Pecking Order: Bulls need more Zach LaVine-Lauri Markkanen two-man game

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Pecking Order: Bulls need more Zach LaVine-Lauri Markkanen two-man game

Hey look, a winning streak! After salvaging their West Coast road trip with a win over the shorthanded Kings, the Bulls accomplished something on Wednesday night that they hadn’t done yet through 21 games. They won a game after winning a game!

Their second win over the (also shorthanded) Grizzlies gave Jim Boylen and his guys their first winning streak of the 2019-20 season and first consecutive wins since March 18th and 20th. Pop the champagne! Ready the streets of Chicago and Grant Park for the parade and rally! That seventh title is right around the corner.

Yes, I’m being salty. Perhaps I should be grateful that amidst everything Bulls fans are dealing with this season – questionable coaching, facepalm inducing postgame comments, underperforming players and of course, injuries – the team has finally managed to win two games in a row.

It’s a baby step to be sure, but at least it’s a step and at least there have been some positive signs to point to as we prepare for a more challenging December schedule. If the Bulls want to gain ground in the weak Eastern Conference and keep their playoff hopes alive, they’ll need to continue some of the things they’ve done right in this recent stretch.

And eliminate some of the things they’re still doing poorly.

Here’s what I’d like to see more of from the Bulls in the month of December. It’s the Pecking Order.

1) Zach LaVine being a star and a closer.

Maybe Boylen does deserve some credit for lighting a fire under Zach’s butt, but I’ll give most of the credit to Zach himself. Since his inexplicable benching, the Bulls’ frontman has had a 49-point explosion that single-handedly won them a game and followed that with more consistent production. Over his last six games, Zach is averaging 30.7 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 50.4% from the field and 55.5% from deep. He’s also attempted 47 free throws in those six games compared to just 29 attempts in the eight games before that.

In Bulls wins, Zach is averaging 25.6 points on 48.9% shooting and 52.5% on threes. In losses, those numbers fall to 20.8 points, 41.0% and 35.0%, respectively. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. For the Bulls to win games, Zach needs to be dominant offensively. We’ve seen it at times, but we haven’t seen it consistently enough.

The best part about the Bulls’ victory on Wednesday – after they coughed up a big lead – is Zach closed it out. After the Grizzlies trimmed the lead to one at the 4:29 mark of the 4th quarter, Zach scored or assisted on the next 13 points to secure the win. He sank a three and a difficult long two coming off screens. He found Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn (more on them later) who *gasp* both hit timely threes! And, perhaps most importantly, he attacked the basket with confidence and padded the lead from the free throw line. That’s how a versatile offensive threat closes games for his team. He spreads the defense, breaks down the defense, attacks the basket and finds good looks for his teammates.

We need more of this from Zach if the Bulls are ever going to have a winning streak worthy of the phrase.

2) Lauri and Zach two-man game

After their first season together was essentially nullified by injuries and limited time on the floor, Zach and Lauri started to build some chemistry last year. Their two-man game has potential to be deadly, essentially unguardable if both players are shooting well from outside. Both players can be the ball handler, both players can be the screener/roller/pop guy. But we’ve barely seen it so far this season because of the offensive system Boylen is running.

We’ve heard quotes recently from Zach and Lauri about needing to play together in this fashion more frequently, and we’re starting to see glimpses of it. Zach assisted on two or Lauri’s five field goals in their win over Memphis. In the Kings game, they each had an assist for the other. Give us more. We need to find out if this duo can lead a relevant team. To do that, they must succeed together, not as individuals. It’s not good that the win over Sacramento marked the first time this season that both players scored 20+ points. We need more Zach-Lauri action on the offensive end.

3) Speaking of Lauri…

As John Sabine pointed out on Bulls Outsiders on Wednesday night, it isn’t ideal that we’re talking about Lauri being “back” after a two-game stretch yielded 35 total points on 21 shots. But that’s how bad he’s been this season, sadly. At least it’s a start to a trend in the right direction.

In these two recent wins, Lauri has shot 50% from behind the three-point line, making eight of his 16 attempts. That’s a hell of a lot better than his season average of 31%. He’s scored some nice buckets around the rim in this recent stretch, too. A baby hook in the post against Memphis and a great fake pass and baseline drive for a dunk against Sacramento. But the fact that those two plays stand out over two full games is a sign that we haven’t seen nearly enough of Lauri being an aggressor on offense.

