Bulls

Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

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Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

It’s that time of the year again for the Bulls. Though last season’s shutdowns were a thinly veiled attempt to increase their chances at a top-3 pick, this time around injuries to key players have the Bulls taking an overly cautious approach as their campaign winds down.

The Bulls, already without rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison for the rest of the season, will be without Otto Porter Jr. and Zach LaVine on Tuesday against the Raptors. Point guard Kris Dunn, dealing with back soreness, is listed as doubtful and is unlikely to play.

That’s three missing starters – four if you include Carter – against a 51-23 Raptors team. So while a loss is almost certainly on the docket that hardly means there’s nothing to be gained from these final eight games.

“Next man up is the focus,” Lauri Markkanen said Monday. “We’re trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It’s an opportunity for other guys who don’t get to play as much.”

There are a handful of Bulls reserves who will be fighting for a roster spot next season. If we’re to assume that the sure bets – pending any trades – of the Bulls roster will be LaVine, Markkanen, Carter, Porter, Dunn, Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio, plus the Bulls’ first and second round picks, that leaves just three or four openings if the Bulls don’t add anyone in free agency, which seems unlikely.

So with only a few roster spots available next season, and plenty of playing time available this season, the eight-game audition begins Tuesday in Toronto.

The two most important players of these evaluations will likely start in the backcourt. Shaq Harrison will continue to start on the wing while Ryan Arcidiacono will start if Dunn is unable to go. Jim Boylen said he’s undecided on who will start at small forward and likely match up with All-Star Kawhi Leonard, but one of Wayne Selden or Antonio Blakeney would get the call, with Harrison moving to Leonard if the latter started.

“With every injury, there’s an opportunity for someone to step into that role,” Boylen said. “We’ve had guys do that pretty well this year.”

Arcidiacono has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. He had a serious lull in December and January but has rebounded nicely as the season nears an end, shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Meanwhile Harrison has averaged a cool 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in nearly 37 minutes over his last three games, all starts. He’s provided outstanding effort on the defensive end and has seen his offensive game improve; just how much that improvement can be sustained over a long stretch will determine his NBA future, but he should get that chance if one or both of LaVine and Porter are shut down.

While Blakeney’s contract is guaranteed for next season, he’s got work to do. He’s shooting just 42 percent from the field this season and is averaging just 0.6 assists per game. After a red-hot start from beyond the arc in October and November (44.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) he’s made just 36 percent since Christmas Day. But the opportunity is there for him to get extended run, as he’s averaged 22.5 minutes over his last three games, the last two of which were his first career starts.

While those players showcase their talents in the backcourt, the injuries could also allow Lauri Markkanen to take the reins and own the final two weeks. Though it's been a roller coaster of a season, the second year forward appears to be closing on a high note. He's averaging 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes and could see his numbers across the board improve as he takes on a high-usage role down the stretch with LaVine and Porter out.

"I’m doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don’t normally start and I talked about it with Coach (Boylen) about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."

NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

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NBA Buzz: Bulls counting on Otto Porter Jr. to lead the way back to playoff contention

When the Bulls acquired Otto Porter Jr. on the eve of the trade deadline in a deal with Washington, John Paxson and Gar Forman knew they were effectively taking themselves out of the running for one of the elite free agents in the class of 2019. Paxson admitted as much, telling reporters the Bulls wouldn’t be able to attract superstars like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson at this stage of the team’s rebuild.

With Porter owed approximately $55 million dollars for the final two seasons of his contract, the 25-year-old forward basically represents the Bulls’ big strike with their available cap space. And, in the small sample size we saw Porter on the court with the Bulls other foundation pieces, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the results were encouraging. The Bulls had the 9th best offensive rating in the 15 games that Porter played before his season ended early because of a shoulder injury.

Bulls’ head coach Jim Boylen raved about the Porter acquisition, telling me, “I read an article that said it was one of the best, biggest trades in the last 5 to 10 years in the league. We got positional size. We got positional expertise. We got a high character guy. When he comes in the game, it just calms us down. He makes the right play, a good decision. He makes a tough shot that stops their run. He has a feel for that, which is a big skill. He understands our defense and can play in his gaps with his length, 7-foot-2 wingspan.”

