the biggest risk in the draft but also one of the most talented, and a fan favorite to boot. Both Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox presented options who would fill needs on the wing for a Bulls team desperate for a perimeter threat. The team was also reportedly interested in Alabama point guard Collin Sexton during the pre-draft process, and the potential to trade up for a Luka Doncic or Mo Bamba at 3 or 4 was on the table.

Instead the Bulls opted against going high upside, high risk. They passed on filling one of their glaring needs. They didn’t mortgage future assets to move up in a draft they felt was already deep enough. What the Bulls did on Thursday night in selecting Duke center Wendell Carter was make clear one aspect of their rebuild: Lauri Markkanen is the face of the franchise and the man they’re constructing this roster around.

Everything that makes the 19-year-old Carter a great prospect is what detractors felt might hold Markkanen back at the next level. Carter was built to thrive in the paint, an energetic center who posted a better offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the floor) than Texas’ Mo Bamba and his 7-foot-10 wingspan. Carter was one of the best players in the country at scoring off those offensive rebounds, and he did all this while playing alongside Marvin Bagley, the No. 2 pick to Sacramento and the ACC’s leading rebounder.

But Carter is more than just a young Tristan Thompson. Though he rarely had to use it on a Duke team littered with perimeter threats, Carter showed a solid touch in making 41 percent of his 46 3-point attempts. He looks comfortable at 15 to 17 feet, and he passed well from those areas, too. That shooting will come as an added bonus; Carter was the anchor a Duke defense that transformed to zone midway through the season, and the Blue Devils defense was nearly 6 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the floor.

It's not surprising that the Bulls were reportedly interested in moving up with centers Jaren Jackson and Bamba on the table, more defensive-minded complements to Markkanen, and not Doncic or Porter. It felt as though the Bulls were drafting at 7 not only to grab the best player available, but to maximize Markkanen's potential.

What Carter will be asked to do, at least in the early going with this roster’s makeup – is much of what he was asked to do at Duke. He played second fiddle in the frontcourt to Bagley, who led the Blue Devils in all major offensive categories and won ACC Player of the Year. Carter posted modest 13.5-point and 9.0-rebound averages while doing the dirty work on defense. His 7.6 percent block rate (percentage of shot attempts he blocked while on the court) was impressive considering how often Duke played zone.

“The young man sacrificed a lot in order to be a good teammate. A lot of it speaks to who he is,” Forman said. “We think in really studying his game is, if you look long-term, is a guy that can fit with Lauri and obviously Lauri is a huge part of what we’re trying to build here."

The Bulls are rolling the dice that Markkanen can be the face of franchise. A year ago LaVine was far and away the core piece of the Jimmy Butler trade, and that was while he was rehabbing from ACL surgery. Markkanen was a question mark and a project, and Kris Dunn was a 23-year-old rookie who posted awful numbers in Minnesota. Questions about LaVine's future in Chicago with restricted free agency this summer now linger, and Dunn is going on 24 years old with 50 career starts.

It's Markkanen's spotlight, and the Bulls know it. He showed he was for real as a rookie; he was not, however, Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons, a can't-miss, sure-fire star. Yes, he joined LeBron James and Dario Saric as the only members of the 1,000-point, 500-rebound, 140-3-pointer club last year. He put up shooting numbers for a 7-footer matched only by Hall of Fame center Dirk Nowitzki. Questions persist on whether he can make a leap to stardom, but adding pieces like Carter to complement him and cover some weaknesses are a step in that direction.

"You hope you draft players that become stars," Paxson said. "We believe that last year, in drafting Lauri, he has that potential. He has a long way to go, but we believe he has that potential."

That could be part of the reason the Bulls opted against moving up in the draft, like Dallas did in dealing No. 5 and a future first-round pick to grab Luka Doncic at No. 3. Paxson and Forman both hinted at the Bulls being in a state of the rebuild where giving up future assets to attain something greater didn't provide a positive net worth. They're happy and comfortable with where they stand at this stage in the rebuild, with Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and an enormous amount of cap space.

Now they can add Carter and No. 22 pick Chandler Hutchison to that list. The 6-foot-7 Boise State forward was yet another complementary piece to the roster. Like Carter, Hutchison projects as a high floor, low(er) ceiling player. Hutchinson is a four-year senior compared to Carter being a year removed from high school, but the two are similar. Hutchison will provide a physical presence on the wing the Bulls have lacked, and he can cover defensive weaknesses of players like Denzel Valentine, LaVine and even Markkanen.

"We feel these two players complement the team and the roster that we have very well," Paxson said. "One year later we feel like we’ve added five really good young core pieces to build and that's important to us. We’re excited about the future, the direction we’re headed."

The Bulls didn’t need to roll the dice with their 7th pick on Thursday night. They rolled the dice with the same selection one year ago and hit on it. Taking Carter midway through the Lottery is a complement and a compliment to what the Bulls believe Markkanen is and what he will be for a franchise looking to get back in contention.

It's a lot to ask for a 21-year-old Finnish stretch forward. But superstars win in the NBA and the Bulls believe they have one budding at the power forward position. Thursday's decision to play it safe and draft a complementary piece in Carter, one who played a role in college he'll be asked to play in Chicago, only cements that belief.