Bulls

Bucks have the right attitude, but execution needs work

giannis-bucks-bulls-0418.png

Bucks have the right attitude, but execution needs work

Jason Kidd made it clear Saturday that the Milwaukee Bucks weren't simply happy to be here.

A 67-loss team from a year ago, touting four leading scorers all under the age of 23 with zero playoff experience could have relished the fact that they finished .500, qualified for the playoffs and could build for what looks to be a promising future by gaining valuable experience with a first-round matchup against a Chicago Bulls team with championship aspirations.

But just showing up wasn't going to be enough for Kidd, who won a title as a player with the Mavericks in 2010 and appeared in 158 career playoff games.

"We’re looking at getting better each time we take the floor, no matter what’s at stake game-wise," he said. "So there’s a lot to lose if we don’t come out and play hard."

Added 23-year-old Michael Carter-Williams, who three months earlier was running the point for the tanking Philadelphia Sixers: "We’re definitely going out there to compete. We want to win."

And though the first taste of playoff experience for four of the nine players who took the United Center floor resulted in a 103-91 loss in Game 1, the Bucks indeed showed flashes that they'll be more than just a tune-up for the Bulls and their potential second-round matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

[MORE: Rose, Butler lead Bulls to first blood over game Bucks]

Yet while the young Bucks brought the right attitude into Saturday night's affair, executing against one of the league's premier head coaches and veteran-laced groups was a different story.

After not allowing neither a single 30-point quarter or 95 total points in four matchups against the Bulls in the regular season, the usually resilient Bucks defense was porous, a step behind their opponent and and unwilling to get physical without fouling with a Bulls team that won the rebounding battle by 11 and and scored 42 points in the paint.

It was far different from what the Bucks had been under Kidd. Specifically since trading for the 6-foot-6 Carter-Williams at the trade deadline, the Bucks' 99.4 defensive rating ranked second in the NBA, helping mask an offense that in the first half of the season had been led by Brandon Knight, who was sent to Pheonix as part of the three-team deal. The offense under Carter-Williams had ranked 26th in the league in efficiency to end the season, with Jabari Parker's absence due to a torn ACL in January doing them no favors on that end of the floor.

It's why on paper the Bucks' first quarter numbers - 59 percent shooting and 29 points - didn't tell the whole story. Having led the majority of the opening stanza may have felt like a win, but Kidd understood getting into a shootout with the league's 10th most efficient offense was a recipe for disaster.

"That first quarter was fool's gold," Kidd said. "We're not an offensive team. We rely on our defense, and we fell in a trap of scoring the ball in that first quarter and thought we were going to outscore Chicago with our offense and not play defense."

Matters only worsened in the second quarter when the Bulls matched their 30-point total from the opening period. The charge was led by Derrick Rose, who had his way against Carter-Williams, finishing with 23 points and seven assists in his first playoff appearance in three years. Jimmy Butler added 25 more on the wing as the Bulls sliced up Milwaukee's plan to double-team Pau Gasol, who had torched them for 46 points earlier in the regular season.

[NBC SPORTS SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Gasol finished with just 10 points on 5-for-17 shooting, but he added four assists and a handful of other passes that initiated offense, rotated Milwaukee's defense and led to open shots; the Bulls assisted on 30 of their 38 shots, with all five starters recording at least four helpers. The Bucks were 10-29 in the regular season when allowing 100 or more points, a number the Bulls reached with more than three minutes to play. They forced turnovers - the Bulls committed 19 giveaways which turned into 25 Bucks points - but weren't able to get stops when they needed.

"I think the (Bulls') score was high. If you want to win games, you have to keep the score low," said Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had 12 points and four assists in his first postseason action.

That became a problem as the Bucks' offense regressed, as Kidd expected it would. In the first quarter the Bucks shot 59 percent, scored 12 points in the paint and added nine on the fast break; in the final three quarters they shot 33 percent, scored 24 points in the paint and only six on the fast break. Khris Middleton, who scored a team-high 18 points in his postseason debut, said his team needed better focus on the offensive end finishing possessions and not settling for outside jumpers.

