Bulls

Zach LaVine's heavy burden, late-game struggles underscore the Bulls' need for Lauri Markkanen

Zach LaVine's heavy burden, late-game struggles underscore the Bulls' need for Lauri Markkanen

For a 3-minute stretch in the fourth quarter Zach LaVine caught fire. The Bulls’ do-it-all guard scored 11 points on five straight possessions, taking the Bulls from down three points to up three points. To that point in the game LaVine was 10 of 21, putting together anther nice scoring performance while trying to will the home underdog Bulls to a win.

But as has been the case far too often early in the Bulls’ season, LaVine simply ran out of gas. He hasn’t made one excuse for the incredible burden he’s been asked to lift, but it’s impossible to deny that it’s taking a toll after watching him miss the final five shots he took in Monday’s loss to the Spurs. The final attempt came on a stepback 3-pointer with 4.4 seconds left that barely grazed the front of the rim.

LaVine’s final five shots – all misses – were jumpers, and 20 of his 26 attempts came outside the paint. When the Spurs weren’t blitzing him with double teams they were going under every screen, daring him to break out of his slump instead of punishing them at the rim. It worked.

But LaVine’s late struggles underscored a larger issue that may be remedied sooner than later: they’re desperately missing Lauri Markkanen.

Though LaVine has certainly played himself into the Alpha role on the Bulls, and has been guilty of some hero ball late in games, it’s not an undeserved designation.

Though LaVine’s decision to wave off a Wendell Carter Jr. screen and settle for a long 3-pointer may have felt selfish, LaVine said after the game that he guessed the Spurs would have double-teamed him off Carter’s screen, forcing him to give up the ball and leave the fate of the game in someone else’s hands.

“I’m going for the win regardless,” he said after the game. “That’s my confidence.”

But it might also be his lack of confidence in the other four players on the floor. It’d be hard to blame LaVine for not trusting his teammates to finish off a game in which he once again accounted for an incredible amount of usage: 26 field goal attempts, 6 free throws, seven assists and six turnovers in 35 minutes. It was the 12th time this season he’s topped the 20 field-goal attempt plateau in 20 games, and he’ll remain second in the NBA in usage behind only reigning MVP James Harden.

Was a fadeaway 3-pointer – LaVine had made three 3-pointers up to that point – over DeMar DeRozan a better shot than trying to get the ball to Carter – who was 4 of 11 – in the middle of the floor? LaVine kept the ball in his hands because there simply isn’t a second scorer that the Bulls can punish defenses with when they take away LaVine.

That might not be the case much longer.

Hoiberg said Markkanen will have a full contact practice with no limitations tomorrow for the first time since he sprained his right elbow on Sept. 28. The 21-year-old hasn’t faced any setbacks during his rehabilitation, including strength training, conditioning, individual workouts and most recently 2-on-2 work with teammates on Sunday.

“Tomorrow will be the next test to see if he’s ready,” Hoiberg said. “It’s just going to be a day-by-day situation.”

Hoiberg was adamant about not getting too far ahead in terms of when Markkanen may return, but if he doesn’t suffer any sort of setback after Tuesday’s practice he’ll travel to Milwaukee on Wednesday for more individual work and practice with the team in Detroit on Thursday. The traveling portion of the rehabilitation is more a product of the Windy City Bulls in Hoffman Estates being on a three-game road trip through Dec. 1.

It’s good news whenever a rebuilding team gets its 21-year-old budding star back from injury. But nothing Markkanen brings to the table will be as important as the burden he takes off LaVine, who is third in the NBA in field goal attempts per game. On Monday night LaVine could have played a two-man game with Markkanen, who popped out to the 3-point line and made a Spurs defense decide if they wanted to leave Markkanen open or let LaVine attack David Bertans 1-on-1.

For now, it’ll be LaVine early and often. But help is on the way in the form of Markkanen. In addition to giving LaVine a consistent secondary scorer for the first time this year, it’ll also likely bump Parker back to the second unit and help a Bulls bench that scored 14 points on Monday after tallying 15 on Saturday.

