Bulls

Are Bulls facing a big-man dilemma?

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Are Bulls facing a big-man dilemma?

The reserve big-man duo of Omer Asik and power forward Taj Gibson closed out the game for the Bulls for the second consecutive evening, but although attention is newly focused on that trend, the pattern actually goes back to last season's playoffs, when Tom Thibodeau kept the young tandem in for the stretch runs of contests against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Thibodeau said all the right things afterward, reminding reporters that struggling starters Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer often carry the team, but it was telling that he listed how the quartet of big men bring different strengths to the table.

After praising the "lockdown defense" ability of Gibson and Asik, the coach talked about how some of his post players bring scoring, indicating Boozer's strong suit, while others bring defense before throwing in that some bring playmaking, a nod to Noah's unique ball-handling and passing, which is, at the present moment, his only advantage over his fellow big men, as he's struggled to score the ball this season. Boozer, though one wouldn't know it from his solid field-goal percentage, has also experienced scoring issues -- after coming into the season in top-notch physical condition, he again seemingly has difficulty finishing, due to a lack of explosiveness, and has regressed in terms of running the floor in transition -- making Gibson and Asik, both of whom continue to have increasing confidence on offense, particularly the latter, the logical choices to play crucial minutes, contracts aside, especially when one considers how much Thibodeau emphasizes the team establishing a defensive presence.

Noah took responsibility for his recent downturn in production and Boozer was diplomatic when questioned about his dwindling fourth-quarter playing time, and on a team with the chemistry of the Bulls, there's unlikely to be a rift, but the scrutiny placed upon the ongoing saga will only intensify, even as the team keeps winning. Keep in mind, however, shooting guard Rip Hamilton hasn't been healthy for much of the season and is still making an adjustment to his new squad, but in the limited time he's been on the court, his subtle play-making skills have directly benefited both Boozer and Noah.

At the same time, Noah's perceived regression on offense could fuel new-found rumors about the Bulls' willingness to engage Orlando in a potential deal to acquire Magic All-Star center Dwight Howard. Although Chicago didn't make his list of desired destinations, Magic general manager Otis Smith has a tough decision to make -- whether to trade Howard by the March 15 trade deadline or risk losing him in the offseason -- and the Bulls could have the right pieces to tempt him, as a more-than-serviceable center in Noah (it wouldn't hurt that fans of the University of Florida, where Noah won two national championships, would likely be less disappointed in losing Howard with the arrival of the former Gator), a top-five NBA small forward in Luol Deng (after LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, is there a player at the position outright better than Deng, one of the league's best two-way talents?) and a young power forward in Gibson (paired with holdovers Glen Davis and Ryan Anderson, the Magic would have a solid frontline, even with Howard's departure) and a combination of the Bulls' coveted, currently-protected future first-round draft pick from Charlotte (acquired from the Bobcats in the Tyrus Thomas deal) and their own 2012 first-round pick, as well as potentially a role player like swingman Ronnie Brewer or the rights to 2011 draft choice Nikola Mirotic (though the Bulls are on high on the European prospect, who won't arrive in the NBA for at least another season or two, and ideally, wouldn't want to part with both him and Gibson), in exchange for Howard and possibly Hedo Turkoglu and his massive contract would have to at least intrigue him.

That said, the Bulls are a 10-2 team and with the current roster -- again, don't forget that Hamilton hasn't been at full strength -- appear poised to be one of the top-two teams in the Eastern Conference again, if not better. Furthermore, simply renting Howard for the remainder season and banking on a newly-constituted team finding instant chemistry, as well as the center wanting to return to Chicago, regardless of the results, is a calculated risk and perhaps one not worth it, considering the talent the Bulls would have to jettison to make it happen.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

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USA TODAY

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Reaction to Lauri Markkanen’s injury and loss to Kings

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, David Watson, and John Sabine react to the Bulls 98-81 loss to the Kings.

