What to watch for: Bulls look to salvage a win out of three-game west coast swing against the Kings

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What to watch for: Bulls look to salvage a win out of three-game west coast swing against the Kings

The Bulls look to salvage a win out of a largely unsuccessful three-game west coast swing when they visit the Kings in Sacramento, Monday night. The game tips on NBC Sports Chicago at 9 p.m. CT — until then, here’s what to watch for:

Kings’ last five (2-3)

  • Nov. 30 — W vs. Denver Nuggets: 100-97 F/OT

  • Nov. 27 — L vs. Philadelphia 76ers: 97-91

  • Nov. 25 — L @ Boston Celtics: 103-102

  • Nov. 24 — W @ Washington Wizards: 113-106

  • Nov. 22 — L @ Brooklyn Nets: 116-97

One storyline for each team

This season hasn’t started exactly as planned for the Kings, a near-consensus preseason pick to steal a playoff spot and some hearts in a deep Western Conference. With an 8-10 record, they’re currently locked in a tie for the No. 8 seed in the West, but they’ve been without franchise cornerstones De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley for the majority of their first 18 games. They did pick up their best win of the season on Saturday, though — a tooth-and-nail 100-97 overtime victory over the surging Nuggets in which they trailed by as many as 17 points. For them, the Bulls coming to town serves as a prime opportunity to build on that momentum.

The Bulls just need a win any way they can muster it, playoff aspirations (waning fast) aside. They enter tonight’s contest on the outside-looking-in of the Eastern Conference playoff picture and 0-2 so far on a west coast swing that has featured opponents all below .500. Until further notice, Lauri Markkanen is the prevailing storyline to track with this team — he showed flashes (in an ultimately underwhelming performance) in Portland on Saturday, and the Kings’ presently depleted frontcourt could prove a favorable matchup for him.

Player to watch: Buddy Hield

Without Fox and Bagley, the Kings are lacking two of the engines of their offense. Respective understudies Cory Joseph and Nemanja Bjelica are each more-than-competent NBA players, but both boast demonstrably lower usage rates than their predecessors.

Buddy Hield has stepped up to fill that gap. Since Fox went down with a sprained ankle on Nov. 11, he’s bumped his volume (27% usage, 19.2 FGA/11.7 3PA per game) and led the team in scoring with 22.9 points per. His efficiency is down across the board, but he remains one of the more thrilling heat-check guys in the league when he gets going:

For what it’s worth, Hield and the Kings have been turnover-happy this year, which could play into the Bulls’ hands.

Battle to watch: The running game

That point leads pretty handily — pun intended — into my next one: After ranking third in the league in PACE last season, the Kings are currently producing the second-least amount of possessions per 48 minutes in the NBA. Chalk that up partially to missing Fox for nine games (and counting), but they were 28th in the league in the nine games before he went down, as well.

Whatever the reason, they play slow, which is at odds with the Bulls’ defensive style. The Bulls force turnovers at the highest rate in the NBA and, per Cleaning the Class, rank third in percent of possessions in transition (they have a 128.7 offensive rating on such plays). Especially considering Boylen will be forced to lean on the pesky three-guard lineups he so covets, the Bulls’ recipe for success will involve forcing turnovers, handling the defensive glass (the Kings rank 23rd in the league in Cleaning the Glass’ defensive rebounding rate ranks) and pushing the pace off those opportunities.

The Kings have allowed three players (Marcus Smart, Kelly Oubre and Trae Young) to have five-steal games against them, tied for the most in the league with the Warriors, Hawks and Suns. Kris Dunn is second in the NBA in steals and the Bulls lead the league in steals per game. If your fantasy team is in need of swipes tonight, hit the waiver wire stat (especially if Dunn starts). 

Injury/miscellaneous updates:

Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison are both out tonight, with both set to be evaluated in Chicago later this week. Jim Boylen has yet to officially announce who will slide into their spot in the starting lineup, but safe money’s on Dunn, who started against Portland Saturday and has assumed closing duties in the Porter/Hutchison spot, of late. 

For the Kings, Fox and Bagley are both obviously no-gos. Trevor Ariza hasn’t been with the team since Nov. 19 because of a personal issue, but he’s currently listed as probable for tonight.