But it’s what Porter contributed on the practice court and in film sessions that really impressed his coach. Boylen says Porter routinely reinforces his coaching points and has been important in getting the younger players to buy in to the culture he’s trying to create. “Some guys haven’t been coached hard. Some guys haven’t been told the truth. When I tell these guys the truth, he (Porter) understands that’s what has to happen. They need that. We need that. I’m not caring for them if I’m not doing that to them, and he understands that. Not everybody does.”

Porter returned the compliment, telling reporters before the final home game, “He (Boylen) cares very much about the Bulls’ organization and about his players, and about growing and being together. I think that’s very important that the guys understand what he’s trying to say as far as everybody needs to be on the same page. We have one goal in common and that’s to win a championship, and guys have to buy into that.”

Porter went on to say, “That’s something I was able to see and understand what he (Boylen) wants. Once the guys started to see me following that model, I think that’ll continue to help us, and they’ll continue to understand what it takes. How much hard work you have to put into it.”

Boylen has big plans for Porter in his first full season with the Bulls, saying the 6-foot-8 forward will play a critical role with his 3-point shooting and ability to create in pick-and-roll situations. Boylen also plans to use Porter at power forward on occasion with Markkanen sliding over to center, giving the Bulls their best offensive lineup. And, with Wendell Carter Jr. returning next season to provide added rim protection, Porter’s defensive versatility will become an even more impactful weapon.

Porter shot 49 percent from beyond the arc in his 15 games with the Bulls, giving the team much better offensive spacing for Markkanen and LaVine to attack one-on-one coverage. The six year NBA veteran saw enough to believe a healthy Bulls’ team can challenge for a playoff spot next season. “I just have confidence in my guys. I’ve seen what we’re capable of doing, and we still didn’t have everybody. Just imagine if we did.”

Porter unleashed a hearty laugh and a big smile at the end of that last statement. Let’s hope a productive offseason has Bulls’ fans smiling with anticipation about what lies ahead.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

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Two of the Bulls’ division rivals head into the offseason with some uncertainty after suffering first round playoff sweeps. The Indiana Pacers hope to have All-Star guard Victor Oladipo back at full strength for the start of next season after he suffered a serious leg injury in January, but they’ll have multiple players heading into free agency, including starters Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.

The Pacers could look to upgrade at point guard by using their cap space to pursue three-time All-Star Kemba Walker, who’s hinted at testing the market after seeing his Hornets fall short of the playoffs once again. That could mean saying goodbye to Collison and top reserve Cory Joseph, both of whom could be considerations for the Bulls if they look to add a veteran point guard in free agency.

Collison turns 32 before the start of next season, which could put him outside the Bulls’ timeline, but the durable Joseph might be a possibility. Joseph has contributed off the bench for quality teams in San Antonio, Toronto and Indiana, and he’ll turn 28 in August.  The former University of Texas star has played in at least 79 games in each of the last five seasons, and could help a rookie point guard like Ja Morant or Darius Garland learn the ins and outs of life in the NBA.

Collison would also be a more affordable option than established starters like Collison, Ricky Rubio or Patrick Beverley.

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The future is also looking a little murky in Detroit, where the Pistons were drummed out of the playoffs by Milwaukee, losing all four games by at least 15 points. Granted, All-Star Blake Griffin sat out the first two games and was limited in the final two because of a knee injury, but the Pistons looked outclassed in every area.

Griffin has three years left on the max deal he signed with the L.A. Clippers and he’s been dogged by injuries throughout his career. Plus, the Pistons are still waiting for high-paid starters Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to live up to their contracts on a more consistent basis. With little salary cap flexibility, the Pistons are basically locked into their roster for the foreseeable future. Dwane Casey did an excellent job in leading Detroit to the playoffs in his first season as head coach, but the challenges facing him could grow even more difficult in the years ahead.

