Bulls

A tweak in the starting lineup could inject some fun into Bulls' season

A tweak in the starting lineup could inject some fun into Bulls' season

When the Bulls resume post All-Star break play on Thursday night against the Hornets, they’ll do so with a different starting lineup — we learned as much on Wednesday when Jim Boylen reported Chandler Hutchison inactive for the game. 

As of right now, it’s not exactly clear which players will make up the team’s first unit. But Boylen might have dropped a hint.

“I think you've seen the [Thomas] Satoransky-[Zach] LaVine-Coby [White] lineup,” Boylen said when asked if there’s anything specific he wants to see out of White down the stretch (to be clear: this was not a question about the starting lineup). “I expect to have that out there as we go down the stretch. Have those guys play together.”

Those happen to be the only three Bulls players to appear in all 55 games this season and the  numbers when they share the floor are kind. Per NBA Stats, units with Satoransky, LaVine and White have the highest offensive rating (115.5) of any three-man grouping the Bulls have used this season. They rank fifth in eFG% (55.1), fourth in true shooting percentage (58.9) and play at a pace of 105.68 possessions per game.

Those numbers should appeal to a Bulls team that loves to run and struggles to shoot. And with the logical benefit of increasing White’s opportunity for evaluation purposes, running those three together on the wing seems to make a tremendous amount of sense.

RELATED: Why Coby White is the most important Bull down the stretch

There are downsides, of course. Lineups that feature the trio have a porous 113.1 defensive rating (though, that still adds up to a +2.4 net rating) and plucking White from the bench would leave the reserves completely deprived of offensive creation. Also, the encouraging numbers mentioned above are based on just a 272 minute sample size, which is not even the equivalent of six games.

But to counterpoint: Why not? The Bulls are as banged up as they’ve been all season and exit the break at a low watermark, record-wise (19-36). With playoff hopes quickly melting, now is a prime opportunity for White to get the nod and for the Bulls to pivot fully into development mode. And to be honest, it would just be fun to watch.

Boylen has demonstrated affinity for this trio in the past, mainly after using them down the stretch of a 126-114 loss to the Wizards in the Bulls' final game before the break.

“I like that group of Sato, Zach and Coby. We haven’t done a whole bunch of that. That’s something we’ve looked at the last two games that I think has been good for us,” Boylen told reporters after that game against Washington. “We’ll build off what we can build off.”

Still, there is no way to know his thinking, for certain. When Porter and Hutchison were both sidelined in November, Boylen opted to start Shaq Harrison at the three for four games before Hutchison returned (and Dunn eventually filled in long-term). His love for Harrison is well-documented and going that direction again would maintain the starters’ defensive identity (Miles Bridges is good) while preserving White’s ability to buoy the bench. White, Satoransky and LaVine could always be deployed to close.

Smaller point: there is also the question of the center position. Boylen said yesterday that Daniel Gafford “got his legs back” but it’s not set in stone that he’ll slide back into the starting lineup for Luke Kornet right away. That is something to watch.

So is Boylen’s decision regarding White. If the 20-year-old rookie does make his first NBA start tonight, it will be in a lineup with the potential to keep the Bulls interesting.

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Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.

But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, the hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.

That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.

Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.

The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).

You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did. 

The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity. 

Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.

Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half

What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis injury) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.

But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.

Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.

Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.

Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.

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Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

Bill Simmons recalls behind-the-scenes Michael Jordan footage

A palpable buzz is building as we creep closer and closer to the April 19 release date for ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls.

Former ESPN employee and current CEO of the Ringer, Bill Simmons, added to that in a recent appearance on FS1’s "The Herd," a radio show hosted by Colin Cowherd.

 

In Simmons’ time at ESPN, he famously pioneered the "30 for 30" documentary series that has since swelled in popularity and name-brand recognition. In a six-minute interview with Cowherd, Simmons recalled the universal reverence for Jordan and the ’90s Bulls, and Jordan’s reluctance to peel the curtain back on their exploits.

“We [ESPN] tried to do it [a Jordan documentary] after we finished the first "30 for 30" series when we had everything going in 2009,” Simmons said. “We knew about this documentary that NBA Entertainment had. You know, they had filmed his whole season. They had all this behind the scenes stuff. So we got a copy of it, and we watched it. And the behind the scenes stuff, it was the real Jordan. It was the homicidally competitive Jordan, the guy yelling at his teammates. It was all the stuff we had always heard of but never seen. And we were just like, how do we get this made?”

But…

“Jordan never wanted it, and I think what happened, middle of the (2010s) decade, especially when LeBron won that Cavs title, when things really started to shift and all of a sudden there was an MJ vs. LeBron argument. I think for the first time, Jordan and his camp realized, ‘Oh, we gotta protect our legacy here,’” Simmons said. “People are starting to forget how great and famous and how universally everyone thought, who was there, this is the best basketball player I’m ever going to see. And I still feel that way.”

To be clear, there’s no evidence of the footage Simmons alluded to being directly related to “The Last Dance.” But it shows that there is a side to Jordan that the masses have yet to see.

Hopefully, we get to experience that side in all its flaws and glory come April 19.

RELATED: How to watch 'The Last Dance' docuseries on MJ, '98 Bulls

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