Bulls

Ten dates to circle on the Bulls' 2018-19 schedule

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USA TODAY

Ten dates to circle on the Bulls' 2018-19 schedule

The Bulls' 2018-19 schedule came out Friday afternoon. You can check out the 82-game slate. But we're also keying in on 10 specific dates that Bulls fans will want to circle on their calendars.

1. LeBron brings Hollywood to the Windy City (vs. LAL, March 12)

The Bulls will play LeBron James and the Lakers in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, but there's no atmosphere like when The King comes to town. Add in the fact that the Lakers have the league's largest fan base and you understand why this one is going to be massive. After seeing James four times a year the last four seasons, the Bulls will only get two shots at James this season. Seeing as this will be his only trip to Chicago, it's easily the biggest game of the year.

2. The TimberBulls reunion, pt. II (vs. MIN, Dec. 26)

Some of the buzz will be gone considering Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson came to Chicago last season. But this time around, a day after Christmas, they'll have Derrick Rose with them (and maybe even Joakim Noah). That's going to create some serious nostalgia at the United Center. And don't forget, this will always loom large as a big game for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine after it was Thibodeau who sent them packing in exchange for Butler.

3. Jabari Parker returns to his favorite suburb (at MIL, Nov. 16)

Jabari Parker said all the right things upon leaving Milwaukee and joining his hometown Bulls. But you can bet there's some real animosity between the two and he'll want to get his revenge on when they clash for the first of four meetings. It'll also be the first matchup between the Bulls and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who looks ready to make a real run at MVP. Considering it's also a division game, every Bulls-Bucks game will be a big one this season. 

4. The Warriors' dynasty makes an early stop in CHI (vs. GSW, Oct. 29)

Three titles in four years makes the Warriors a dynasty. Sorry, 90s Bulls fans. The good - and we use that term lightly - news is that DeMarcus Cousins will be sidelined for this early-season affair. And the even better news it that the Bulls have some recent success against the Warriors: since the start of the 2012-13 season the Bulls have gone 5-7 against Steph and co. Hey, it's something.

5. The Prospects vs. The Process (at PHI, Oct. 18)

This may be a few years away from becoming a real rivalry, but the finished process of the Sixers' rebuild will square off against the Bulls' blossoming one to begin the year. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid terrorized the Bulls last season, but a healthy core and the rookie additions plus Jabari Parker should even out these contests. It'll be a good test to open the year for Fred Hoiberg's group.

6. Anthony Davis' (un)official recruiting visit (vs. NOP, Feb. 6)

Hey, Anthony! Look at all this great young talent! OK, Davis can't become a free agent until 2020 and it would be surprising if he didn't sign a super-max deal with the Pelicans. But we can dream. It's a hometown return for the Prospectives alum, and we can't help but think he'll be keeping an eye on the Bulls' young core...just in case he gets the itch to pull a Jabari Parker and come on home. Let us dream.

7. Wendell Carter Jr. gets to show Marvin Bagley III what he can do (vs. SAC, Dec. 10)

Wendell Carter Jr. took a back seat at Duke when Marvin Bagley III arrived as a late addition to the 2018 class. Both Bagley and Carter showed promise in their respective Summer League performances, but now the two will go head-to-head for the first time outside of Duke practices. You can bet Carter will be playing with an added chip on his shoulder after Bagley received all the accolades in Durham last season.

8. The Unicorn vs. The Finnisher...with potential playoff implications (at NYK/vs. NYK, Apr. 1/9)

Kristaps Porzingis is recovering from ACL surgery, so he wont be ready for the teams' first matchup on Nov. 5. But the teams will play twice in the regular season's final two weeks, and the Knicks and Bulls could very well be in the playoff hunt for the final few spots. Porzingis and Markkanen are two of the most unique players in the game, and this could be a battle of big-city bigs for a long time to come. And for the first time it could have playoff implications.

9. David Nwaba revenge game? (at CLE, Dec. 23)

OK, it doesn't sound as good written out as it did in our heads. But still, Nwaba was thought to be a piece of the Bulls' future after an impressive first season in Chicago. Instead the Bulls opted to go with Jabari Parker (and Antonio Blakeney), letting the hounding defender leave for a division rival in Cleveland. You can bet points on the wing will be hard to come by when Nwaba gets his chance to lock up the Bulls' backcourt.

10. Toe-to-toe with the East's best (at BOS, Nov. 14)

The Bulls will have three meetings against the presumed top team in the East. The first of these matchups takes place in Boston, and it'll be against a Celtics team that's fully healthy for the first time since last year's Opening Night, when Gordon Hayward suffered a gruesome ankle injury that cost him the entire regular season. Another tough matchup for the Bulls, but a good barometer for where they are early in the season.

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

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USA TODAY

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. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.