The trickle-down effect is real. With the Bulls sitting at 5-16, Markkanen isn’t going to come back and lead the Bulls back to the postseason. They won’t flirt with .500, even when Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis return. But at the very least it sets in motion the next step of the Bulls’ rebuild.

And if it can take some of the burden off LaVine, like it would have Monday night, everyone from the top of the organization to the bottom will be better for it.

Where the Bulls stand in each of the NBA’s reported resumption plans

Where the Bulls stand in each of the NBA’s reported resumption plans

Wheels are spinning towards the relaunch of the NBA season. In which direction? For now, all of them.

Faced with a task unprecedented in logistical and financial scale, several formats for resuming and resolving the 2019-20 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic have emerged, all centered around Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort as a likely bubble site. Returning 30 teams to tie a bow on an abbreviated regular season “has lost momentum, but still has significant lobby,” according to Adrian Wojnarowski. Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff? There’s a “good chance” of that, according to Brian Windhorst, though securing the necessary owner votes to do away with conference alignment could prove a long shot. On Tuesday, the possibility of a 20-team playoff that would replace the first round with a World Cup-esque “group stage” was extensively detailed by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Other pool play options were offered up in a past canvassing conducted by the league. 

Some players and teams, regardless of positioning, are reportedly itching to play. Some would sooner be inclined to avert the risk of infection inextricable from bumping bodies without proper competitive incentive — most prominently (and publicly), Damian Lillard

All in all, there’s a whole lot on the table. But the league doesn’t yet appear near a consensus with calls reportedly slated with general managers and the Board of Governors on Thursday and Friday, respectively. 

The Bulls, for their part, are paused comfortably in purgatory. Should they be included in the NBA’s resumption plan, it could afford a sliver more time for the revamped front office to evaluate personnel and the coaching staff, and perhaps a sliver more excitement for a fanbase left wanting in that department this season. At the same time, this team is no title contender — even a de facto playoff berth would likely be short-lived — and the prospect of a month-or-more long training camp schedule leading up to five-to-seven games of (in the grand scheme) meaningless basketball could introduce excessive and unnecessary risk to players — many of whom are currently out-of-market — and staff. Scurrying straight to the offseason would potentially afford one of the youngest teams in the NBA a nine-month layoff between this season and next, and allow the new braintrust to fully plunge into draft preparation and long-term planning, both along the roster and on Jim Boylen’s fate.

That all leaves us with heads full of ideas, but not much in the way of certainty. Here, at least, are the options the NBA is reportedly mulling, and how the Bulls could fit into them:

All 30 teams resume regular season

In his most recent report, Wojnarowski pinpointed 72 games as the NBA’s target goal if they pursue some closure for the regular season. At 22-43, that would leave the Bulls with seven remaining games, a perfectly average figure. Their 65 games already played is two less than the teams with the most games completed (Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks), and two more than those with the least (Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs). Who the Bulls’ remaining games would be against is unknowable for the time being.

In the interest of recouping lost revenue, sucking all 30 teams into a hypothetical bubble is likely attractive to the league — doing so exponentially multiples the number of telivisable games, and if the astronomical ratings for TNT’s “The Match” are any indication, interest will be immense regardless of matchup. But it also doubles the amount of variables necessary to maintain the wellbeing of everyone involved from athletes to coaches to accommodation staff and beyond. 

With no non-playoff team in either conference within 3.5 games of a berth (the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans all rest 3.5 back of the Memphis Grizzlies), the cost of that risk for anyone outside the top 16 is indeed the question.

Skipping straight to a 16-team playoff

Which brings us to the tidiest of the solutions reportedly on the table: fast-forwarding straight to a 16-team playoff. Less teams, less variables, less risk (though a healthy amount of that persists no matter the format). Seeded independent of conference, here’s what that could look like — though the more likely scenario is probably keeping the conference alignment as is:

 

Paused 8.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls would fall well short of involvement in a jump straight to the postseason.

World Cup style

Here inlies the most ambitious of the proposals picking up steam, but creativity is commissioner Adam Silver’s MO. In this format, as detailed by O’Connor, the first round of the postseason would be replaced by a “group stage” wherein the teams with the best 20 records in the league would be divided up into five groups (four teams each). From there, each four-team grouping would compete in respective eight-game round robins, with the two best records from each group moving on to a bracketed, eight-team playoff.

