3 things to watch in Bulls’ preseason opener vs. Cavaliers


The Chicago Bulls tip off their 2021 preseason slate with a home tilt against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday evening.

For viewing, head to NBC Sports Chicago (or the MyTeams app) at 7 p.m. CT. Here are three things to watch during the contest:

Who starts?

Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević, to name four. But with Patrick Williams still rehabilitating a sprained left ankle, Billy Donovan has a power forward-sized slot to fill in the first unit.

Don’t expect to learn the identity of the team’s choice until close to game time, as has been custom for the Donovan-coached Bulls. And the pool to choose from is wide. Donovan said after Saturday’s practice that he’d experimented with Derrick Jones Jr., Alex Caruso, Troy Brown Jr. and Javonte Green with the starters in practice, with Stanley Johnson in the mix as well. 

Starting Caruso, Brown or Green would move DeRozan to power forward, while Jones or Johnson could slide straight in at the four.

“I think we have some options,” Donovan said. “I'm looking at it more like how does the unit function together. You're probably going to be dealing with an undersized power forward. That's what you're really gonna be dealing with.”

Donovan added that he’ll also consider how his decision impacts the second unit. Expect minutes staggering and lineup toying.

Williams, for his part, is approaching three weeks into his four-to-six week recovery timetable, which began on Sept. 15. Donovan has projected optimism about his progress every time he’s been asked, but if Williams is forced to miss any regular-season time, this is the team’s first shot at evaluating how potential understudies fare in a game-setting — albeit an exhibition one.


Impressions of team chemistry

Typically, preseason action is a time for the mildest of tune-ups, especially for a team as veteran-laden as the Bulls. But Donovan said after Monday’s practice that he anticipates his “main veterans” will get a “good run” in the opener.

“Four preseason games is not a lot,” Donovan said. “It is a new group, so I think them playing with each other a good portion of the game would be important.’’

After Saturday’s scrimmage-heavy day, DeRozan sang a similar tune.

“I’ve been a part of teams we’ve been together for years so preseason is kind of miscellaneous in a sense,” he said. “But this is an opportunity to kind of get a rhythm, get a different type of feel for one another in game situations.”

So, the team’s early, on-court synergy — particularly between Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević — will be key to watch as long as they are on the floor.

And while one preseason game won’t come close to offering final answers on any of the questions surrounding this team, the Bulls’ pace of play (they want to play faster), defensive aptitude and lineup combinations are among other tea leaves to monitor.

Return of some old Bulls

Lauri Markkanen, the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft and centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade, at one point flashed cornerstone potential for the Bulls, but ended his Chicago tenure by signing with Cleveland this offseason.

Fitting then that his first game in a Cavaliers uniform should come in his old stomping grounds. Markkanen was maligned by the end of his fourth season with the Bulls as he moved to a reserve role following the team’s bevy of trade deadline moves, but Donovan spoke highly of him after Monday’s practice.

“I thought he was really reliable in game-plan preparation, gameplan discipline, scouting, like he knew what he was doing, he followed it through,” the Bulls coach said. “I thought he was a good team guy the way he tried to play. I think because of his talent level, everybody always wanted a little bit more, but I always felt like what he gave our team I really valued. 

“I thought he did a good job, and I felt like he and I connected and communicated pretty well, but I do think there was something there that he felt like he needed a fresh start, and (he) never really got into it with me.”

RELATED: Billy Donovan praises ex-Bull Lauri Markkanen's professionalism

Denzel Valentine, the 14th pick in the 2016 draft, will also make a return to the UC after signing with Cleveland later in the offseason. While preseason is hardly the time to go full revenge game, how Markkanen and Valentine fare adds an interesting wrinkle to the exhibition.


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