While the point-guard position battle has rightfully taken front-and-center stage early in the Bulls’ preseason, just as important will be how Jim Boylen decides to utilize his retooled frontcourt.
That is, once he has the full complement at his disposal.
Though the injuries to Wendell Carter Jr. (bruised tailbone) and Luke Kornet (turf toe) aren’t considered to be serious, their absences and the subsequent trickle-down effect it had on the rotation showed a glaring weakness in the Bulls frontcourt during their 122-112 preseason loss to the Bucks on Monday.
In the loss – which did not feature the Bucks’ three top players in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton or Eric Bledsoe – the Bulls’ frontcourt was limited to starters Lauri Markkanen and Cristiano Felicio, sixth man Thad Young and rookie Daniel Gafford.
Individually those four posted solid lines, with Markkanen’s 14 points and 5 rebounds leading the way. Gafford feasted on a small Bucks frontcourt in the second half and finished with 12 points, though he committed five fouls and missed a few bunnies around the rim. Felicio played well with the first unit and Young gave the Bulls much-needed effort on the defensive end.
Collectively, the group was dominated by a Bucks frontcourt that didn’t have Antetokounmpo and played the Lopez twins a combined 36 minutes. The Bucks shot nearly 60% on 2-pointers, made 17 3-pointers and scored 122 points despite committing 25 turnovers. Carter was dearly missed on the defensive end, and Young had to play on the perimeter when paired with a rim runner in Gafford, and that negated any real contributions he could make offensively; Young was 2 of 8 from the field and missed all three of his 3-point attempts. That wouldn’t have been the case with Kornet, a 3-point specialist and underrated defender.
It was a meaningless preseason game, and Boylen has said he plans to experiment with different groups as often as possible over these five games. And while Carter isn’t expected to be out much longer – his tailbone keeps stiffening up on him when he warms it up – and Kornet is expected to return for Wednesday’s game against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Bulls can’t afford these injuries that sunk them a season ago.
“This team has versatility,” Boylen said at Monday’s shootaround. “What I’m hoping for is durability and availability.”
Again, Carter and Kornet are simply dinged up. Gafford’s elbow scare turned out to be nothing, and his energy and effort on Monday seem to indicate that he’s feeling healthy. But injuries add up – as the 2019 Bulls know all too well – and for a relatively shallow roster that has publicly announced that they’re gunning for the postseason, it can’t afford to be less than 100 percent for more than a short stretch of games.
Injuries in the preseason also take a toll on rhythm and chemistry. Boylen wants to experiment with lineups, but Carter hasn’t played in a live game since Jan. 15, a span of 265 days. He has played 436 minutes with Lauri Markkanen, fewer than he played with Jabari Parker.
Kornet is a newcomer who hasn’t been able to do much on-court work. If the Bulls opt to play a fourth big man – instead of rotating Markkanen, Carter and Young at the 4 and 5 spots – it’ll likely be Kornet, who provides similar defensive prowess as Gafford but can stretch the floor. The Bulls shot 38 3-pointers on Monday. They’re gunning.
“The one thing we have to do is get healthy, and that’ll be an adjustment when Carter comes back and Kornet comes back,” Boylen said, “because they’re gonna be in that rotation. So we’ll just keep doing the best we can, that’s all we can do. We’ll evaluate it film-wise, we’ll evaluate it statistically, and I’m a big gut guy, too. So we’ll see where that goes.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.