Bulls

Bulls observations: Second-half rally fizzles in Bulls' loss to Hornets

Bulls observations: Second-half rally fizzles in Bulls' loss to Hornets

The Bulls kicked off their post-All-Star break slate with not a bang, but a whimper. Observations from a choppy 103-93 home loss to the Hornets:

A rotation in flux

Jim Boylen had to get inventive with his rotations tonight — flushed with injuries, the Bulls only had nine players available. All played in the first quarter, with Ryan Arcidiacono drawing a spot start at small forward in place of an injured Chandler Hutchison.

Daniel Gafford was the first one off the bench after Luke Kornet picked up two fouls in the game’s opening moments. That’s good news for those still concerned about the state of his sprained ankle or that Cristiano Felicio might have jumped him in the rotation in his absence. Gafford fouled out after 16 minutes, but showed some spring:

 

Boylen played all three of his centers close to an equal minutes distribution while he could (he’s clearly still easing Gafford in) and toyed with a few smaller lineups, including one with Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Coby White and Shaq Harrison all on the floor towards the end of the first quarter. Without Hutchison or Porter, they’ll have little choice but to play guards 1-3 for the foreseeable future. The Hornets won the boards 44-38 tonight.

Arcidiacono finished with 1-for-6 in 28 minutes in his first start of the campaign. He becomes the 12th Bull to start a game in the season — only White, Denzel Valentine, Felicio, Adam Mokoka and Max Strus have suited up for the Bulls this season without logging a start.

Other notable lines: White finished with 12 points (3-for-10) in 30 minutes. Satoransky had 12 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Harrison chipped in 12 points and LaVine — on an off shooting night — notched 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. We’ll get to Thad Young.

The Bulls staged a third quarter script-flip

The Bulls trailed 60-44 at the half, shooting just 36% from the field and 0-for-15 from 3. But they made it a game in the third quarter — a period that’s often plagued them.

The time-tested formula for success was there. In the third, the Bulls shot 6-for-12 from deep and forced six Hornets turnovers (they had seven total in the first half), running hard and often. The Bulls won the frame 29-19, while being collectively outscored 84-64 in the other three.

The Hornets, meanwhile, completely short-circuited for 12 minutes, shooting 7-for-18 (38.9%) from the floor and 1-for-6 (16.7%) from 3. At one point, a 22-3 run by the Bulls cut Charlotte’s lead from 21 to two in just a six-minute span. The UC awoke for a moment, but the visitors pushed that advantage back to six entering the fourth and pulled away from there.

Thad Young played a heck of a game

Thad Young keyed that third period push. He had eight points on 3-for-5 shooting (2-for-2 from 3) and a steal in the frame in 10 minutes played and was everywhere on the floor  — popping off screens, grinding on the glass, poking into passing lanes and charging the fast break.

He finished the night with a season-high 22 points on 10-for-18 (2-for-3 from deep) in 35 minutes with 11 rebounds and four steals, to boot. The Bulls looked ready to roll over in the first half, so it was mildly refreshing to see Young — and the rest of the team — bring it in the second for a while, even if the game ended in defeat.

The Bulls continue to look like an injury-stricken team

Outside of the third quarter, the Bulls woes on both side of the ball continued tonight. They finished the night 42.5% from the field and 7-for-31 (22.6%) from three, even while going 7-for-14 after their 0-for-17 start from long-range.

And the Hornets, for the most part, had their way with the hosts. Charlotte finished with five players in double figures and despite an off night from deep (8-for-28), shot a respectable 47.3% from the field. Second-year standout Devonte’ Graham went scoreless, yet it was still a comfortable win by the end. Malik Monk led the way with a game-high 25, while Miles Bridges lit up the UC for the second time in a week with a 22 point, eight-rebound outing.

It all culminated in a 103-93 loss for the Bulls that featured more bad than good. At 19-37, losers of seven straight (a new season-high) and as banged up as they've been all season, the playoffs have never felt further away.

Next up: The Phoenix Suns roll into town on Saturday.

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Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.

But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, the hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.

That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.

Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.

The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).

You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did. 

The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity. 

Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.

Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half

What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis injury) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.

But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.

Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.

Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.

Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.

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Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

A palpable buzz is building as we creep closer and closer to the April 19 release date for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls.

Former ESPN employee and current CEO of the Ringer, Bill Simmons, added to that in a recent appearance on FS1’s "The Herd," a radio show hosted by Colin Cowherd.

 

In Simmons’ time at ESPN, he famously pioneered the "30 for 30" documentary series that has since swelled in popularity and name-brand recognition. In a six-minute interview with Cowherd, Simmons recalled the universal reverence for Jordan and the ’90s Bulls, and Jordan’s reluctance to peel the curtain back on their exploits.

“We [ESPN] tried to do it [a Jordan documentary] after we finished the first "30 for 30" series when we had everything going in 2009,” Simmons said. “We knew about this documentary that NBA Entertainment had. You know, they had filmed his whole season. They had all this behind the scenes stuff. So we got a copy of it, and we watched it. And the behind the scenes stuff, it was the real Jordan. It was the homicidally competitive Jordan, the guy yelling at his teammates. It was all the stuff we had always heard of but never seen. And we were just like, how do we get this made?”

But…

“Jordan never wanted it, and I think what happened, middle of the (2010s) decade, especially when LeBron won that Cavs title, when things really started to shift and all of a sudden there was an MJ vs. LeBron argument. I think for the first time, Jordan and his camp realized, ‘Oh, we gotta protect our legacy here,’” Simmons said. “People are starting to forget how great and famous and how universally everyone thought, who was there, this is the best basketball player I’m ever going to see. And I still feel that way.”

To be clear, there’s no evidence of the footage Simmons alluded to being directly related to “The Last Dance.” But it shows that there is a side to Jordan that the masses have yet to see.

Hopefully, we get to experience that side in all its flaws and glory come April 19.

RELATED: How to watch 'The Last Dance' docuseries on MJ, '98 Bulls

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