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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls visit Raptors in season opener

Here are Three Things to Watch in the Bulls' season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live.

1. Pace and Space

The Bulls offense had a distinctly different feel to it this preseason than in years past. Yes, the lack of Jimmy Butler certainly had something to do with that. But it’s evident that Fred Hoiberg is getting closer to coaching the brand of basketball he’s most comfortable with. The proof is primarily in the 3-point shooting. To put it lightly, the Bulls have been chucking from deep.

Here are some of the raw numbers. The Bulls averaged 32.8 3-pointers per game in the preseason, which ranked fifth in the NBA. And it wasn’t just one or two players taking outside looks. The Bulls had seven players attempt 3.4 triples or more per game. They ranged from point guard (Grant) to shooting guard (Valentine) to small forward (Zipser and Holiday) to power forward (Mirotic, Portis and Markkanen). These long-distance shots are coming from all over.

That could be a reason that the Bulls’ pace was way up from last year’s regular season. Now, pace (how many possessions a team averages per game) doesn’t necessarily mean a team is running fast breaks and hoisting shots at the earliest opportunity. But what it does mean for the Bulls is they’re getting quick open looks from beyond the arc. Their pace in the preseason ranked 12th in the NBA, but at 105.2 possessions it was much quicker than a year ago (97.72). It’s still preseason, so all paces are up around the league, but you can tell this Bulls offense looks different.

2. The Holiday Season

You’ll probably be sick of “holiday” puns by the end of the month, but it’s Opening Night so let us slide by just this time. There was optimism when the Bulls signed Justin Holiday that the 28-year-old could be a rotation player and a fill-in while Zach LaVine recovered from ACL surgery. Never an efficient offensive player, the Knicks were much better defensively with him on the floor last season, and on a Bulls team losing Butler there was a need for a wing defender.

And if the preseason proved anything it’s that Holiday is going to be more than a rotation player. That’s not saying all that much on a Bulls roster void of premier talent, but Holiday is likely the Bulls’ best healthy player at this point. He was stellar in the preseason, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He shot 57 percent from beyond the arc and averaged a team-high 29.3 minutes. Holiday simply looked the part.

Expect Holiday to lead the Bulls in field goal attempts most nights, and expect him to defend the opposition’s best player (DeMar DeRozan tonight). Again, this isn’t to say he’s necessarily a building block for the future or is going to make fans forget about Jimmy G. Buckets. But it’s nice to know the Bulls seemed to have hit on a free agent this offseason. Holiday enters the regular season with plenty of confidence.

3. Looking for progress

Unless he explodes in a good way, it’ll be too early to tell this year whether Lauri Markkanen is a piece of the future. He’s 20 years old and needs to put on muscle and learn the NBA before we decide what he’ll be. The same can’t be said for the other Bulls’ first-round picks.

Valentine is just in his second season, but he’ll also be 24 years old in less than a month. Drafting a college senior in the first round means he needs to be ready to play right away. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case. Valentine had an up-and-down preseason: He made 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, but he only took 16 2-pointers in 112 minutes, showing a lack of diversity to his game. The speed just isn’t there. Perhaps Kris Dunn’s injury will allow him to facilitate some. Defensively, he still needs to show improvement. This will be a big year for the second-year guard. Now is his time to show he can be part of the rebuild.

Lastly, Jerian Grant wasn’t a Bulls first-round pick but when you deal Derrick Rose (albeit the non-MVP version) you need to have something to show for it. Grant looked the part in preseason and probably would have won the job over Dunn even if Dunn didn’t dislocate his finger. But Grant, as a combo guard, could be part of the team’s future as a reserve that gives Hoiberg options in the backcourt going forward. He was good in the preseason and will get his chance to shine in a starting role. What he does with it will be something to watch for, and he gets a big test tonight against Kyle Lowry.

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

How Jabari Parker impacts Bulls’ salary cap in 2019

The Bulls ‘rebuild’ seems to be just a one-year experiment after the team signed Chicago native Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40-million dollar deal on Saturday. Although on first look Parker’s contract would seem to restrict what they can do in free agency next summer, the reality is that the 2nd year team option gives the Bulls plenty of flexibility with—or without- Parker next year.  

If the Bulls pick up the option on Parker, they will still be able to sign a max free agent next July if they make the right moves between now and July 1, 2019.

