Bulls' frontcourt continues to gain clarity as Wendell Carter, Bobby Portis shine once again

Bulls' frontcourt continues to gain clarity as Wendell Carter, Bobby Portis shine once again

There was bound to be significant change in the Bulls frontcourt following Lauri Markkanen’s elbow injury late last month. And while the Bulls ended a generally disappointing preseason on a similar note Friday night, the continued impressive play from the newly appointed starting frontcourt can’t be overlooked.

Wendell Carter Jr. and Bobby Portis were two of the few bright spots in an ugly 98-93 loss to the Nuggets. And what 10 days ago appeared to be a serious weakness has now become a promising feature to a Bulls roster beginning the regular season in six days.

The duo started for a second consecutive game and showed and in-and-out chemistry offense, fluidity with a backcourt that at times played sloppy, and most importantly a defensive presence they’ll have to rely on.

Carter, matched up against blossoming superstar Nikola Jokic, more than held his own. His 10 points on 4 of 8 shooting included a turnaround jumper on the baseline, soft touch around the rim and a sequence in which he grabbed a defensive rebound, beat Jokic down the floor in transition and drew two foul shots. It was an impressive array of moves from a player expected to be a fourth option in the starting lineup. What’s more, he grabbed four offensive rebounds and three assists, tied with Kris Dunn for the most of any starter.

Defensively he couldn’t have been better. Though Jokic got the best of him at times, Carter’s overall play was a sight for sore eyes. He battled with Jokic on the blow block, picked his pocket for one of his two steals and in the second half contested a Gary Harris reverse layup with a verticality reminiscent of a 10-year veteran. Later in that third quarter he was switched on to point guard Jamal Murary, who couldn’t shake the rookie and forced a contested fadeaway that missed short.

“I thought Wendell was terrific,” Hoiberg said. “His length bothers shooters.”

And it hasn’t been against nobodies. Jokic was hardly the first difficult cover of the year for the Duke product. He squared off against Anthony Davis in his professional debut, took Julius Randle 1-on-1 and also faced Myles Turner in his first “start” against the Pacers.

“The art of verticality, he’s got it down in the paint where he goes straight up to affect shots at the rim. And he’s running the floor extremely well for a 7-footer. He’s continuing to get more comfortable out there. The more reps he’s getting against these really good players I thought he’s handled it well.”

Portis has been just as good. Though his shot wasn’t falling – 5 of 12 and missed all three triples – he was arguably the Bulls’ most impressive performer throughout the preseason. He spent the majority of those minutes playing with Carter, whether it was on the second unit (the first three games) or the starting lineup (the final two).

That chemistry has made it an easy transition to the starting lineup. Hoiberg said before the season began that Portis would be helped on the second unit by Carter’s presence, allowing Portis to play more power forward after he spent 47 percent of his minutes a year ago at center.

“I think they play well together. I think Bobby’s a guy that can knock down a shot and when he goes down to the block, Bobby a lot of times he’ll run first post in transition,” Hoiberg said. “Wendell does a good job of playing off him, playing underneath the backboard and playing in the dunker spot. So he’s a high IQ player. Very, very smart.”

It was also a positive to see Jabari Parker thrive off the bench in the team’s final tune-up before Philadelphia. After commenting that he wasn’t sure how he would adjust to coming off the bench, Parker scored 19 points on 7 of 11 shooting and looked comfortable with reserve Cameron Payne, who assisted Parker twice. Parker finding comfort on the second unit is paramount for Portis to remain on the first unit.

If there’s anything that will keep Carter off the floor it’s his foul trouble. He was once again limited by fouls, though battling an offensive juggernaut like Jokic is no easy task. Carter had at least three personal fouls in each of the five preseason games, including four in two of those. Such is life for a 19-year-old rookie rim protector. They’ll be learning experiences for him, and having a veteran in Robin Lopez to provide help in such situations will be beneficial.

But Lopez showed his age Friday, just as he did most of the preseason. He finished with four points and one rebound in 17 minutes, and twice Jokic took him out to the 3-point line and buried triples on pick-and-pop action. Lopez has value, but it’s clear teams are going to attack his slow foot speed.

