Bulls

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why a new and healthy Bulls rotation should mean a new Zach LaVine

Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?

Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).

He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.

And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.

LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).

His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.

LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.

So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.

The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.

Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).

There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.

The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.

That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.

There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.

LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.

He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.

LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.

He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.

LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.

Bulls Q&A: Can Jim Boylen get job done? What about Chandler Hutchison?

Bulls Q&A: Can Jim Boylen get job done? What about Chandler Hutchison?

The preseason schedule concludes Thursday night. It’s less than a week until the regular-season opener. Judging from your questions, you’re juiced and jacked for Bulls basketball.

Q: Can Coach Boylen coach these guys well enough to the playoffs? - Matt B.

A: We don’t typically publish last names but since you claimed to be his nephew last week and sound like you’re on a first-name basis with him — Coach Boylen or Jim —perhaps we should be asking you.

Boylen has a plan for improvement. It started with management and him working in tandem on targeting personnel they wanted. He got guys he wanted to coach. So, yes, a lot of this is on him and his staff now. He wanted roster redundancy, as he calls it. He got it. He wanted more shooting. He got it. He wanted tough-minded professionals. He got it.

There’s this perception with some in the fan base that reach out to me that Boylen is some throwback coach, spouting football-isms. If anyone ever talked to the guy about basketball, methinks they’d have a different impression. He knows the game. He owns two decades of NBA experience.

I think everyone would agree the Bulls are playing a more aesthetically pleasing style of offensive basketball. From this seat, it appears they have a lot of work to do defensively. But Boylen and his staff are challenging guys in that regard. Everything comes up roses in the preseason. It’s time to continue the good vibes during the regular season.

My question is about Chandler Hutchison. Though he didn’t look tremendous as an offensive player last season or in summer league (besides when the ball is being pushed), his defense has always looked positive to me. Almost like a reverse Zach LaVine---he has one side down pat, but the other not so much. He has the physical tools on that side to be a very good wing defender for a long while should he stay healthy. With Denzel Valentine back, someone who’s almost the opposite of Hutch in every way, will his current offensive limitations keep him on the bench when he returns? Or does his defensive ability compensate? - KJ T.

He’s still on the team? Ah, I digress.

The Bulls are thin at wing. Hutchison indeed drips with defensive potential. The problem is, similarly to Valentine, you don’t know what you can count on. At his best, Valentine is a solid rotational player because of his shooting and playmaking ability. But can he stay healthy or get enough playing time to produce? He is very much a rhythm player.

As for Hutchison, he needs to show at least something at the offensive end to play or the Bulls are going 4-on-5. And at this point, he’s behind because of his hamstring injury. Wing minutes are there for the taking. It’s up to him to grab them.

With our extreme point guard depth, do you think the second unit combo with Kris Dunn and Coby White works or do you think Dunn should be moved to get someone like Valentine or Hutchinson (when healthy) in the future? - Thomas B.

Well, those to me are two separate questions. You absolutely deal Dunn for wing depth if that trade materializes. White could play with Ryan Arcidiacono, or you could stagger Zach LaVine’s minutes so that he’s running some with the second unit and playing off White. Don’t forget Shaq Harrison is an option as well. Until then, Dunn and White almost certainly will be the reserve guards to start the regular-season rotation. In this case, White is more effective playing off the ball than Dunn.

Who has the highest ceiling on this team and can that person be a three- or four-time All-Star? - @Ewardjr69, via Twitter

This is a hard one, similar to the co-worker who asked me today if Ben Gordon or Kirk Hinrich had a better Bulls career. (It’s Hinrich. He disagrees.) It’s tempting to say Lauri Markkanen has the highest ceiling because of his age and nightmare matchup potential. But LaVine is still only 24 and certainly has the feel of someone poised to be a multiple-time All-Star. He’s such an effortless scorer. I’m going with LaVine and a three-time All-Star, and it’s time for me to put the Kool-Aid down.