Some of Lauri’s pacifism is on Boylen and the offensive system that leaves Markkanen standing on the perimeter for several possessions every night. I also think he needs to play more minutes to maintain his flow and rhythm in the game (more on that next). Zach and his other teammates – and his coach – can and should try harder to get Lauri involved. But he must do more for himself. Time to put the Finnish manners aside and be the guy who demands the ball. It’s the only way he’ll make the jump Bulls fans so desperately want him to make. Averaging 11.4 shots and 4.4 free throw attempts per game ain’t gonna cut it.

Hopefully this apparent end to his shooting slump will help move the other elements of his offense along. I want Lauri to be the player I fell in love with. Not the guy that fans are talking about trading or sending to the G-League. (I suggest we put a lid on that kind of talk, by the way.)

4) More minutes for starters

I know Jim is insistent upon developing 15 but the balance of minutes between starters and bench to begin the season was too much. The Bulls bench, despite what you may find in some recent +/- box scores, is not good or deep enough to warrant a nightly 10-man rotation and 20+ minutes for several guys. Not if it comes at the price of starters not playing the full allotment of minutes they can and should play.

But we’re starting to see an uptick for minutes among the starters, thankfully. Through the first 16 games, Zach averaged 31.4 minutes per game. Over the last six games, that has risen to 34.7 minutes per game. Wendell Carter Jr. played just 27.9 minutes per game through the first 16 and that rose to 33.3 per game over their last six. Tomáš Satoranský’s minutes per climbed from 25.2 to 31.2 in the same span.

Lauri, however, has seen a decrease in minutes over this span from 29.9 to 27.8. You could make the argument, and I know some of you will, that Lauri hasn’t earned more minutes the way he’s been playing. That’s a fair and logical take. As a Lauri believer, however, I’d argue the opposite. The only way a player can play their way out of a funk is to PLAY out of the funk. Yes, this team is trying to build wins and compete for a playoff spot. And yes, Lauri hasn’t looked like a guy ready to contribute to said winning on most nights. But in my humble opinion, figuring out what you have in Lauri is way more important to this team’s long-term future than a couple of wins in November and December. He needs to play more.

ALL the starters need to play more (including Otto Porter Jr. when he comes back from his injury), but Lauri can’t be playing fewer than 28 minutes a night. He needs to find a rhythm. He looked to be in rhythm from the jump on Wednesday night. Then he sat for 8+ minutes bridging the 1st and 2nd quarters. Then he sat him for a long stretch again in the second half. And Lauri’s rhythm was gone.

Barring injury-related load management or blowout victories (haha, sometimes I say crazy things), I don’t want to see a number smaller than 30 in the minutes played column of Lauri’s box score for the rest of the season. NEVER. AGAIN.

5) Tomáš Satoranský doing his thing

There’s no denying that the early season returns from the Bulls’ highly touted newcomer this offseason left fans feeling underwhelmed after he expectedly (and rightfully) won the starting point guard job in training camp. Satoranský doesn’t need to be a star, because he’s not paid like one and wasn’t brought here to be one. He is, however, paid to be a starter in a complimentary role. And he’s finally starting to play like it.

In five October games, Sato averaged just 5.8 points and 4.4 assists. In 15 November games, those numbers increased to 10.5 and 5.5, respectively. In his first two December games, he’s averaging 13.5 and 6.5. That’s more like it. Perhaps Sato just needed to get a feel for his new teammates; figure out how, when and where his teammates like the ball to optimize their talents while picking his spots to take shots himself. He’s shooting the three well (40.3% on the season) and starting to find good looks inside when he breaks down the defense off his dribble.

We recently heard Sato and Boylen talk about his need to be more aggressive and he’s starting to deliver on that talk. It’s clear that he has the best court vision and one of the highest basketball IQs on this roster. They need him to use those talents more.

6) Kris Dunn three-point attempts

Just kidding.

7) Denzel Valentine getting opportunities

Look, I’ll admit I’ve been hard on Denzel over the past year. I’ve cracked several jokes at his expense. Partly because it irks my buddy See Red Fred, who’s undoubtedly the biggest Denzel fan in Bulls Nation. And because he hasn’t shown the ability to stay on the floor. Last season’s 0-for-82 games played after we were told in training camp that his injury was day-to-day was just too much for me to handle. And yes, some of that fault lies at with how it was handled by the team. But if you can’t play, you can’t help the team. Simple as that.

So of course, I was skeptical coming into this season as Denzel talked a big game about being ready. Then he really struggled in preseason action and looked like a guy who had to fudge the numbers to pass Boylen’s conditioning test. Winded and no legs under his jumper after just a few times up and down the court. After that, I didn’t blame Boylen too much for burying him at the end of his bench while piling up DNP-Coach’s Decision box scores and even being inactive for some.