The NBA projects the 2019-20 cap will rise to $109 million, up from $101.9 million for the upcoming season. The league bases a ‘max’ salary on years of service. A 10-year vet like Kevin Durant is eligible for more ($38.2 million) than his teammate Klay Thompson ($32.7 million), an 8-year vet. If the Bulls keep Parker, they’ll enter free agency with approximately $15.4 million next summer—far short of the cap space needed for a player like Durant or Thompson, but that number is misleading. The $15.4 million also includes cap holds (salary slots assigned to a player based on several factors including previous year’s salary). The cap hold is designed to prevent teams from completely circumventing the soft cap model the league uses. The cap holds for Bobby Portis ($7.5 million) and Cameron Payne ($9.8 million) are just theoretical if the Bulls don’t sign either to a contract extension before the October 31, 2018 deadline. 

Let’s say the Bulls are in line to sign a star free agent like Thompson; all they would need to do is rescind any qualifying offer to Payne or Portis, and then renounce them as free agents. This would effectively take the cap holds off the Bulls’ cap sheet and give them approximately $32.7 million in cap space. Coincidently (or perhaps it’s no coincidence), that’s the exact salary a 7-9 year free agent like Thompson would command.

In order to create enough space for Durant and his increased ‘max’ slot, they would need to waive and stretch a player like Cristiano Felicio or incentivize a trade involving a player by attaching another asset in the deal, like a future 1st round pick.

If the Bulls decline the team option on Parker, then they will enter free agency with anywhere between $35 million and $53 million. 

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

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USA TODAY

Gar Forman finally comes through on promise

"We felt we needed to start getting younger and more athletic..."

It was 2016 when Bulls general manager Gar Forman made this statement, drawing ire from many Bulls fans for what felt like—at the time—a disingenuous statement. A swap of Derrick Rose for Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant making you younger and athletic? No one was buying it.

But fast forward to July, 2018, and it is clear that at the very least, Forman has finally made good on his promise. The signing of Jabari Parker has been met with mostly positivity, as a short-term commitment to a former No. 2 overall pick is something that is difficult to hate. But when you factor in the rest of the pieces currently on the roster, it is OK for Bulls fans to be downright giddy over the future.

Lauri Markkanen is 21 years old, Wendell Carter Jr. is 19, Zach LaVine is 23, Jabari Parker is 23 and Kris Dunn is the elder statesmen of the group at 24 years old. If these five become the starting group moving forward, as expected, it would represent one of the youngest starting groups in the league with an average age of 22. 

And athleticism can be checked off the list as well. We know Markkanen has hopsLaVine showed off the explosiveness he was known for last season and Dunn had some dunks last year that legitimately gave fans a Rose flashback

Markkanen and Carter Jr. have both flashed the ability to switch onto guards for a limited amount of time and guard in space, a huge component of any defense that wants to switch a lot. And it also is the type of athleticism that is much more important at their position.

At this stage, Parker represents the biggest question mark athletically speaking. Despite his young age, the two ACL injuries make you wonder if there is any room for him to improve his agility. But at the least, Parker can drive to the basket and finish over the top with authority, even if his defense doesn't catch up.

So, Bulls fans are starting to become intrigued with this roster.

Fred Hoiberg wants his teams to play an up-tempo game, and last season was the first year during Hoiberg's Bulls tenure where the team actually ranked in the top 10 in pace. So if you have followed the Bulls carefully since Thibodeau's departure, you see a front-office that supports their new head coach, yet wasted a couple years to commit fully to his vision, and to a direction for the franchise.

But the point is Forman finally chose a direction.

The Bulls have a young core, and financial flexibility moving forward. And for all the jokes the "GarPax" regime have endured over the years, they have put the team in a position to have sustained success if they hit on all the young players they have acquired. 

And if they are wrong in their assessment of their young talent? 

The Bulls would be able to let Parker go, now that we know the second year of his contract is a team option. LaVine's offensive skill set will allow him to still have trade value years from now, as his contract won't look nearly as bad over time. 

And if the Bulls flurry of moves make the team significantly worse in a year where many expect them to take a step forward, all it would mean is being equipped with a high lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a top-heavy 2019 NBA Draft.

So Gar Forman wanted the team to get younger and more athletic, and though it took longer than it should've, the front-office made good on their promise. That is something that Bulls fans can believe in.