Daniel Gafford looks good. What do you think his ceiling is? - @poptrot, via Twitter

Lotta ceiling questions this week. I think there will be situational minutes for him. I’m not sure if he’ll have a permanently set role. His skills of running the floor hard, playing with energy and trying to dunk everything translate no matter the level and time. However, it’s pretty clear that Boylen will try to play small some this season. Thaddeus Young at power forward and Lauri Markkanen at center is a lineup I think will be used often. Also, Cristiano Felicio played some solid defense in the preseason. I know Felicio has become a punch line to many amongst the fan base. However, if he can recapture the role ­­he played three seasons ago — basically, what Gafford is doing now — he may be out there some as well. And this all assumes Wendell Carter Jr. is healthy, which apparently no longer is a safe assumption.

Who’s the biggest x-factor this season on the roster? I’m thinking Wendell Carter Jr. or Coby White. - @benjamminwatson, via Twitter

X-factors, ceilings . . . what the heck is going on? But I’ll bite: Valentine. He shot 38 percent from 3-point range in 2017-18. He could carve out an important reserve role if he stays healthy and connects at that rate or higher again. In fact, I’ll bite twice: Luke Kornet has a chance to be a really intriguing rotation player for this team. With his ability to stretch the floor and protect the rim, he will get minutes. And in those minutes, he’ll show his basketball IQ and ability to make little plays — proper screening angles, court vision — that can go a long way.

Are you seeing any encouraging trends during the preseason that will translate over to the regular season or is it too small of a sample size, being that some analytic experts says it takes 10 games to see any developing trends? - Donald W.

Well, the style of play is encouraging. Pace is up. 3-point attempts are too. Ball movement has improved. Boylen has set a “point-5” rule as his goal — making an action with the ball within .5 seconds. All of this can and should translate to the regular season.

I’ve watched some preseason games and was really shocked by the ball movement and team-first mentality of every player, even Zach. Same story with shots beyond the arc. They took 30+ every game.  Seems like Boylen did a great job this offseason. Could you tell us which surprises are due this upcoming season in your opinion? - С уважением

Beyond Markkanen showing his hilarious sense of humor more in his public comments? I think some may be surprised at Otto Porter Jr.’s impact. He’s one of those players who just makes the players around him better, at both ends. He’s a low-key guy and isn’t a go-to guy for reporters, so I don’t think he draws enough attention for what he does. But he’s greatly valued by coaches and teammates.

The starters looked good in the Raptors game, but the second unit in the fourth quarter was terrible. It looked like our bench is trying to play like the starters instead of having solid plays and focus on defense and stops. What do you think the Bulls need to improve the bench? Do you see them making any moves? Felipe S.

As mentioned several times, a trade of Dunn for wing depth makes sense. Getting healthy would help. But, yes, for as many positive vibes that surround this team, staying healthy and reliable depth remain to me the biggest question marks. The starting unit is very solid on paper. Thad Young is a proven commodity off the bench. Luke Kornet and Coby White are tantalizing prospects. Dunn can be a defensive force if his mental state stays right. Beyond that, there are question marks.

I believe that this new NBA is hurting some young players’ development, especially Lauri’s. He’s an excellent spot-up shooter, but I wish he could learn how to operate in the post, around the free-throw line, kinda like Dirk Nowitzki did. He can shoot over almost any defender or pump fake and get to the basket with one dribble. Pick up a couple of moves with the back to the basket and he can be truly special. He’s more athletic than Dirk was too, and I just wish he was coached differently. Watching him in preseason he looks confident taking 3s, but looked uncomfortable with a pull-up jumper inside the 3 point line. Also, not once did they ran a post up play for him in preseason. I wonder what you think about all of this. – Bobby G.

This was one of my observations in a recent piece that ran on this very website. Over half of Markkanen’s shots during the preseason came from beyond the arc. He shot 44.4 percent on those, so it’s obvious he can be effective from there. But, yes, to best utilize his skills and ability to cause matchup problems, he shouldn’t just be a spot-up shooter. He certainly wasn’t during his dominant stretch last February.

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you soon.

In expected move, Bulls name Tomas Satoransky starter over Kris Dunn

In expected move, Bulls name Tomas Satoransky starter over Kris Dunn

In quite the clever move, the Bulls solved their so-called point guard controversy by renaming the position “lead guard.” This is a nod to Jim Boylen’s multi-ballhandler system.