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Still, the situations in Indiana and Detroit pale in comparison to what’s going on in Phoenix. After finishing with the worst record in the Western Conference again, the Suns promoted long-time NBA player James Jones to head of basketball operations. Jones initially said he was planning to retain head coach Igor Kokoskov, since he was involved in the hiring process last year. But Monday night, Jones changed his mind, firing the well-respected, long-time NBA assistant after just one season.

That means the Suns will have their fifth different coach in the last five years when they report for training camp in September. Phoenix has received permission to interview the hottest coaching candidate on the market, 76ers assistant Monty Williams, but Williams is also under consideration for the Lakers’ job, along with Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd and Chicago native Juwan Howard.

The Suns have a number of talented young players on the roster, including high-scoring shooting guard Devin Booker, 2018 No.1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton, 2018 lottery pick Mikal Bridges, 2017 No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson and 23-year-old Kelly Oubre Jr., but to this point they’ve been unable to show any upward mobility in the standings.

Phoenix is in desperate need of a starting point guard and would love to add Morant if the lottery combinations fall their way. Right now, the Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers all have a 14 percent chance to land the top pick in the upcoming draft, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, high draft picks don’t always translate into immediate success.

Season in Review: Wayne Selden gives Bulls house money after Justin Holiday deal

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Season in Review: Wayne Selden gives Bulls house money after Justin Holiday deal

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono | Otto Porter 

Midseason expectations: The Justin Holiday trade was far more about the second-round picks the Bulls acquired than the players. MarShon Brooks never even came to Chicago, and Wayne Selden was expected to get some run on the wing as an end-of-the-bench rotation player. His expectations shifted slightly when Chandler Hutchison suffered a broken toe and ultimately missed the remainder of the season. Selden was expected to log minutes, keep the ball moving and hit a few shots here and there. Again, whatever he provided was simply house money after acquiring a pair of second-round picks from Memphis.

What went right: Well, he was just about as subpar as Justin Holiday was? Seriously, the Bulls were buyers at the trade deadline and Selden was essentially a throw-in to match up salaries, and Selden’s 8.1 PER in Chicago was slightly worse than Holiday’s 8.8 in Memphis. Selden had a terrific January and with the Bulls prior to the All-Star break, he averaged 7.1 points on 44 percent shooting. Nothing to write home about, but solid (and hit 44 percent of his 3-pointers). Also, while Selden only averaged 1.7 assists he did a nice job on the second unit pushing pace by himself, driving and kicking and finding open shooters. He wasn’t necessarily a positive defensively but wasn’t poor on that end, either.

What went wrong: He showed very little consistency. As always, it was difficult for any of these young players to put together good stretches of play given the injuries and roster turnover, but Selden was up and down once the All-Star break rolled around. His shooting dipped down to 39 percent and he hit just 24 percent of his triples in his last 21 games. He popped up now and again with a 20-point outing or a double-double, but it was few and far between a simply average season.

The Stat: 20-8-4

Alright, so we cherry-picked it. But work with us. Selden had an outstanding night in the final game of January, scoring 20 points on 6 of 10 shooting along with four 3-pointers and eight assists. That statline of 20 points, 8 assists and 4 3-pointers was accomplished only one other time by a Bulls player in 2018-19, when Zach LaVine had 47 points, 9 assists and 6 3-pointers in the quadruple-overtime game. LaVine accomplished his feat in 56 minutes; Selden needed just 36.

2019-20 Expectations: Will he be back next season. He’d be a cheap option and the Bulls are going to have to fill out their roster. It might depend on what happens with Ryan Arcidiacono in restricted free agency and what the Bulls do in the draft. For the sake of this story we’ll assume he’s back on a small, one-year deal.

Selden’s goal will be consistency from beyond the arc and pushing in transition. The return of Denzel Valentine could give the Bulls two nice options on the wing behind Arcidiacono (or even Kris Dunn) to provide some offense. Even if Selden can work his way up from 31.6 percent to 34 or 35 percent it’ll make a world of difference for his NBA future. Past that, he’s simply going to be a practice body behind the Bulls’ starting wings and Hutchison.