Bulls

NBA Power Rankings: MVP race heating up

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USA TODAY

NBA Power Rankings: MVP race heating up

We are almost 30 games into the 2018-19 NBA regular season and the true contenders have started to seperate themselves from the pack.

The Raptors, Bucks and Sixers have been locked into a three-way race as the likely candidates for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, with the Celtics and Pacers gaining on them.

Out West, the entire conference is jumbled together with improved contenders popping up left and right, but the Warriors juggernaut appears  to be back on track. Strong MVP candidates have shaped the league this season and chief among them is former unanimous MVP Steph Curry. He has only played in 16 of their 27 games but has been absolutely astonishing when he has played.

The Warriors are a great team without Curry and a transcendent one with him. He is averaging 29 PPG, 5 APG and 5 RPG while shooting a career-best 51 percent from the field. Curry turned in a 42-point masterpiece in their recent win over the Cavaliers, and 20 points and 8 assists in a big win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.


The Bucks followed up that loss to the World Champion Warriors with a 5-point win over the Raptors. In the win, Milwaukee’s MVP candidate--Giannis Antetokounmpo--racked up 19 points, 19 rebounds and 6 assists and helped hold Kawhi Leonard to 8-18 shooting.


Even with the loss, Toronto is still in the top spot in the Eastern Conference and the play of Leonard is the driving force behind their league-leading 21 wins. And the other teams closing in on their record that haven’t been mentioned all have legitimate MVP hopefuls, sans the Clippers and Pacers, who have relied on an offense-by committee.

LeBron James—for once in his career—will actually be a dark-horse for MVP should the Lakers continue to sit in the lower half of the playoff race, fighting for seeds No.5 through No. 8. But his season can’t be ignored. James is leading the Lakers in points (28), assists (6), rebounds (7), and steals (1) per game. While Tyson Chandler and Javale McGee have been the key to the Lakers great defense, James has almost single-handedly elevated the Lakers offense to 15th in the league in offensive efficiency.

The Lakers will be a dangerous playoff team should they qualify, and it would be another reminder of the transformative power that James can have on a franchise.

We have big NBA games this week--more so in the West--that will suss out the MVP race a bit more. The Trail Blazers go up against the Grizzlies in Memphis, the Jazz take on the Magic in Mexico City, Nuggets play the Thunder in Denver and there is also a Lakers-Rockets rematch that features two squads that got into a very heated battle the last time they faced off.

The No. 8 seed is 8 games back of 1st place in the East, and a mere 3.5 games back of 1st place in the West, signifying just how tightly contested the 2018-19 season has been. See how the parity-filled league hierarchy shakes out in our latest Power Rankings, right here.

Even without Joel Embiid, 76ers' wings will give shorthanded Bulls fits

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USA Today

Even without Joel Embiid, 76ers' wings will give shorthanded Bulls fits

The Bulls are shooting for their second win in a row, but the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers stand in their way. The game tips off at 6 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

76ers’ last five games (3-2)

  • Jan. 15 — W vs. Nets: 117-106

  • Jan. 13 — L at Pacers: 101-95

  • Jan. 11 — L at Mavericks: 109-91

  • Jan. 9 — W vs. Celtics: 109-98

  • Jan. 6 — W vs. Thunder: 120-113

Storyline(s) to watch

Billed by many as true title contenders and the favorites to come out of the East, the Sixers’ (26-16) season has been of the hot-and-cold variety so far. Fortunately for people like me, it’s pretty easy to delineate when they’ll be which temperature: Philadelphia is 19-2 on its home floor in 2019-20 while just 7-14 on the road, and some of the statistical disparities are positively gaping:

  Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating 3P% TOV per game
Home 112.1 (9th) 102.5 (3rd) 9.6 (5th) 37.5% (7th) 14.4 (15th)
Road 105.9 (22nd) 109 (11th) -3.1 (18th) 33.5% (24th) 15.1 (18th)

Still, the Sixers are a suffocating defensive team with a litany of impressive wins under their belt (chiefly, their Christmas Day romp of the Bucks). And unfortunately for the Bulls, this one will take place in the city of brotherly love. A second straight win, and one against an above-.500 team, would be a major boost, but the Sixers’ impossible length and physicality make them a daunting matchup.

