Bulls

Bulls' midseason report features more misses than hits in slow start

Bulls' midseason report features more misses than hits in slow start

The Bulls began this season with playoff expectations and arrived at its midway point as one of the league’s biggest underachieving stories.

After Monday’s loss in Boston, their seventh in eight games, they sit 5 1/2 games out of the playoff picture in a there-for-the-taking Eastern Conference. Starters Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. remain out for extended periods. Their defense, something coach Jim Boylen has pointed to as a positive, is trending downward.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s a mess or reflective of a young team, trying to figure things out.

That wasn’t the message back on the team’s media day in September. Then, Boylen and executive vice president John Paxson talked confidently about buy-in during voluntary September workouts and nightly competitiveness that would lead to possible playoff positioning.

Whether this season is viewed by fans as the third season of the rebuild or by Boylen and his staff as the first because they had a training camp to install their preferred philosophies and systems, it has fallen short to this point.

Their midseason record matches what it was in 2017-18, the first season of the rebuild, and is four games better than last season’s mark that came largely without Lauri Markkanen.

Here’s a midseason look at some of the storylines:

Boylen’s performance

He quieted some speculation about his aptitude for the job with a strong offseason in which he visited players to strengthen relationships, had say in acquiring personnel that was widely praised by pundits and pleased his bosses by placing emphasis on defense while modernizing the offense.

Still, the stylistic changes resulted in systems that have come across as extreme. The Bulls employ an aggressive, trapping defense that is predicated on forcing turnovers. It works in that they lead the league, by a wide margin, with causing 17.2 per game.

But it exposes them to allowing drives to the rim and corner 3-pointers, particularly by opponents adept at making multiple reads. They sit 18th in opponents’ field-goal percentage. The current top-10 defensive rating of ninth is a positive.

Offensively, the Bulls have languished in the bottom five all season. Their current offensive rating ranks 28th. The equal opportunity system places an emphasis on 3-pointers and shots at the rim, largely eliminating the midrange and post-up game.

Thad Young, who has fashioned a 12-year career out of scoring in the lane after starting on the right block, said this week that the Bulls didn’t mention this system during his free agency recruiting period, which Boylen essentially confirmed by saying he installed it in September and October.

A 7-7 record in December against an easier schedule brought good vibes and more public acceptance of Boylen’s systems. However, more often than not, players have used some variation of the line “it’s what’s being asked of me” when asked if the systems are putting them in the best position to succeed.

Even in light of Carter’s injury, which places rookie Daniel Gafford and journeyman Luke Kornet in the daunting defensive task of trying to emulate Carter’s mobility and intelligence, Boylen has doubled down. He has pointed to establishing a style of play at both ends as one of his main accomplishments to this season.

This unwavering belief is reflective of Boylen’s coaching philosophy. He waited two decades for his first chance, and he’s committing to doing what he thinks is right to build a foundation, even if it leads to short-term pain.

But it also underscores an oft-repeated criticism of Boylen, that he’s slow to make adjustments. Opponents have routinely run away and hid in the second halves against the Bulls. Just this week, Young talked about the need to finish games better.

Lauri Markkanen’s ceiling

The Bulls painted this season as the third-year forward’s breakout campaign. Instead, a mystifying start in which he too often faded into the background and consistently missed open shots raised legitimate questions on what player he can become.

Markkanen’s December righted the ship. He cut more forcefully in halfcourt sets, ran hard in transition and shot well from 3-point range. His current production is tough to gauge since he’s playing through a sore left ankle.

Nevertheless, Markkanen’s scoring average of 15.1 points and playing time of just over 30 minutes sit near those from his rookie season. That’s not progression.

Markkanen admitted to taking a while to figure out and feel comfortable in Boylen’s offense. His team-first mentality often precludes him from playing selfishly. Combine that personality trait with the equal opportunity system and that’s recipe for failure.

Markkanen’s low playing time and usage rate of 21 — below even his rookie season — haven’t helped his situation. He needs more minutes and more shots.

Markkanen isn’t the Bulls’ only problem, but he is the biggest one. Other warning signs include Porter’s inability to stay healthy and rookie Coby White’s inconsistencies.

White has been a ton of fun and clearly possesses NBA talent. His NBA-record seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of a home victory over the Knicks marked one of the first half’s highlights. But he needs to become more than just an inconsistent shotmaker for the rebuild to progress.

Zach LaVine’s polarizing production

The team’s leading scorer by a whopping 9.4 points, LaVine’s 24.5 points-per-game gets viewed by some as All-Star worthy and by others as empty calories.

