The Bulls and Hawks lost 50+ games last year, but the squads are at two different points in their rebuilds. Atlanta is in the first year of their rebuild, with new head coach Lloyd Pierce—so far—building a successful offense around polarizing rookie Trae Young and a mixture of effective young and veteran shooters. Fred Hoiberg and the Bulls have been together for three seasons so far, but this year represents year two of the Bulls rebuild, as the current core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn was expected to get considerable playing time together this season. After yet another huge rash of injuries, the Bulls could be in position to add another young talent come June. But on Saturday night, Chicago showed that their rebuild is definitely ahead of Atlanta on the talent of LaVine alone.
Here are five observations from the Bulls' win over the Hawks on Saturday night.
1. Zach LaVine will compete for a scoring title this season
This game featured horrendous shooting all-around, including several (no-doubt for fans of either team) rage-inducing missed layups. But LaVine continued his high-scoring ways in what has become the norm for the Bulls. He went for 11 points in the third quarter alone and has yet to score less than 20 points in a game this season.
LaVine had more turnovers than assists, showing that he may not be suited for a primary ball handling role despite his ability. But he is still in the top-five in scoring in the league, and will continue to be as long as the Bulls await the return of Bobby Portis, Markkanen and Denzel Valentine. LaVine’s raw scoring numbers will be good no matter what, but the efficiency is what will give him a shot to contend for Most Improved Player. He was 5-for-6 from the free throw line against the Hawks and was averaging a career-high 8.4 FTA a night coming into the matchup. If LaVine can continue to get the line at this rate, he will end the year scoring well over 25 points per game even with a regression to the mean in terms of efficiency.
2. Ryan Arcidiacono deserves the backup point guard role until Kris Dunn returns
Arcidiacono had a career-high 13 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with 7 assists and 2 steals. His scoring was nice because it including him going 3-for-6 from the 3-point line and solid shooting from the perimeter will be needed during Arcidiacono’s minutes considering how seldom he gets to the FT line. His defense and willingness to keep the ball moving on offense make him a real asset to the roster (as currently constructed). Arcidiacono has had a nice pace to every pass he has thrown this season, which is great considering that the Bulls have had an issue with making 3-pointers harder by launching sloppy passes.
He finished the game with just one turnover, which helped him finish +15 from the floor (plus/minus rating). And when it comes to the aforementioned defense, Arcidiacono played a central role in Trae Young shooting 3-for-12 and racking up 5 turnovers. He fights hard through screens and brings energy on both ends of the floor that is contagious to this Bulls squad. And speaking of defense.....
3. Active hands=happy Hoiberg
Chicago came into this game ranked 26th in the NBA in steals and 19th in blocks Their lack of ability to create turnovers is—unsurprisingly—a major factor in their defensive rating being second-to-last in the league. But against an extremely reckless Hawks team, the Bulls racked up 14 steals and 6 blocks. Both would easily be top 10 marks in the league. Obviously the Hawks are a bad team and the Bulls won’t have a ton of nights like this defensively, but weak side defenders were getting their hands into passing lanes early and often, which helped throw off the rhythm (12-for-40 from 3-point range) of Atlanta’s many shooters.
The next 10 games could feature the Bulls defense getting shredded by a bevy of high-powered offenses with Golden State and Denver coming up next. But if they make an effort to closeout, recover and help-the-helper the way they did in Atlanta, the Bulls will give themselves a chance to be competitive in these matchups.
4. First career double-double for Wendell Carter Jr.
Wendell Carter has had a rough start to the season (40 percent shooting from the field) but he got things going against the Hawks. In just 22 minutes, he amassed 10 points and 10 rebounds to go along with 2 blocks. He still shot below 50 percent from the field, but this was more of a result of Carter attempting to help stretch the floor—he shot 0-for-2 from the 3-point line—than an indicator of poor shot selection or general struggles.
Many casual basketball fans will look at Carter’s productivity and suggest that perhaps he isn’t the player the Bulls selected him to be, but they would be missing the mark. Carter is averaging 1.8 blocks, 2.2 assists and is the only Bulls player with a positive defensive box plus/minus. He has one of the lower usage rates of anyone on the team right now, and don’t expect his usage to increase with Markkanen, Portis and Dunn all scheduled to return around the same time. But as long as Carter continues to do the little things that don’t show up--in the traditional--box score, Hoiberg and co. will be happy with his efforts, and you should too.
5. Remember this one in June.....
If the season was to end today, the Bulls and Hawks would have the 10th and 12th picks in the draft respectively, with the Hawks receiving an additional draft pick via the Dallas Mavericks. Both franchises have a ways to go before they return to their winning ways, and the 2019 NBA Draft will be a boon for them. Part of the reason the Bulls didn’t end up with a higher draft pick in 2018 is because they won so many of the “tank vs tank” matchups that featured two losing teams going against each other, especially post All-Star break games.
This season seems like more of the same, as this Bulls team is definitely good enough to beat the bad teams, and bad enough on defense to not have a chance against the elite squads around the league. But with the motto this year being “development over wins”, the front office likely won’t mind drafting No. 7 again, considering that their last two No. 7 picks have been great, and historically the team has done a great job drafting lower vs higher. If both teams near the season finale hovering near the low 30s in wins, this game will be looked back on a missed opportunity. But any improvement on defense, no matter how small, is more valuable to this team than early season losses.