Player(s) to watch: Sixers’ wings

Without Joel Embiid (torn hand ligament), the Sixers will likely trot out a starting unit of Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Though the absence of a ‘traditional’ point guard isn’t new to Philly, this type of roster construction — wing-heavy, and big wings, at that — poses an intriguing challenge for a Bulls defense that thrives when it can hone in on the head of their opponent’s snake in the pick-and-roll.

Well, the Sixers run just 13.9 pick-and-roll plays per game — second-least in the NBA to only the iso-crazed Rockets — and with good reason: they score just 0.8 points per possession on such plays. Instead, their playmakers outside of Embiid make their living from the post and elbows (Horford, Harris), off-the-dribble (Simmons), and spotting up (Richardson, Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Trey Burke). The spacing can get clunky (Philly’s 109 offensive rating ranks 18th in the league), but against the undersized and undermanned Bulls, they could feast anyway.

Simmons and Harris will be key. In the four games since Embiid went down, Simmons is averaging 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and seven assists on 58.9% shooting, and is devastating in transition, where the Bulls have been prone to lapses defensively. Harris is a capable shotmaker at all three levels (especially the interior) and is coming off his second-highest scoring outing of the season against the Nets:

 

Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. Sixers’ perimeter defenders

Now let’s flip to the other side of the floor. That presumptive starting unit of Richardson, Thybulle, Simmons, Harris and Horford enters the night with a respectable 105.5 defensive rating and superb 19.3% turnover rate (94th percentile) in 141 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass. The Bulls will have to work for every bucket, with little to no margin for error.

Luckily, Zach LaVine’s been on a tear of late, averaging 32 points per game on 52.3/45.7/93.1 shooting splits over his last five. Unluckily, Thybulle, Richardson and Simmons (who’s leading the league in steals per game) don’t give an inch, especially around screens. Even when you think you’ve lost them, all three have shown the ability to block shots and poke away balls from behind — on Wednesday, they pestered Kyrie Irving all night long and held him to 14 points and 6-for-21 shooting.

LaVine has been up to most every scoring-related task that he’s been faced with this season, but in Philadelphia lies perhaps his greatest test. Even if the Bulls don’t pull out a win akin to their 108-107 primetime victory (in which LaVine dropped 39 and the game-winner) last March, he can still submit another bid for February’s All-Star game with a big night against stingy competition.

Injury report

  • Chandler Hutchison (right shoulder soreness) is officially listed as questionable, though he said at shootaround Thursday that he thought he “dodged a bullet” after falling hard on his shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Wizards game. The Bulls need his size and range tonight.

  • Joel Embiid is out with a torn ligament in his right hand and is set to be re-evaluated next week.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

The Pecking Order: Bulls' pre-NBA Trade Deadline to-do list

The Pecking Order: Bulls' pre-NBA Trade Deadline to-do list

We’re beyond the halfway point of what looks to be another lost season, Bulls fans. As we enter the next phase of the schedule, it’s important for this team to acknowledge their current reality and put emphasis on making positive steps to improve their future.

It’s not about playoffs anymore but that doesn’t mean there can’t be new goals to set and meet through these final 40 games. It starts with a critical stretch between now and the NBA’s trade deadline on February 6.

Here are five things I’d like to see the Bulls do over the next three weeks. It’s the Pecking Order.

1) Try something new

Earlier this week, when asked by our Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson to assess his team at the season’s halfway point, Jim Boylen said he likes that they’ve established a style of play at both ends of the floor. I’m sorry, but the Bulls' offensive rating of 104.7 currently ranks 28th in the league and falls to 96.2 when Zach LaVine is off the court? The Bulls' defense – which Boylen and John Paxson have pointed to as proof of growth – has fallen dramatically against tougher opponents? Through eight January games, the Bulls' defensive rating is 113.7.

If the style you’re using isn’t working – 15 wins and 27 losses – should you stick with it? As my buddy John Sabine said during a recent episode of Outsiders, “a mullet is a style.”

On offense, the multi-ball handler “style” is not working consistently, nor does it fit the strengths of the players on the roster. See Markkanen, Lauri. On defense, the high rate of forced turnovers yields little because the team can’t execute in transition and fastbreak situations.