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Bucks owner Marc Lasry received some sound advice from Michael Jordan


Bucks owner Marc Lasry received some sound advice from Michael Jordan

The Milwaukee Bucks, led by reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, are on quite a tear this year. Per NBA.com, the Bucks are No. 2 in the league offensive rating, No. 1 in defensive rating—and by the way, they are a full 2.7 points ahead of the second-best defense—and No. 1 by a very wide margin (5.1 points) in net rating. Any way you slice it, the 2019-20 Bucks have been one of the most dominant regular season teams in NBA history. So with all of that being said, it is no shock that Bucks owner Marc Lasry has lofty goals for his team, including matching the incredible 72-win season of the 1996 Bulls. 

According to a report from Eric Woodyard of ESPN, Lasry spoke with the leader of the '96 Bulls (guess who?) at Friday's Bucks-Charlotte Hornets matchup at AccorHotels Arena in France. Michael Jordan offered up some sound advice for Nasry, who told MJ that he wanted his 2019-20 Bucks to try to be like the '96 Bulls in becoming a part of the illustrious group of teams in NBA history to have won 70+ regular season games. All-time only two teams have won 70+ regular season NBA games, the MJ-Scottie Pippen led '96 Bulls and of course, the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors, who went on to break the Bulls' record by winning 73 games. 

That memorable '16 Warriors season ultimately ended in heartbreak for the Dubs as they lost the NBA Finals in seven games to the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love-led Cleveland Cavaliers. A prevailing thought was that the amount of energy the Warriors expended in going for the regular season record came back to haunt them in the playoffs, a similar sentiment shared by Jordan in his advice to Nasry. 

Look, my advice to you is don't focus on beating our record, focus on winning a championship.

-Michael Jordan's advice to Bucks owner Marc Lasry on how to handle this season

Nasry maintained that he wants the Bucks to "do everything," including winning 70+ games and collecting the second NBA title in franchise history. Milwaukee has 35 games left in the regular season and they don't look they have any intention of taking their foot off the gas anytime soon. Entering Wednesday morning, the Bucks are on a nine-game winning streak. Their latest win (on Tuesday night) came without Antetokounmpo playing, but guard Khris Middleton poured in a career-high 51 points in a game in which Milwaukee won by 20 and scored a whopping 151 points.

Head coach Mike Budenholzer has managed the Bucks minutes well enough to go all out and even try to break the Warriors' 73-win mark but as Jordan advised, NBA Championships should always be the primary focus. But Nasry is also aware of the place in NBA lore the 2019-20 Bucks would hold when we look back on it IF they can accomplish all of his lofty goals. As Nasry himself stated, "we're going to focus on beating your [the 1996 Bulls] record and winning a championship.' I think we should do everything, but that's me."

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Thaddeus Young takes on expanded role in Bulls’ offense

Thaddeus Young takes on expanded role in Bulls’ offense

With the NBA trade deadline coming up on February 6, there has been speculation around the league that Bulls forward Thaddeus Young could be headed to a title-contending team. Mostly because his first year in Chicago hasn’t gone the way anyone anticipated.

Young agreed to a three-year contract with the Bulls in the opening hours of free agency last summer and was expected to add veteran experience and dependable two-way production to one of the league’s youngest teams. But with Jim Boylen and his staff installing new offensive and defensive systems during training camp, Young found himself not fitting in as well as he envisioned during his discussions with the Bulls in the free agent process.

The 31-year-old forward is averaging the fewest minutes and points per game since his rookie year with Philadelphia in the 2007-08 season. There were reports last month that Young was unhappy with his role and might even seek out a trade if the situation didn’t change.

Young’s minutes have gradually increased since that time, and he’s now moved into the starting lineup because of injuries to Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and Daniel Gafford. He’s still not being used in post-ups as much as he was with the Pacers and Nets, but Young’s offensive role has grown in recent games. Young has played at least 29 minutes over the last three games, and he’s averaging 10.2 points per game over his last 10.

At times Young seems like an odd fit as a weak side spot-up 3-point shooter, but that’s often what is called for in the Bulls’ current offensive system.

The 13-year NBA veteran is at his best attacking the rim, shooting jump hooks off post-ups, or crashing the offensive boards for second shot opportunities. As seen in the video above, the Bulls even ran a post-up play for Young on their first possession against the Spurs on Monday night.

With Markkanen sidelined, and the Bulls currently only two games out of the final playoff spot in the East, it seems unlikely Young will be traded before next Thursday’s deadline. He’s finally getting a chance to provide some of the on-court production everyone expected when he signed with the Bulls last July.

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