Let's get right into it. Nine things to watch in the Bulls' final nine games.
Shaq Harrison’s continued offensive approach
In case you weren’t aware, Shaq Harrison is becoming one of the best individual defenders in basketball. He’s become an invaluable part of Jim Boylen’s game plan, has filled in for both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter this week and is the strongest chain on an otherwise ugly Bulls defense.
We know about his defense. It’s the offense that we’ll want to keep on down the stretch. Assuming the Bulls remain cautious with LaVine and Porter, who are resting respective knee and shoulder ailments, expect Harrison to get a ton of run in the final nine games; he’s played 32 and 39 minutes the last two games, both of which were season-highs.
That means more shot attempts, more touches and more strong drives to the basket. Since Jan. 29, Harrison is shooting better than 50 percent from the field with outstanding shot selection. He’s never going to be more than a fourth or fifth option when he’s on the floor, but any sort of improvements he can make on that end will only make him more valuable, given what he’s able to accomplish as a defender.
The best-case scenario for Harrison? 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting with a handful of rebounds and assists and limited turnovers. We know the steals and hounding defense will be there.
Lauri Markkanen’s shooting touch
After breaking out of a long shooting slump in Wednesday’s overtime win against the Wizards, Lauri Markkanen said he had gone back and looked at tape and saw that he was fading away on some of his missed 3-pointers.
It was a pretty mature and pointed response when Markkanen simply could have given a run-of-the-mill answer about always believing in his shot and continuing to practice. The fact that he’s analyzing his game down to that level is a great sign for his future.
Now, of course, he has to make good on it. Even if Markkanen isn’t able to find his shooting touch in the final nine games his sophomore season will have been deemed a rousing success. But it would probably make him, the coaching staff, front office and fans feel a little better if he finishes out the season on a strong note from beyond the arc. He seems dedicated and committed to making it happen, so he’s already off to a good start.
Zach LaVine’s, Otto Porter’s health
Two different injuries, two different things to watch on this one.
Zach LaVine’s mentality that he’s already missed enough games in his career is valiant, and Otto Porter Jr. sure doesn’t sound like someone ready to pack it in. But the truth is the Bulls should be – and will be – extra cautious with dealing with these injuries down the stretch. Forget tanking and catching the Cavs, there’s no real benefit to having these guys play unless they’re 100 percent healthy.
LaVine and Porter have both shown what they can do, and the chemistry they built in February will carry over into next season. If anything, them sitting gives the front office a longer look at some other bench guys who may or may not stick with the team next season. It’s in everyone’s best interest that two key pieces to the Bulls’ core stay healthy and remain healthy heading into the offseason.
Cris Felicio’s baby steps
With Cameron Payne gone he’s been the butt of every tank joke, but Cris Felicio has shown a pulse over the two weeks that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It isn’t going to move the needle or change any part of the Bulls’ rebuild, but credit where it’s due: In his last six games Felicio has averaged 8.0 points on 63 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds in 16.3 minutes. That includes back-to-back double-digit point totals in his last two games – the first time he’s done that this season – and his first double-digit rebound game since last April.
He’s never going to be worth $8 million per year and he’s never going to have any trade value unless the Bulls attach an asset along with it, which they won’t. But as long as he’s on the roster he’s worth monitoring, and dare we say he’s actually deserving of these minutes? His defense is still as ugly as it’s been, but if he can have 8 and 5 nights and play in the teens, all the better.
They’re just baby steps, but for the first time in a long time Felicio appears to at least be heading in the right direction.
Back to the basics on defense
Remember when Jim Boylen took over, instilled that drill sergeant mentality into his team and it resulted in the Bulls doing an absolute 180 on defense? Yeah, about that.
In Boylen’s first month the Bulls actually ranked eighth in defensive efficiency. Seriously. They were better than the Warriors, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers in December. True, Zach LaVine missing some time, Jabari Parker getting tossed out of the rotation and a healthy Wendell Carter Jr. helped matters, but it was still an impressive showing.
That has wholly disappeared in 2019. Since the calendars flipped over the Bulls are 29th in defensive efficiency, second only to the Cavaliers. Perhaps as the Bulls offense has opened up it’s led to breakdowns on the other end, and they aren’t going to fix their woes in the final nine games, but some sort of improvement would be nice.
In their final nine games the Bulls will play teams ranked 15, 6, 5, 6, 30, 13, 8, 30 and 8 in offensive efficiency. That’s five games against top-10 offenses for those who have difficulty counting. It’ll be a challenge but these are also good tests for a Bulls defense that seems to have had trouble communicating. Nothing like getting thrown into the fire to see what you’ve got. They can only go up from here.
Wayne Selden playing for a spot somewhere
Remember the Wayne Selden hype train? It’s been a rough go for the former Grizzlies wing since a really nice stretch in late January and early February. But since the All-Star break Selden is averaging 8.2 points on 40 percent shooting and just 23 percent from beyond the arc. He continues to be a fluid player in transition and has solid court vision, but too often he’s playing on his own and is out of control on both ends.
Whether or not Selden is playing for the Bulls next season, these nine games are critical for his NBA future. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that as the Bulls have slowed down the pace, Selden’s numbers haven’t been as good. That’s all the more reason for him to push in transition when he can to try to knock him out of this funk he’s been in. He’s had his moments but the consistency just hasn’t been there.
Will the pace keep picking up?
Jim Boylen slowed things down to a snail’s pace when he first took over in December, wanting the Bulls to take care of the ball, dirty up games to stay competitive longer and work inside-out. But over time he’s continued to give the young Bulls some more freedom to get out and run.
Here’s how the Bulls have ranked in pace under Boylen, by month:
December: 26th, 96.4 possessions
January: 23rd, 98.8 possessions
February: 20th, 99.8 possessions
March: 18th, 100.3 possessions
It’s a glowing trend to see, and even though he insists on playing a ridiculous amount of stretches with the ball going down to Robin Lopez on the block, the Bulls are still moving it around for a 48-minute stretch. Remember, pace doesn’t just mean wild 3-pointers and fast break opportunities. They’ve been more decisive and it’s shown. Hopefully those possessions stay on the rise in the final nine games.
Let’s be honest. It’s impossible not to look at what the Cavaliers are doing. They’ve won eight of their last 15 games and that’s included victories over Orlando, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee. So even though the Cavs have a difficult schedule down the stretch, they look ready to compete.
So whether you’re part of the 14 percent club or believe that it’s all up to chance so who cares, monitoring Cavs games is critical. As it stands, the Bulls are two games up in the win column on Cleveland with nine games to play (the Cavs have 10 left). It doesn’t seem like the Bulls will “catch” the Cavs, especially with two games left against the Knicks, but keep your eye on those Cavs scores.