Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild


Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

Early crossroads for Jim Boylen as an NBA head coach


Early crossroads for Jim Boylen as an NBA head coach

Jim Boylen has been an NBA head coach for less than a week, but already he finds himself dealing with an unhappy locker room. Boylen says he’s willing to sacrifice short-term harmony for long term success, but it’s pretty clear a number of players are unhappy with his methods.

After holding three practices last week that lasted over two hours and then back-to-back games against Oklahoma City and Boston, Boylen decided to hold a noon practice on Sunday after the worst loss in franchise history, 133-77 to the Celtics. Boylen told reporters Saturday night he benched the starters for the final 21 minutes of that game so they would be fresh for practice on Sunday.

But things didn’t exactly go according to plan at the Advocate Center. The players decided to hold a team meeting without the coaches, and eventually invited the coaches in to let them now how they were feeling.

Rookie Wendell Carter Jr. gave the most expansive comments about what happened during the meeting.

“The big main topic for that whole meeting was being truthfully honest and direct. I feel like everyone was very direct with one another, very honest," Carter Jr. said. "Everybody told each other how we really, really felt about what happened last night, how we feel about each in terms of the team, how we feel about everybody as a whole.”

The meetings went on for almost two hours, with Boylen eventually deciding to call off the scheduled practice. Carter indicated the players asked the coaches if they could meet instead of practice, but Boylen offered a different explanation.

“I think it was just a communication, a little bit of both”, Boylen said to reporters. “This is what I think is necessary today. And they felt they needed a voice to talk, too. And that’s cool. That’s good. This is a family thing. This is open lines of communication.”

Okay. A pair of meetings makes perfect sense after such a devastating loss at the end of a tumultuous week. But the Chicago Tribune’s Bulls’ beat reporter K.C. Johnson added another layer to the story when he reported that according to his sources, the players were communicating via group text on whether they would even show up at the Advocate Center for the scheduled practice.

According to Johnson’s sources, the decision was eventually made to hold a team meeting, then meet with the coaching staff.

Zach LaVine was clearly upset in the locker room following the Celtics’ disaster about being benched for the final 21 minutes, but he told reporters Sunday the team meeting allowed the Bulls to clear the air and hopefully re-group for Monday night’s home game against Sacramento.

“I think we needed to get on the same page," LaVine said. "We needed to get a lot of stuff off our chests and be real, be transparent. And I think moving forward that will help us.”

Still, it’s clear there’s a disconnect between the demanding style of the new head coach and what the players had experienced previously under Fred Hoiberg. Asking players to endure training-camp style practices is one thing, but pushing them to the point of considering a boycott can’t possibly be what the front office hoped for in making the coaching change last Monday.

Boylen has made it clear he will do things his way in his first NBA head coaching opportunity, but he’ll probably need to make some adjustments based on the events of the weekend. You can expect Boylen will be meeting with the front office to map out some dos and don’ts in the very near future.

The Bulls should get an emotional lift from the return of Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis in the near future. Portis is planning on playing Monday against Sacramento and Dunn could make his return in that game as well.

The best thing that could happen for everyone right now is a week’s worth of solid play. But with a trip to Mexico City scheduled for mid-week, followed by road games in San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the NBA schedule makers aren’t really doing a struggling team any favors.

The first crisis in the Jim Boylen coaching era has been managed, at least temporarily. But with more losses sure to come, the players and the head coach have to put more effort into building a stronger alliance. It’s the only way this arranged marriage will be able to survive the season.

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Report: Some Bulls players debated attending Sunday practice; meeting held to vent frustrations

Report: Some Bulls players debated attending Sunday practice; meeting held to vent frustrations

The Bulls suffered their worst loss in franchise history on Saturday, falling to the Celtics by 56 points at the United Center. Head coach Jim Boylen pulled all five of his starters at once on two separate occassions, ultimately sitting them for the final 21 minutes of the game.

Boylen's move did not sit well with some players, with Zach LaVine expressing his frustration after the game. Boylen said holding a practice Sunday would be more valuable than playing his starters in a game that the team would ultimately lose anyhow.

According to a report, some players debated attending practice at all.

Ultimately, the players did show up to the Advocate Center, but two meetings were in place of a practice. While the plan was to practice, Wendell Carter Jr. said the players approached the coaching staff about holding a meeting instead.

"We both agreed upon something, the players and coaches," Carter Jr. said. "We came to them as men, we talked to them and told them how we felt, and they responded very well."

Carter Jr. said a players-only meeting was held first, with the players and coaching staff meeting together afterwards. LaVine and Justin Holiday led the meeting with the coaching staff, though Carter Jr. said every player and coach chimed in.

"I’m glad what we did today and I feel like it was very productive even though we weren’t on the court," he said. "We did some productive things in terms of having a meeting as a team."

"I think it was something that we needed to do and I’m happy with the results of it," LaVine said. "I think we just all needed to get on the same page. We needed to get a lot of stuff off our chest and be real, be transparent."

"This is what I think is necessary today and they felt they needed a voice and talk too," Boylen said. "And that’s cool, that’s good. This is a family thing, this is open lines of communication."

Carter Jr. would not reveal exactly what was said in the two meetings, only revealing that they were productive. He reiterated that the main topic of the meeting centered on the players and coaches being honest with one another about how they felt following Saturday night.

"I feel like everybody was very direct with one another," he explained, "Very honest and everybody told each other how we really, really felt about what happened last night, how we feel about each other in terms of team, how we feel about everybody as a whole."

LaVine said that the players and coaching staff are "100 percent" on the same page following the meeting, while Boylen mentioned there is an adjustment period going on since he was promoted to head coach.

"We’re still learning about each other. I’ve moved over the 18 inches and they’re still learning how I want it," he said. "There’s been a little shock and awe here in the last seven days. And there’s an adjustment to that, and that’s okay."

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