But for whatever reason, Denzel is back in action. We’ll see if it lasts once Porter and Chandler Hutchison return from injuries. For the time being, however, he has earned some minutes and passed Boylen favorite Shaq Harrison in the rotation. For a team that struggled so badly with three-point percentage and bench scoring to begin the season, it makes sense. You also saw multiple examples of Denzel’s underrated court vision and passing ability in the game against Sacramento. He can help this team offensively. His defense…well. We’ll save that for another time. This is a happy Denzel moment.

Some Bulls fans asked us on Bulls Outsiders if putting Denzel in the starting lineup for Dunn while Otto remains out is a crazy idea. I mean, I’d rather see Denzel spacing the floor and making smart transition passes in that lineup instead of watching Dunn brick wide open threes. And Dunn could return to running the second unit’s defense while getting the ball to Coby White and Daniel Gafford. Maybe it’s not all that crazy…

8) Good Coby, not Bad Coby

Outside of a few lights out performances, Coby has really struggled through the first 22 games of his rookie season. Don’t get me wrong, the good Coby games are really, really fun! And I love watching this kid fearlessly attack the basket. (That near-miss dunk attempt on Wednesday had me ready to high five every Bulls fan on the planet…) But he’s shooting just 36.3% from the field and makes plenty of silly mistakes on both ends of the floor. That’s okay. He’s supposed to be doing that as a 19-year-old rookie.

I don’t think Bulls fans have to worry about Coby getting discouraged. He’s getting a great opportunity to play significant minutes. He’s the first guy off the bench most nights. And he’s already demonstrated his mental fortitude for a kid so young. We must hope the consistency comes at some point down the line. I believe it will.

9) Could we win a blowout or two?

Will Perdue said it during Pregame Live on Wednesday. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Bulls beat a bad team by a comfortable margin? They should’ve accomplished this against Sacramento or Memphis, if not both. But they surrendered huge leads in both games before saving themselves from two more embarrassing losses.
If they want to really turn this season around and compete for a playoff spot, they must prove they’re at least occasionally capable of mopping the floor with bad teams missing key players and/or having off nights.

They haven’t done it yet, and my hair is greying with every lead they cough up. But they’ve got another chance to get their first blowout win of the season with the Warriors in town Friday night. They can blow them out, right? (*Checks note, sees score of last week’s game against the Warriors…*) Maybe not.

10) Any wins will do

Beggars can’t be choosers. At this point, I’ll happily take wins regardless of the margin. But with the scheduling getting more difficult, the Bulls MUST capitalize on the winnable games. Upcoming contests against the Warriors, Hawks and Hornets must result in Ws. Because I’d sooner swear off bacon and refuse all Christmas gifts than bet on the Bulls beating Miami, Toronto or the Clippers next week. Not trying to be a cynic, just calling it like I see it. Hope my team proves me wrong.

Thanks for reading. Till next time. See red, be good.

Picking All-Stars reserves depends on what you're looking for

Picking All-Stars reserves depends on what you're looking for

The NBA will announce the reserves for next month’s All-Star game at the United Center during a one hour special on TNT Thursday night.

My colleague Rob Schaefer did an excellent job of breaking down the numbers yesterday, and it’s hard to argue with any of his conclusions.

Here’s the way I see the coaches' picks shaking out on Thursday.

East Guards: Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry. East Frontcourt: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Khris Middleton. East Wild Cards: Domantas Sabonis, Bradley Beal.

West guards: Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell. West Frontcourt: Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Brandon Ingram. West Wild Cards: Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul.

All worthy selections without a doubt. But for me, the All-Star game is about athleticism and exciting open court plays. So, I would focus on players who could brings the fans to their feet with slam dunks, 3-point shooting and creative passing.

With that in mind, I would have Bulls’ guard Zach LaVine and Celtics’ forward Jayson Tatum on the squad instead of big men Adebayo and Sabonis. Let’s face it, LaVine was born to showcase his talents in an All-Star game. Zach is a two-time slam dunk champion and he’s shooting the 3-pointer more effectively than at any point in his career. Plus, the fact that the game is being played at the United Center would create even more motivation for LaVine to put on a show.

Tatum is another high-flying wing player who can make spectacular plays in the open court. He’s only shooting 43.5% from the field, but who cares? It’s an exhibition game!

