Bulls

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

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USA TODAY

Kris Dunn gets his biggest confidence test yet against Kyrie Irving

The biggest difference in Kris Dunn has been the overwhelming confidence he’s played with, helping spur this new brand of Bulls basketball.

The biggest attribute Kyrie Irving has in his bag is the overwhelming ability to embarrass his opponent with his trick bag of dribble moves, quickness and tricky shots around the rim.

Safe to say, Dunn’s newfound confidence will be tested against the Celtics—one can surmise it’ll either be validated as real or doubted as some form of anomaly. Irving missed the Dec. 11 matchup with the Bulls due to injury but he’s been on a tear in the six games since.

Irving is averaging 30.2 points and 5.3 assists on 48 percent shooting and 41 percent from 3-point range. In the last eight games Dunn’s numbers represent the best sample size of his career, with 15.8 points, 8.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds on 46 percent shooting.

Dunn doesn’t deny looking forward to the matchup.

“For sure. He’s one of the best point guards in the league,” Dunn said after the Bulls beat Orlando earlier this week. “I’m a competitor, I want to compete against all the best guards.”

While the point guard position is as deep as it’s ever been in recent memory, Dunn hasn’t had to go against the top players at his position in this streak. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker is a fringe All-Star who gave the Bulls big time problems last month, scoring 47 points in a close Bulls win.

But Dunn helped hold Walker to just 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-10 from 3 in the streak-starting Bulls' win on Dec. 8.

Since then it’s been a who’s who of “who” opposing Dunn, which makes the matchup with Irving in Boston so interesting.

“It’s a great opportunity for Kris to see one of the best players in the game right now,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So again (he’s) got to go out and play solid basketball, can’t go out and make it a personal one on one matchup, Kyrie Irving you’re going to have to have full team awareness, you are not going to stop him one in one; for Kris continue to go out, grow and get better but it’s a great opportunity and challenge for Kris tonight.”

Irving can score 30 in his sleep, and even a good defender like Dunn can only provide so much of a defensive challenge. One key will be watching Dunn’s body language if Irving gets it going early—the boisterous and emotional Dunn hasn’t had to tone it down during this streak so if he carries that defeated look it may not bode well for the long run.

“He’s a completely different basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “He’s confident, he’s got a swagger to him; he’s getting into the paint and making plays; he’s shooting his three at a high clip, the best of his career, so he’s doing a lot of things well. The biggest thing we always talk about with Kris is consistency in everything he s doing, offensively, defensively, and he’s again continuing to grow and get better and he still has a very high ceiling.”

It’s easy for Hoiberg to say it isn’t personal, and Dunn isn’t going to make it personal but to put up numbers or to have a positive effect on winning against a player of Irving’s caliber is what coaches want their players to have.

“Always. When you go against the best guards, you have to step your game up to a whole nother level,” Dunn said. “You know they’re gonna go out there and compete. You gotta go out there and battle against them.”

He’ll see Washington’s John Wall, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry in a four-day stretch starting Dec. 31, point men who can embarrass in different ways.

This stretch hasn’t yet put Dunn on the radar for those guys, but he’s desperate for a measure of respect.

“It’s all about the respect thing. That’s what I’m trying to play with,” Dunn said. “I still have to put a lot more work in. This NBA, it’s not easy. It’s a lot of good guards out there. I have to keep working each and every day.”

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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