Amid fuss over starting five, Bulls bench finding its groove


Amid fuss over starting five, Bulls bench finding its groove

Of all the shuffling to find the right mix and energy for the starting five, the Bulls have seemingly stumbled upon an identity and consistency with their bench.

Perhaps unknowingly, moving Nikola Mirotic to the bench in favor of Taj Gibson to play with Doug McDermott and Joakim Noah has turned the second unit into a ball moving, sharpshooting group that can raise holy hell on opponents.

And suddenly it seems both groups are finding a comfort level with each other, though one can say the bench is a few steps ahead of forming an identity than the starters.

Noah starts as a hub offensively, with cutters and movers all around. It’s led to decisive actions from McDermott and Mirotic either to the basket or on the perimeter. Being quick, yet not in a hurry or out of control has paid plenty of dividends for the group.

McDermott hit four triples in the Bulls’ 98-85 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, most of them coming in the fourth quarter when Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler were resting and the Bulls were fighting their season-long trend of giving up decent-sized leads.

Mirotic nailed five triples in the Bulls’ 115-96 win over the Philadelphia 76ers Monday, a game that saw the Bulls trailing at halftime before waking up.

Noah, perhaps still the emotional leader of this entire bunch, had a tangible impact in Saturday’s 98-94 win over the New Orleans Pelicans with 10 points, nine rebounds, two assists and four blocks.

[MORE BULLS: Rose, Butler lead Bulls to efficient win over Grizzlies]

If one thinks about it, all likely believed they’d be starters going into the season, with big minutes and even bigger effects. But they've seemed to settle into their roles now, which can be easily accepted under the guise of winning.

“You know what, it is a very unselfish team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “When guys are accepting of change and roles, they may not always like it but they're accepting of it, they don't complain about it and it's important. If you change something based on what you see, it's easier on the coach when guys accept it.”

Noah can cover McDermott and Mirotic’s deficiencies on defense, so long as they put forth effort to provide some resistance to offensive players, and the Bulls are a top-three rebounding team whenever Noah is on the floor, so they can close possessions better.

Mirotic and McDermott’s presence makes it easier for him to be a playmaker on offense without clogging up the driving lanes, because at the least, he’s active and not just an afterthought.

“Yeah, that and I think offensively it just gives us another spacer out there with you,” Hoiberg said. “Jo and Taj had pretty good chemistry as far as the high-low stuff, but this opens up the paint a little bit, it gets Doug more dribble-handoff type actions. You've got a true floor spacer out there with Niko. With the way the two five-man groups are playing, I think it's a little bit better fit.”

Mirotic didn’t take his demotion as one and has been more decisive in shooting — perhaps by the osmosis of watching McDermott launch whenever he’s open.

“He was great,” said Hoiberg of the conversation he had with Mirotic. “He said whatever feels best for the team, I talked to him about the different role that he was going to have.”

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McDermott has benefitted from Hoiberg’s system more than anyone, knowing he has the freedom to launch triples at virtually any time so long as it’s a good shot, and playing with Butler and Rose leaves defenses stressed out and stretched thin, when he’s on.

Aside from a scoreless game against the Clippers, McDermott has been consistent in recent memory, scoring in double figures in six of the last eight games and for the season, he’s shooting 44 percent from 3, good for eighth in the league.

Safe to say, it’s necessary.

“I just feel so much more confident. Last year I was kind of scared out there,” McDermott said. “It starts with the defensive end, I’m starting to understand things more. And I don’t think about stuff on offense much either. I really want the ball. I feel like I can make it the majority of time.”

And they need this group to play with continuity while the starters catches up.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.