And even though Kyle Lowry is having another good season in Toronto, he’s currently third in the league in average minutes played. So, why not give the 14 year veteran a little extra rest during All-Star weekend to gear up for the stretch run?

Let’s replace Lowry with former Bull and Chicago native Derrick Rose. How much fun would it be to watch Derrick flashing his end to end speed in front of the hometown crowd! Rose is having a terrific season with the Pistons, and you can only imagine what it would be like for him to cap off his basketball re-birth by playing in the All-Star game in Chicago.

Over in the West, I’ve got to get one of my personal favorites, Memphis rookie point guard Ja Morant into the game. Morant has been a nightly staple on the national highlight shows with his spectacular dunks, spectacular ball-handling and twisting finishes between defenders. Morant can take Chris Paul’s spot.

I would keep Jokic in the game because of his passing wizardry and 3 point shooting ability. He’s painfully slow changing ends, but he can still help create highlight plays with his impressive passing. On the other hand, defensive specialist Rudy Gobert has to go. I mean, who plays defense in an All-Star game?

Give me Paul George instead. George has been limited to just 26 games because of shoulder and hamstring injuries, but he’s still averaging 23.5 points and has the perfect skill-set for an All-Star game with the ability to bomb in 3-pointers (39.5% this season) and sky above the rim for alley-oop finishes.

My last change? Give Phoenix guard Devin Booker a chance to showcase his scoring talent at the All-Star game, and let Russell Westbrook leave his scowl at home. Booker once scored 70 points in a single game, and is a threat to score the minute he crosses half-court. He’s averaging 27 points a game, shooting an incredible 50.8% from the field and 36.5% from 3-point range.

No matter which players eventually wind up in the All-Star showcase, it promises to be an exciting night for everyone involved. But as the league gets ready to honor the memory of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, why not put on the most high-scoring, exciting All-Star game the world has ever seen?

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Bucks owner Marc Lasry received some sound advice from Michael Jordan


Bucks owner Marc Lasry received some sound advice from Michael Jordan

The Milwaukee Bucks, led by reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, are on quite a tear this year. Per NBA.com, the Bucks are No. 2 in the league offensive rating, No. 1 in defensive rating—and by the way, they are a full 2.7 points ahead of the second-best defense—and No. 1 by a very wide margin (5.1 points) in net rating. Any way you slice it, the 2019-20 Bucks have been one of the most dominant regular season teams in NBA history. So with all of that being said, it is no shock that Bucks owner Marc Lasry has lofty goals for his team, including matching the incredible 72-win season of the 1996 Bulls. 

According to a report from Eric Woodyard of ESPN, Lasry spoke with the leader of the '96 Bulls (guess who?) at Friday's Bucks-Charlotte Hornets matchup at AccorHotels Arena in France. Michael Jordan offered up some sound advice for Nasry, who told MJ that he wanted his 2019-20 Bucks to try to be like the '96 Bulls in becoming a part of the illustrious group of teams in NBA history to have won 70+ regular season games. All-time only two teams have won 70+ regular season NBA games, the MJ-Scottie Pippen led '96 Bulls and of course, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who went on to break the Bulls' record by winning 73 games. 

That memorable '16 Warriors season ultimately ended in heartbreak for the Dubs as they lost the NBA Finals in seven games to the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love-led Cleveland Cavaliers. A prevailing thought was that the amount of energy the Warriors expended in going for the regular season record came back to haunt them in the playoffs, a similar sentiment shared by Jordan in his advice to Nasry. 

Look, my advice to you is don't focus on beating our record, focus on winning a championship.

-Michael Jordan's advice to Bucks owner Marc Lasry on how to handle this season

Nasry maintained that he wants the Bucks to "do everything," including winning 70+ games and collecting the second NBA title in franchise history. Milwaukee has 35 games left in the regular season and they don't look they have any intention of taking their foot off the gas anytime soon. Entering Wednesday morning, the Bucks are on a nine-game winning streak. Their latest win (on Tuesday night) came without Antetokounmpo playing, but guard Khris Middleton poured in a career-high 51 points in a game in which Milwaukee won by 20 and scored a whopping 151 points.

Head coach Mike Budenholzer has managed the Bucks minutes well enough to go all out and even try to break the Warriors' 73-win mark but as Jordan advised, NBA Championships should always be the primary focus. But Nasry is also aware of the place in NBA lore the 2019-20 Bucks would hold when we look back on it IF they can accomplish all of his lofty goals. As Nasry himself stated, "we're going to focus on beating your [the 1996 Bulls] record and winning a championship.' I think we should do everything, but that's me."

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