"I thought we could have played better, a little harder. We could have had better possessions and shot selection," he said. "But I thought for the most part we did a decent job."

It was a decent start for a Bucks team that hung around - trailing by one with three minutes left in the first half - longer than many expected them to. But that's the mentality they're hoping to break this postseason, that being within a possession midway through the game should be looked at as a success. They'll need to re-focus offensively and find better looks with the ball in their hands on Monday in Game 2, but they took a step in the right direction Saturday by arriving with a mentality of more than just being happy to be playing past the regular season.

"Obviously (the Bulls) are a good team, but it’s not like we think we’re going to lose," said Zaza Pachulia. "I think we go into every game (thinking) that we have a chance to win. These are mistakes we can definitely can correct."

 

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Will another Chicago homecoming pay off for Bulls?

Bulls' public address announcer Tommy Edwards is already getting his familiar introduction ready for next season. "Froooooom CHICAGO, a 6'8" forward, Jabari Parker!

Not sure if Parker has the resume to be introduced last for Bulls' home games this season, but there will be plenty of fanfare regardless of where he falls among the starting five. After all, Parker was a part of four straight state championship teams at Chicago's Simeon H.S., earning national prep player of the year honors along the way. And, he's been recognized for his tireless charitable work, including an essay in the Player's Tribune proclaiming his desire to be a factor in creating a safer environment in his hometown. 

Parker is articulate and driven to succeed, which will make him a go-to guy for members of the Chicago media during the upcoming season. Question is, can he succeed where so many other Chicago prep stars have failed? You know the names. Derrick Rose, Eddy Curry, Dwyane Wade, Hersey Hawkins, Dave Corzine, Cazzie Russell and even our own Kendall Gill. All Chicago area high school stars looking to replicate that greatness playing for the Bulls. But none of them were part of an NBA championship team in their hometown.

So, what will expectations be like for the 23 year old Parker? The No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft has already come back from two separate ACL tears in his left knee, which effectively removed him from the list of young players projected as future All-Stars. Still, Parker was averaging over 20 points a game for the Bucks before his second ACL injury in February of 2017, and he came back this past season with his trademark explosiveness at the rim still very much intact.

It's obvious playing for his hometown Bulls has always been a goal for Parker, but will the fit on the court be as good as his fit in the Chicago community?

Parker, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn are all at their best with the basketball in their hands, which means the coaching staff will have to be creative in finding ways to feature all three of those players, plus the frontcourt duo of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. 

The best solution will be to push the pace to get early shot clock scoring opportunities. Parker is at his best running the floor for fastbreak lay-ups and dunks, and you can the bet the Bulls’ coaches are excited to see Dunn pushing the ball upcourt with Parker, LaVine and Markkanen running the wings. Fred Hoiberg wants to see his players get into a flow offense coming out of the initial attack in transition and when Carter Jr. is on the floor, the Bulls will have five athletic players, 24 years old or younger to get into secondary actions. 

Defense will be the biggest issue in the upcoming season. Parker and LaVine ranked near the bottom of the league among wing defenders in the analytics breakdowns from last season, and their ability to stay in front of talented shooting guards and small forwards will be a nightly key to the Bulls' success. Carter Jr. showed tremendous potential as a shot-blocker during Summer League games, but he can't be expected to block everything if opposing wings are getting straight line drives to the rim. 

So, where does this new-look Bulls team figure in the East? It's hard to project a win total for a team as young as the Bulls, but it's clear they have enough talent on the roster to see a double-digit increase over last season's 27 victories. 41 wins could be good enough to grab the last playoff spot in the East, so if everything comes together for the Bulls next season, they should be playing meaningful games in March and early April. 

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
--------------------------------------------------
Did you see LeBron James show up at the Vegas Summer League wearing a $500 pair of Lakers' customized shorts? I guess James wanted to make sure everyone knew he had switched teams this summer, and those shorts are now the hottest items in L.A. sports merchandise shops. 