Boylen has cited LaVine’s growth as a decision-maker and finisher. His defense, while still prone to off-the-ball lapses, also has improved.

LaVine may not be the lead player on a championship-caliber team, but few players possess the athleticism and natural scoring ability to do what he does. His 13 3-pointers and 49 points in the miraculous comeback victory in Charlotte offered another example.

The Bulls’ offensive rating plummets when LaVine sits. And while the defensive rating improves when he does the same, this is an offensive league. And ask yourself this: Where would the Bulls’ 28th-ranked offense be without him?

Answer: You don’t want to know.

LaVine is shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range, is averaging 1.4 steals and has been the main bright spot from an otherwise forgettable first half.

Other bright spots include the development of Carter, which makes his injury all the crueler, and Kris Dunn’s role acceptance and elite defense.

Carter posted 17 double-doubles while serving as the team’s defensive anchor. Just before his injury, he displayed a willingness to shoot open 3-pointers, reflective of his offensive potential. His rebounding is essential for a team lacking in that department, and his communication and IQ at the defensive end are irreplaceable.

What does it all mean?

With the season headed to lost cause status, the Bulls should look to trade Young to a playoff team. This not only would place him with a contending team that could better utilize his skills but also force Boylen to play Markkanen more.

Young has done what the coaches and system has asked of him and has shot near his career 3-point percentage of 32 percent, taking the second-highest attempts of his career. But if the Bulls can get a wing or a draft pick for him, it’s time to move on.

Same goes for Denzel Valentine, who remains moored to the bench following a brief respite despite being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Valentine will be a restricted free agent. Find a playoff team that seeks shooting and get what you can for him.

Dunn, too, will be a restricted free agent. But his buy-in for any role — starting or reserve — and ball-hawking defensive toughness make him an easy match for any offer sheet that isn’t ridiculous. Credit to Dunn for reclaiming his career trajectory.

Speculation exists that the Bulls will make offseason changes. According to sources, nothing has been definitively decided but everything is on the table — except one thing. Paxson is still held in high regard by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and will be counted on to figure prominently in basketball operations.

The most likely scenario is the Bulls adding to the front office. This person would be from outside the organization, with fresh eyes and insights.

Gar Forman, whose general manager title is more ceremonial with each passing season, has largely moved almost exclusively to scouting, a skill for which he is valued. However, his days as the face of the franchise and powerbroker have faded.

Boylen signed an extension last summer. He enjoys a strong relationship with ownership and management. His salary makes him among the league’s lowest-paid coaches, so it wouldn’t preclude the Bulls from moving off it if the rest of the season leads them to that decision.

Who said there’s nothing to play for over the final 41 games?

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Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

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USA TODAY

Bulls observations: Zach LaVine and Coby White nearly lead epic comeback

After a lackluster first half, the Bulls nearly staged the comeback of the season behind 76 points from Zach LaVine and Coby White. But ultimately, the Thunder prevailed 124-122. Observations:

Daniel Gafford needs to stay out of foul trouble

Jim Boylen again stressed at shootaround this morning the importance of the Bulls defending without fouling. As a team, they entered play dead last in the NBA in opponent free throw rate, and conceded 28 charity stripe trips to the Thunder when they met on Dec. 16. 

Daniel Gafford has been among the biggest culprits in that area. Since re-entering the regular rotation (from injury) after the All-Star break, Gafford has averaged 4.8 fouls per game, including a foul-out in 16 minutes against Charlotte in his first game back. Tonight, he picked up two in the first three minutes of the game and a third early in the second quarter en route to just five first-half minutes (and 14 total). He finished the night with four personals. 

That’s a problem for a Bulls team thin on the front line and struggling defensively. In Gafford’s stead, Cristiano Felicio played 33 minutes, and though he posted an admirable six points and nine rebounds, most would agree — for the sake of both development and staying competitive — Gafford minutes are preferable. As a team, the Bulls committed 25 fouls and sent the Thunder to the line 30 times, though that was boosted by having to play the foul game late.

The sweet life of Zach and Coby rolls on

Another game, another torrid combined performance from Zach LaVine and Coby White. This one was especially fun.

LaVine poured in 41 points on 19-for-35 shooting, White a new career-high 35 points on 13-for-21 (6-for-9 from 3-point range). As the Thunder rained hellfire from long-range and otherwise picked the Bulls’ defense apart early, those two kept the team afloat on the other end. Then, they keyed a whirlwind of a comeback in the third. 