The trapping pick and roll defense is picked apart by competent teams and has only been more exposed since Wendell Carter Jr.’s injury. Nonetheless, the Bulls stick with it, establishing these styles of play regardless of personnel. It’s a glaring example of their inflexibility and inability to make proper adjustments.

The Bulls can’t be satisfied with the systems if the team is 12 games under .500 through the “easy” part of your schedule. Try something else.

2) Play and trade Thad

Thad Young is back to being Thad Young. The veteran forward produced 35 points off the bench in the past two games, 23 of those came near the basket on post-ups or pick and roll actions. His half-court game is “old school” and doesn’t fit the “new school” (i.e. only threes and layups) that the Bulls demand from their players.

Guess what? Thad’s buckets this week were some of the most competent offense we’ve seen from this team all season, outside of LaVine’s individual brilliance.

Thad played 21 minutes on Wednesday night, while Luke Kornet led all players with 35. Anybody else see a problem here?

With the losses of Wendell and now Daniel Gafford for up to four weeks with a thumb, the Bulls must seriously consider starting Thad. Sliding Lauri to the five is certainly a calculated risk on defense, but is Kornet that much better if he is attacking ball handlers away from the paint? We learned in October that Kornet’s defensive pluses are replaced by severe minuses in this defensive system.

Why not significantly increase Thad’s minutes for the next three weeks? Showcase his talent to pair with his already tradeable quality of being a well-liked and respected veteran to playoff-bound teams. Everybody wins.

3) Play and trade Denzel

On Wednesday night, he was the only active player to not get any minutes. Yes, that includes Cristiano Felicio. Denzel didn’t even get in the game after Chandler Hutchison went down with his 14th different injury in the 15 games he’s played this season.

Denzel’s absence from the rotation is even more confounding when you realize that the Bulls are currently ninth in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted per game but only 19th in 3-point percentage. His 39.2% success rate from deep trails only LaVine and Ryan Arcidiacono among healthy players on the roster. On Monday, Bulls players not named Zach LaVine went 3-19 from downtown. When the Bulls don’t hit threes, they lose. It’s been a constant all season. Denzel’s other greatest attributes, his passing and IQ, could help this team’s constantly stagnant half-court offense.

If the Bulls have decided to give up on Denzel and not offer him a new contract, what’s the harm in playing him for three weeks to boost his trade value? Instead of letting yet another player leave for nothing in return, maybe a playoff-bound team can find use for a bench shooter and send the Bulls a pick or young player.

4) Play. Lauri. Real. Minutes.

Lauri Markkanen’s regression is easily the biggest disappointment in a season filled with them. His usage percentage (20.9), field goal attempts (12.0) and points per game (15.0) are all lower than his rookie season. His minutes per game (30.2) are barely higher than the 29.7 he played as a rookie.

Yes, some of the fault falls on Lauri for not asserting himself more. He looks completely passive and disengaged, but this offensive system isn’t doing him any favors. It won’t get fixed if he’s not on the court. Eliminate these long stretches where Lauri sits for eight, nine, 12 minutes at a time. In three of their past four games, Lauri has taken fewer than 10 shots. Inexcusable. This kid is supposed to be a cornerstone of the rebuild. Do everything you can to help him try to fix this terrible season.

5) Give Coby some plays to run.

Bulls fans have been debating all season long whether Coby White should start. I’m on the record as being against it because I don’t think he’s ready and has been too inconsistent. At this point, screw it. He clearly has talent and is the only other player on this roster besides LaVine capable of creating his own shot off the dribble. Iso Coby has fueled a lagging second unit on many nights. But in the back half of the season, I want to see him doing more point guard things.

I know it goes against the free-flowing system, but can we please install some actual offensive plays for Coby to run that involve other players? We know he can get to the rim and create his own shots. Great. Box checked. But this team is still searching for a real point guard, so why not see what the kid can do when you ask him to run plays for his teammates? Try some new stuff. Make use of your remaining games by developing a key piece of the rebuild.

It’s not a pretty to-do list, but the Bulls aiming to achieve some or all these things will help them in the long run.

Thanks for reading. See red, be good.