Whatever it’s called, Tomas Satoransky will start in it for Thursday’s preseason finale and the Oct. 23 regular-season opener in Charlotte.

In an expected move, Boylen made that news official following Wednesday’s practice. Satoransky will start alongside Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Kris Dunn and Coby White will come off the bench.

“I’ve been happy with both of them. They’re both in good places. I think this is what’s best for our team, and I think it will be great for both of them individually,” Boylen said of Satoransky and Dunn. “Kris has to be kind of our defensive force in that second group. He can impact the game coming off the bench. He’s embraced it, I’ve spoken with him, and we had a good conversation about it. He’s all about winning, and I’m really proud of him.’’

Boylen cited Satoransky’s shooting ability to space the floor and quick and accurate decision-making as primary factors behind the decision. He reiterated the organization’s belief in Dunn, who had six steals and 11 deflections in last Friday’s preseason game in Indiana and can be a defensive force with the second unit.

“You know I’ve always said he’s a terrific kid. I’ve always said he’s for the team. I’ve always said he’s very coachable,” Boylen said of Dunn. “Those things haven’t changed how I feel about him and what he’s done. But I do think that he’s in a really good place. I do think he had some introspection and got some time away, and it was good for him. He said it, we’ve said it, he’s prepared to help the team win, and that’s his mindset. That’s what we need. We talked earlier in the year, it’s going to be about sharing and sacrifice, and he’s going to come off that bench and help us win.”

Barring foul trouble, Satoransky likely will play in the range of 30 to 32 minutes, while Dunn could be in the 18 to 22 minutes range. Boylen consistently has talked about the need for sacrifice for the Bulls to make the jump to a contending team.

The Bulls aggressively pursued Satoransky during July free agency, acquiring him in a sign-and-trade transaction with the Wizards and agreeing to a three-year, $30 million deal whose final season isn’t fully guaranteed. He quickly endeared himself to Boylen by not asking about starting during the recruiting period, merely saying he wanted to be a part of what the Bulls are building.

“I love the way he throws the ball ahead,” Boylen said. “I love his command of our offense already. He’s obviously a terrific shooter. He can play off those guys, he can play on the ball and off those guys and create space. Him and I have a real good connection and he’s got a really good feel. And I feel confident in him running that first group.”

Satoransky averaged 11.2 points and 6.6 assists in 46 starts at point guard for the Wizards last season after John Wall went down with a season-ending injury. He also started eight games at small forward. It’s this versatility that Boylen envisions using in a backcourt rotation that includes LaVine, Dunn and White.

“I’ve felt really good with them on the floor,” Satoransky said of minutes with the starters. “For me, it was getting used to every player, not only with certain lineups. But I felt really good, especially last game. I think we have a lot of shooters on the floor. That gives us an advantage and spacing to attack, especially for Zach. Hopefully we can continue to get better and have options there.

“I try to run the team, put them in the best position where they can succeed. Run with pace. Keep the spacing. Try to organize the team. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for my whole career. And do the little things. I think it’s expected for me to come up with energy on the defensive side. I’m trying to do that and compete for every ball.”

Boylen favorites Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaq Harrison also are available, as are Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison, who has yet to play with a hamstring injury.

Dunn remains the team’s best on-ball perimeter defender and has returned to the Bulls saying and doing all the right things after an offseason of reflection that briefly involved him wanting a change of address. In fact, sources said in July that the Bulls held substantial trade talks centered on Dunn, at one point trying to re-acquire Justin Holiday from the Grizzlies in a sign-and-trade transaction.

Instead, Dunn reported to September voluntary workouts with a strong work ethic and clear mind. He has drawn raves from coaches and teammates alike for his team-first attitude.

“We’re developing Coby White as a basketball player,” Boylen said. “We’re not going to put him in this situation where he’s a 1, he’s a 2 or he’s a 3, he’s a this, he’s a that. He’s a basketball player; he’s a baller. He plays well off other people. He plays well with the ball in his hands. He plays well off a live catch. He can run pick-and-roll. He has positional size, toughness, physicality. Not concerned about somebody saying he needs to be this or that, he just needs to play.”

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