Preseason NBA action is such a tease. Unlike NFL preseason, which seems completely pointless in recent years, NBA starters play some real minutes in preseason games. Still, by the time you reach the fourth quarter, both benches are emptied, and the conclusion feels like a completely different game compared to what you watched an hour ago (can you tell I’m writing this the morning after the Bulls’ scrubs blew a 20+ point lead against the Pelicans? I’m not bitter or anything).
Still, unlike NFL offensive coordinators hiding most of their real playbooks in preseason, NBA teams try some of the stuff they’ve been working on in training camp. Which has led to some fun and encouraging moments for Bulls fans through their first two exhibition games.
For this week’s “Pecking Order,” I thought I’d share some of my favorite things from the first week of preseason, and what I still want to see before the real games start on Oct. 23.
The Pecking Order – preseason
1. Let’s start with something fun that happened last month — fans got a glimpse this week — in the latest episode of the team’s “Run With Us” series (by the way, if you’re not watching those, you’re missing out). They feature great behind the scenes look at practices, new player arrivals and, most importantly, Jim Boylen and Lauri Markkanen cannonballing into a lake in Finland. Yes please.
Anyway, in Episode 3, we see Ryan Arcidiacono upset Zach LaVine to win Boylen’s 1-on-1 tournament. As Archie hoists the custom-made title belt and his teammates cheer, you feel that this group is really bonding early in the season. Cheesy? Yeah, maybe. But after such a depressing season filled with long faces last year, it was wildly refreshing to see something like that. When the Bulls cough up a late lead in a random January game and Jim blows a gasket, Archie might need to pull out that title belt and be the Charlie Conway to Jim’s Gordon Bombay, reminding him that games are supposed to be fun.
2. Coby White’s “Wow, bro!” moment from draft night is already turning into the greatest and easiest catchphrase. As I watch White's lightning quick coast-to-coast speed, his acrobatic attacks to the basket, or even his better-than-expected defense, my first thought is, “Wow, bro!” Coby’s the real deal, and I can’t wait to see more. Also, he should file a trademark request for “Wow, bro!” ™. That’s way better and more deserving than LeBron’s Taco Tuesday nonsense. Seriously, LeBron. Everybody likes tacos. Get over yourself.
3. Speaking of the backcourt, Tomáš Satoranský won the starting point guard job on Wednesday night. He had a rough start, committing a few turnovers. But once those jitters settled, he played extremely well, finishing with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes. That’s efficiency, baby.
Satoranský's smart and unselfish play feeds into the other guys on the court. Did you hear the Bulls assisted on 38 of their 49 made baskets against the Pelicans? The ratio was even more impressive at halftime (24-of-30) before the starters gradually made their exits. That kind of ball movement and team execution is…not what we saw last season. More, please.
4. Former Bulls fan favorite Robin Lopez and his twin brother Brook playing on the same team will be a gold mine of NBA Twitter content this season. Did you see their back and forth jabs following their victory over the Bulls when asked about their respective bucket celebrations? If not, go find it right now. Seriously. I’ll be here waiting. We don’t deserve this content, but I’m so happy we’re getting it.
5. Zion Williamson. Oh. My. God. Remember all those people who wondered if his game would “translate” to the NBA? Ha, bet they feel sheepish. Zion (12-of-13, 29 points) and LaVine (10-of-16, 28 points) won the game balls for their respective teams, and we’re all hoping we see them square off in the Dunk Contest come February.
In the meantime, sit back and enjoy every opportunity you can to watch this kid play. I love White, don’t get me wrong. But watching Zion on the United Center floor last night had me cursing the stars like a young, overacting Leo in R&J that the draft lottery didn’t go the Bulls' way (sports fans like Shakespeare references, right? No? Just me? K.)
6. Zach LaVine is a bucket-getting machine. He made it look so easy in so many ways on Wednesday night. His first All Star nod is coming, folks, bet on it. Go to your local market and load up on LaVine Cuisine. Buy their entire inventory. I will only be eating LaVine Cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner from now until April. That’s gotta be a healthier diet than the cows, pigs and beer diet I’ve been leaning on for about a decade now. If I can make the change, you can too!
7. I love both centers the Bulls added this offseason. Watching rookie second round pick Daniel Gafford run the floor, destroy rims and block shots is very fun. What a motor that kid has. But his minutes will be hard to come by if Luke Kornet is healthy. We saw Kornet’s debut last night after he sat Monday with turf toe. Not only is Kornet’s spacing ability on the floor a nightmare for opposing defenses, but he’s a very smart player. He had four sweet assists to go along with his nine points in 16 minutes.
There was one lineup we saw last night – LaVine, Satoranský', Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen and Kornet – that had me drooling. Finally, a Bulls lineup with five legitimate threats behind the three-point line. Welcome to the modern NBA, Bulls. A little (lot) late, but better than never. Speaking of centers: bye, Felicio. The goggles didn’t help. Assuming a healthy roster, we’re on our way to seeing a guy with 82 DNP-CDs collect $8 million this season. Talk about living the American Dream.
8. Now, a few things I’d like to see in the remaining preseason games. First, and most importantly, we need Markkanen to find the monster within. Bruce Banner’s triggers that bring The Incredible Hulk; Bobby Boucher’s tackling fuel; Patches O’Houlihan imploring the nerdy and soft-spoken Gordie, “You gotta get angry! You gotta get meeeean! That’s the only way you can play!”
Pick whichever analogy you want. I’m getting slightly worried that we still haven’t seen that version of Markkanen. Sure, the pick and pop threes are nice, but he’s been far too passive in these first two preseason games. I want to see him use the muscle he added this offseason, and I want to see him demand the ball more. No more Mr. Nice Finland. We need The Finnisher.
9. This team does appear to be much better conditioned than they were last season. It’s something Boylen’s been harping on, and the Bulls have played with some seriously improved pace so far. You know who looks like they can’t keep up? Denzel Valentine. Granted, he’s on an NBA court for the first time since early 2018, so you’d expect it will take some time for him to get those legs back.
Valentine could be a very important shooting threat off the bench this season if he stays healthy. But he has looked completely gassed after a few trips up and down the court. His legs lose the lift he needs on his threes after just a few minutes. Are his knees and ankles toast, or is he just out of shape? We need to find out, and quickly.
10. We need to see Boylen’s preferred closing unit finish a game. I know, I know, why put your most important players at risk in a meaningless game? But watching that game slip away last night with LaVine, Markkanen, Porter and Satoranský on the bench was tough. This is a young team that will have to “learn how to win” this season.
Who will Boylen trust to close games? Will he prefer Thad Young over Wendell Carter Jr, assuming the latter is good to go when the regular season starts? Will the closing lineup emphasize offense or getting stops? We don’t know yet. For just one of the preseason games, I’d like to see Boylen keep his primary guys on the floor to close out a win.
11. We heard Boylen say Carter might play “a few” minutes on Wednesday before he was scratched. As much as I’m eagerly awaiting Carter's season debut, that can wait until the real games. If he can only play a few minutes, don’t play him at all. The man has a bruised butt, for crying out loud. I know that pain. I have one from sitting on my couch watching all the games: NBA preseason, NHL, NFL, college football, playoff baseball, WNBA Finals, EPL…man, isn’t October the best? #Blessed.
Alright, that’s it. Two down, three to go. Enjoy the rest of preseason, Bulls Nation! We’re so close, and things are looking up! Till next week. See red, be good. – PeckClick here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.