1:00 - Reaction to the loss and LaVine getting double-teamed

2:50 - On Jim Boylen saying don’t expect system changes with Markkanen hurt

4:25 - Sabine’s list of things that have happened since the last time the Kings made the playoffs in 2006

5:35 - Viewer comment on LaVine and Coby

6:40 - Viewer comment on Denzel Valentine

8:00 - On the importance of 1st vs 3rd quarter

9:00 - Viewer comment on possible trades

11:00 - Viewer comment on seeing Bulls without Markkanen

14:30 - On Lauri Markkanen’s hip injury and missing 4-6 weeks

18:40 - Viewer comment asking if Bulls should shut down Markkanen

19:50 - Hey Matt Peck, did you see what DRose did tonight?

21:15 - Viewer comment on what to expect from Lauri when he returns

23:40 - Viewer asking the greatest moment the Outsiders have witnessed

24:55 - On NBA naming the All-Star starters

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

Without Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine's job will only get more difficult

It’s been the most pressing on-court issue facing the Bulls all season — in a season full of them:

Outside of Zach LaVine, where do the points come from?

The glare of that question is only set to amplify with Lauri Markkanen now set to miss four to six weeks with a pelvic injury. Take tonight’s 98-81 defeat at the hands of the Kings as an example. LaVine tallied 21 — his 13th consecutive game with 20 or more. Thad Young chipped in 10; Kris Dunn did, too. But the rest of the team mustered 40, and the Bulls finished with 81 points against the Kings’ 18th-rated defense.

For a stretch — a 109-second one, to start the second half — it appeared LaVine might single-handedly save the day, as he has before. He opened the third quarter with 10 quick points to shave a 10-point halftime deficit to two after tallying eight in the first two periods combined.

But the Kings clamped up. The rest of the way, LaVine scored only thrice and was ever on the run from one, two or three Sacramento defenders at a time, depending on the possession. The Bulls’ dearth of scoring around him made the gameplan a simple one: Cut the head off the snake. LaVine finished just 8-for-21 from the field, and the Bulls scored 12 fourth quarter points.

“I think they did a good job of that,” Jim Boylen said of the Kings’ throwing waves of bodies LaVine’s way. “Zach's a primary guy and they treated him like a primary guy. He got up 21 shots. You know, six rebounds. I thought he tried.”

This storyline isn’t going away. As of this writing, three of the Bulls’ top five scorers (Marrkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr.) are sidelined and weeks (at least) away from return. Young, steady as he is, isn’t going to transform into a consistent 20-point scorer overnight. Tomas Satoransky and Coby White represent the Bulls’ best chance of secondary explosions on a night-to-night basis — but against Sacramento, they combined for 16 points on 4-for-16 shooting.

“I mean, [opponents have] been doing that,” LaVine said of the double and triple-teams he received tonight. “We gotta get somebody to step up, and I think we'll find it. It's the first game without Lau [Lauri Markkanen]. We'll figure out what we gotta do in Cleveland.”

Easier said than done. Down another primary 3-point threat in Markkanen, the Bulls shot 8-for-37 from deep tonight, the fifth time in seven games they’ve made less than 10 3-pointers. They’re now 2-13 on the season when they make less than 10 3s.

“Will we have to adjust some things and maybe play a little differently? Maybe,” Jim Boylen said of the team’s shooting. “I'll evaluate with the shots we got and what else we had. But I'm not gonna reinvent the wheel in January, I'm not gonna do that.”

The Bulls — spearheaded by Boylen and LaVine — insist they’re going to keep plugging. Still, an offense already third-to-last in the league in offensive rating just lost another cog, and the impact was apparent. LaVine already carried as great an offensive load as anyone in the league. Now, if he didn’t already, he’ll receive as much attention as anyone, too.

“That's up to coach. I'm prepared for everything. I think my conditioning's [good], so we'll see, maybe I gotta do that,” LaVine said of potentially taking on more minutes.

And of the injuries: “Nobody's gonna feel bad for you. They're just gonna try to take advantage of it.”

The Kings did that successfully tonight. The Bulls hope it doesn't prove a foreshadowing.

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