The pros: It’s an exciting, inventive idea that could drive interest up, conjure 80 surefire compelling games and satiate fringe playoff teams (Portland, Sacramento, New Orleans, San Antonio) aggrieved by having their seasons cut short. 

 

The cons: Four extra teams increases risk, and it introduces tremendous potential for upsets and general randomness that could impact top seeds. Continuing to punish elite teams that will already be operating without their hard-earned homecourt advantage feels slightly backward.

Frankly, this format would be a ton of fun. But regardless of whether it comes to fruition, the Bulls, currently paused with the 24th-best record in the NBA, would be on the outside looking in. 

Other pool play options

That 22-43 mark, though, could sneak them into a potential 24-team “Playoffs Plus,” a format Shams Charania of The Athletic reported as being on a recent survey circulated by the league to general managers — and a bracket size the NHL just announced for their season. 

Any 30-team play-in tournament could feature the Bulls, as well, though an exact layout for that possibility remains to be determined. Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe combined to report that the league is considering pool play options that would involve anywhere from 16 to all 30 teams — possibly utilizing a structure akin to the group stage layout enumerated above.

In any event, more clarity should come soon, with GM and Board of Governors calls scheduled for Thursday and Friday, respectively. In the meantime, the season of speculation marches on.

How Michael Jordan reacted to Robert Parish taunting him at Bulls practice

How Michael Jordan reacted to Robert Parish taunting him at Bulls practice

Don’t mess with The Chief. Michael Jordan learned that lesson at a practice during Robert Parish’s lone season with the Bulls in 1996-97 — the last of his 21-year career.

Appearing on CLNS Media’s Cedric Maxwell Podcast, Parish told the story of him taunting Jordan (a rare sight at a Bulls practice in the ’90s), and the shock Jordan responded with. 

“We were scrimmaging, we played like six games going to five points. And so after the first two games, Phil (Jackson) put me with the second unit who I always played with. You know, my boys,” Parish told Maxwell. “We proceeded to kick their (the first unit’s) butts like four straight games. And Michael took offense to it, so I asked him, ‘How did he like that butt whooping?’

“He took offense to it because clearly no one ever manned up to him, you know, challenged him. So he said if I wasn’t careful, he was going to kick my ass. And I told him, ‘I’m not in awe of you. I’ve played with some of the baddest fellas there walking the court … And I’m supposed to be in awe of you?' You know, he’s looking at me like I had slapped his mug (laughs).”

Parish ended his career a four-time NBA champion — thrice with the Celtics (1981, 1984, 1986) and once with the Bulls (1997). He cited his experience playing with all-time greats from Larry Bird to Kevin McHale to Bill Walton to Maxwell as reason for not being intimidated by Jordan. 

Still, his gumption apparently sent shockwaves down the roster. 

“Derrick Dickey (Dickey Simpkins?) couldn’t believe that I talked to Michael like that,” Parish told Maxwell on the podcast. “Clearly, Michael was the alpha, you know, it was his team. He ran the ballclub and everybody kind of like got out of his way and let him do his thing.”

Parish added that he respected Jordan’s brazen leadership style, but that he preferred the manner in which Bird operated.

“Everybody got their own style, and the way they lead. Michael was in your face, he challenged his teammates,” Parish said. “Larry was our leader (with the Celtics), and he led by example. You know, he wasn’t a vocal leader, he let his play dictate how we should play. I think Larry’s style and philosophy makes the best leaders, because if you are a yeller and a screamer, after a while your voice fall on deaf ears and players just kinda tune you out, don’t hear what you got to say.

“I respect both leadership styles, but I prefer Larry’s style the best. Cause you know, some nights you don’t want to hear what he got to say, speaking of Michael. He all up in your face talking trash, you know, he might get a short right, man (laughs).”

Fair enough. Jordan’s abrasive ways weren’t for everyone. Surely, he’s content to let his six rings speak for themselves.

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