 

In that third quarter, LaVine notched 19 points on a preposterous 9-for-11 shooting; White had three timely 3-pointers — each eliciting exponentially louder roars from the United Center crowd. Play them together as many minutes as humanly possible down the stretch of the season… When they’re ‘on’ in unison, it’s downright electric.

Also worth mentioning is this is White’s third 30-point game in a row. He’s set, matched, then re-set his career-high scoring totals in each of the last three games. That type of momentum is immensely encouraging in what had been a tumultuous rookie season. 

This time, it was the Bulls’ turn for a comeback

The Thunder put on an absolute offensive clinic in the first half — canning 11 of their first 15 3-pointers, assisting on 19 of 26 made buckets and committing just five turnovers. Danilo Gallinari was en route to a career night (he had 17 points on 5-for-5 from 3 in the game’s first six-and-a-half minutes) and the Bulls’ defense again looked woefully undermanned. 

But that third quarter swung the game for a bit. The Bulls won the period 38-19 behind the aforementioned contributions from LaVine and White, and also four Oklahoma City turnovers. The hosts held the Thunder to 36.8% shooting from the field (1-for-8 from deep) in the period after they shot 63.4% in the first half.

In these teams’ first meetup of the season, the Bulls coughed up a 26-point lead late on the Thunder’s home floor. Tonight, it was their turn to flip the script — that is, until the end.

Ultimately, not a bad loss

The Thunder eventually ground out a nail-biter of a 124-122 win behind a litany of crucial plays by Chris Paul (19 points, nine assists) down the stretch. With the loss, the Bulls drop to 20-39 on the season and 1-9 in their last ten. But against a really good Thunder team — they’re now 36-22 and have won nine straight on the road — this isn’t one to hang heads about.

LaVine catching fire — and nearly pulling off a Charlotte-esque barrage in the game's final minute — another scorcher of a game from White, and clawing back after such a lackluster first half is enough to take solace in given where we are with this team. Let’s enjoy the ones we can and take the silver linings as they come.

Next up: The Knicks in New York on Saturday.

Jim Boylen remains resolute in development goals for Bulls season

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USA Today

Jim Boylen remains resolute in development goals for Bulls season

The Bulls entered Tuesday night's matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder 20-38 and 1-8 in their last nine games. But head coach Jim Boylen, for his part, remained resolute — even optimistic — in comments to assorted media before the game.

“It is a win-loss league, but that’s not the only thing that gets evaluated,” said Boylen, who owns just a 37-79 record at the helm of the Bulls. “Are we establishing a style of play? I think we have. Have we cleaned up our defense that needed to be cleaned up? I think we have. Have we established a shot profile that’s top five in the league? I think we’re three right now in the shots we get compared to other teams. So those are all positive things.

“And then you can look at the what-ifs, which I don’t do very often. With our shot profile, what would Otto Porter do in that shot profile? He’d be pretty successful, and Lauri Markkanen, and right on down the line. I’m not worried about my personal record or my win-loss record. I’ve been asked to establish a style of play, to have a disciplined approach and develop a young group of guys.”

Boylen then went on to cite the progress of Coby White, Daniel Gafford and Cristiano Felicio as positives over the course of the season. And that’s fair. Still, his verbiage is a noticeable shift from before the season, when the playoffs were a stated goal.

“It is hard for me. But that’s not my calling. That’s not what they ask me to do,” Boylen said when asked if stacking losses has been hard for him as a competitor. “Nobody in this organization said to me, ‘You got to win this many games.’ Nobody said to me, ‘Hey, we’re going to talk about wins and losses all year.’ Not one time have they said that to me.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t want to win. It doesn’t mean we’re not trying to win, but nobody said that to me. I have to honor the organization with trying to do this thing the right way. If we do that and if we can get healthy, I feel good about it.”

What was and will be said behind closed doors can be speculated upon. What can’t be argued: The Bulls are 5.5 games out of the eighth seed, have beaten one above-.500 team this year and a playoff gasp is unlikely. And though Boylen alluded to how good Markkanen and Porter might look in the context of the team’s current shot profile, we saw Markkanen’s fit in practice for 46 games. With the caveat that he was battling nagging injuries all season, the results for the third-year forward were regression across the board. The team was 3-6 when Otto Porter Jr. fractured his foot on Nov. 6.

All of the above and more have culminated in reports of potential organizational change in the offseason. The exact nature of that change has yet to be determined, as does Boylen’s future with the team if the front office, coaching staff or player personnel is overhauled. 

But Boylen said his win-loss record being used against him in that evaluation would be a surprise.

“Yes, it would,” he said. “I don’t foresee that happening.”

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