And when Markkanen eventually returns in late November or early December, Portis will shift back into a reserve role, presumably with Parker. That presumes the Bulls have given up on the experiment of playing Parker at small forward. But Portis has experience playing center, like he did alongside Nikola Mirotic last season.

There weren’t copious positives that came from the Bulls’ preseason, but the emergence of Portis and Carter as a viable frontcourt option was one of them. Though Hoiberg did not anoint the two of them as starters for Thursday’s tilt against the Sixers, their play the last two games – and really the whole preseason – speaks for itself. The Bulls accomplished their goal of finding a solution with Markkanen on the mend.

LeBron James passes Wilt Chamberlain on all-time scoring list, now eyes Michael Jordan


LeBron James passes Wilt Chamberlain on all-time scoring list, now eyes Michael Jordan

This is not a LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan debate.

This is not a LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan debate.

This is not a LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan debate.

Got it? Great. Let's move on with the story.

Late Wednesday night LeBron James passed Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list as part of his 44-point outing in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers. James was magnificent in the Lakers' fourth straight win, making 13 of 19 shots, draining five triples and adding 10 rebounds, nine assists and three blocks in 36 minutes. He was, erm, pretty good.

In the process James passed Chamberlain with his 31,420th point late in the fourth quarter. James added five more points after that, leaving him with 31,425 career points and alone in fifth place on the all-time scoring list.

Who's No. 4? Yep, His Airness.

1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 38,387
2. Karl Malone: 36,928
3. Kobe Bryant: 33,643
4. Michael Jordan: 32,292
5. LeBron James: 31,420

Yes, Jordan took two years off in his prime to play baseball. Yes, Jordan played three years in college. No, we don't care. This won't move the needle on anyone's stance as to who the greatest of all-time is.

But it's worth noting that James, who is 873 points away from passing Jordan, could break the record against the Bulls on Jan. 15. He's averaging 27.6 points per game this year, and if he scores that average he'll surpass Jordan in 33 games. The Lakers play the Bulls in 31 games in Los Angeles.

That'd be something. Now, continue the endless and unnecessary LeBron-Jordan debate.

Wendell Carter Jr. making a name for himself as top defender in 2018 class

Wendell Carter Jr. making a name for himself as top defender in 2018 class

Wendell Carter Jr. has been one of the few bright spots in a tough stretch for the Bulls. 

Speculation around the time of the 2018 NBA Draft was that Mohammed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. or even DeAndre Ayton could end up being better defenders than Carter due to their athleticism. And while time will tell if this is true, so far in 2018-19, Carter has shown that he is ahead of his peers in terms of breaking down what is happening in front of him and assessing what his responsibility is. One of the main thing holding back the Bulls on defense is ball-watching.

To be effective against an opponent that swings the ball around on offense—generating good shots from the strong and weakside—your defense needs to have all five players on the floor with their head on a swivel, keeping an eye on the ball and their man. Carter has done a lot of leading by example in this specific area. 

Carter's defensive numbers have been head-and-shoulders above his fellow rookie big men and with Hoiberg trusting him with 25+ minutes a night, the gap between he and his peers is likely to grow.

Heading into Wednesday's game, opponent's attacked him frequently within 6 feet of the basket. When Carter defends shot within 6 feet of the basket he makes opponent's shoot 9.3 percent worse, the best mark on the Bulls if you consider sample size. 

As of now, Carter is still on pace to be the only teenager in NBA history to average at least 2 blocks per game. And if he keeps this up, his case for Rookie of the Year will only get stronger.

And with all of the injuries and struggles of this young team, Carter's impressive defensive IQ continues to bring hope.

The Bulls upcoming back-to-back will see them take on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard respectively. 

These matchups will likely show just how far away the Bulls are from being a competitive team. But with Chicago’s perimeter defense lacking sufficient wing defenders, these two games will also showcase Carter’s ability to be the last line of defense, on a team that could use a first one.