Bulls

Bulls observations: Wendell Carter Jr. returns, but Bulls fall to Knicks

Bulls observations: Wendell Carter Jr. returns, but Bulls fall to Knicks

Wendell Carter Jr. returned but the Knicks snapped a six-game losing streak at the expense of the Bulls. Some observations as the season continues to spiral:

Wendell Carter Jr. is back... But a little rusty

Wendell Carter Jr.’s first game back from an ankle sprain that has kept him out since Jan. 6 began with a bang. He did this to Elfird Peyton 20 seconds in: 

A modicum of rust set in from there as Taj Gibson bullied the Bulls to seven points in three rebounds (two offensive) in the first 3:49 of the first quarter. Carter seemed to settle in as the game went along. He finished the night with six points and nine rebounds on 1-for-5 shooting in 18 minutes — a hair below his stated 21 to 22 minute restriction. Notably, Carter didn’t play down the stretch, which he attributed to not being in a groove timing-wise all game. It’s good to have him back but he’s clearly still finding his legs.

"I thought he had some moments when he looked like Wendell. I thought he had some moments when he looked like he was in preseason still. That's part of it," Boylen said. "We'll take it for the first night. He made it through without any setbacks, which is good, and we'll move forward."

"I got winded pretty quickly. I tried to train and get prepared for it but there's nothing like playing out in the game," Carter said, adding that his ankle felt OK, but certain movements still give him trouble. 

Denzel Valentine made a return from a seven-game absence tonight, too. He scored all eight of his points in a 62-second stretch at the end of the third quarter, which the Bulls won 33-23, but only logged 10 minutes.

The Knicks size gave the Bulls fits

Carter’s re-insertion into the starting lineup ultimately did little to help the Bulls’ recent issues on the interior (and that’s nothing to ‘hot take’ over yet). The Knicks outscored the Bulls 76-40 in the paint (shooting 72.3% at the rim), outrebounded them 50-33 (pulling down 17 offensive boards) and tallied a whopping 32 second chance points. That was the difference in the game. 

"It definitely bothers me as a player," Carter said of the disparity down low. "I just feel like that's just a recipe for disaster, and if we can't be tougher as a team, we're gonna lose that battle every time."

Meanwhile, the Bulls shot just 17-for-32 (53.1%) at the rim and 3-for-14 (21.4%) from midrange — a mark that will undoubtedly displease head coach Jim Boylen. That marred a fine shooting night from 3-point range for the visitors (17-35) and a game that saw the Bulls turn 17 Knicks turnovers into 29 points — normally, a formula for success.

That 76 points in the paint is a new opponent season-high against the Bulls, and the Knicks reached 125 points for just the fourth time this season, shooting 55.3% from the floor. They entered the night the 29th-rated offense in the NBA and 26th in team field goal percentage.

"Their physicality, their size was hard on us," Boylen said. "It's disappointing."

RJ Barrett and Coby White traded blows

This game saw two top-seven picks in the 2019 draft, RJ Barrett and Coby White, square off. There weren’t too many moments that saw the two go shot-for-shot, but both got theirs in time.

Barrett notched 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting by game’s end, and in a second quarter that saw the Knicks build a 13-point halftime advantage, he tallied 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting (2-for-2 from deep). In that stretch, he had the Bulls defense on a string, especially in capping a 16-2 run to close the first half with this stepback triple:

 

White’s statline rivaled Barrett’s by night’s end, though he accumulated some of his figures with the game out of reach, late. White finished with 22 points on 7-for-17 (4-for-8 from deep), snagged two steals and got to the foul line four times, too. It’s White’s fourth 20-point game in a row, and a performance worth continuing to build on. 

In a game he was a gametime decision for, he logged 29 minutes and didn’t appear hampered by his back-tweak — also encouraging.

"For me, I wanted to play," White said when asked if he was uncertain if he'd play. "I've been getting a lot of treatment over the last couple days, and this morning I woke up and felt pretty good... In the game, I didn't feel anything, everything pretty much was smooth."

Twenty games under-.500 alert

God bless you, K.C.

At 20-40, that’s where the Bulls reside. They entered play 15-6 against Eastern Conference lottery teams and 0-19 vs. playoff teams. With this defeat in the rearview mirror, 17 of the team’s final 22 games are against current playoff squads. The Bulls’ habit of losing to good teams is well-documented, but the recent trend of falling to bad ones too — with the caveat of injuries piling up — is discouraging. The Knicks hop off a six-game schneid with the victory, the Bulls have now dropped 10 of their last 11.

The bright side is that Carter and Valentine are back, and hopefully Porter, Markkanen and Hutchison aren’t too far behind (though we don’t have a clear timeline on any of them yet). Zach LaVine pouring in 26 points and 7 assists, and Daniel Gafford providing a solid 12 points and two blocks on 5-for-6 in 19 minutes off the bench also qualify as silver linings. But it all rings hollow for now.

Next up: Luka Doncic and the Mavericks come to town on Monday.

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

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The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Then: “I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

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