As for the basketball fit, James has already met with Lakers' coach Luke Walton and seems satisfied with the jumbled roster he'll be leading in the upcoming season. James isn't expected to speak publicly on his latest move until the end of the month, but apparently he's been assured the Lakers will be bringing in another superstar at some point, either in the trade market or 2019 free agency. 

Magic Johnson must be confident he can sign Kawhi Leonard next summer, but after watching Paul George state his desire to join the Lakers, then change his mind and re-sign in Oklahoma City, Lakers' fans will be understandably cautious about projecting him as LeBron's running mate for the 2019-20 season. 
-------------------
Maybe that other All-Star caliber player is already on the Lakers' roster. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are versatile forwards who have the potential to become 20 points per game scorers in the league, while Lonzo Ball could be an elite facilitator at the point guard position. And, the Lakers' other 1st round pick from the 2017 draft, Josh Hart, was just voted Summer League MVP, an honor that went to Ball a year ago. 

Hart is a 6'5" shooting guard who averaged 7.9 points as a rookie, connecting on 47% of his shots from the field and 40% from the 3 point line. He poured in 37 points Monday night to lead the Lakers to an overtime win over Cleveland in the Summer League semi-finals. The former Villanova star will compete with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson for minutes at the shooting guard position opposite the point guard tandem of Ball and Rajon Rondo.

It's an odd roster put together by Magic and GM Rob Pelinka, but adding James to the mix should almost guarantee 50 wins and a top five seed in the West. 
----------------------
Here's a look at the All-NBA Summer League team voted on by media members in Las Vegas.

Wendell Carter Jr.  (BULLS)
Josh Hart                 (Lakers)
Collin Sexton           (Cavs)
Kevin Knox              (Knicks)
Christian Wood       (Bucks)

Top five draft picks Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young were voted to the 2nd team. 

We've already told you about Carter Jr. and Hart, but Sexton impressed all the NBA people on hand in Vegas with his speed in the open court and his ability to get to the rim. There was some discussion in the Bulls' draft room about possibly taking Sexton with the No. 7 overall pick, and he was quickly snapped up by the Cavs after Carter Jr. went to the Bulls.

In the post-Lebron, post-Kyrie era in Cleveland, finding a dynamic point guard to run the show was absolutely crucial for GM Koby Altman and it looks like the Cavs have their man in the ultra-competitive Sexton, who famously almost beat the University of Minnesota by himself when his Alabama team was forced to play three-against-five during a Thanksgiving tournament game last season. 

Cleveland will be looking to shed some of the bad contracts on the roster like Tristan Thompson, George Hill and J.R. Smith, and veterans Kevin Love and Kyle Korver could be on the move as well. Sexton is a quality piece to start the rebuild, but I don't think the Cavs should count on winning the No. 1 overall pick three times in four years like they did the last time LeBron left.
--------------------
Finally, don't put too much stock into the Sporting News report listing the Bulls as one of the teams showing interest in free agent center Jahlil Okafor. The former Whitney Young H.S. star worked out for four teams in Las Vegas last week, but the Bulls were not in attendance. Okafor will probably have to sign for the NBA minimum this season to re-establish some value around the league.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft is in great shape and is trying to prove he's more than just a low-post scorer. Okafor played sparingly in Brooklyn after he was acquired in a mid-season trade with Philadelphia. He's averaged 12.9 points and 5.3 rebounds over his three-year NBA career. 

The Bulls are already overloaded at the center position with Carter Jr., Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and Omer Asik. 

Bulls interested in Jahlil Okafor?

jah.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls interested in Jahlil Okafor?

A report via Sporting News writer Sean Deveney surfaced early on Tuesday morning, stating that the Bulls possibly have interest in free agent big man Jahlil Okafor. 

Deveny stated:

According to sources, Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, worked out for four teams last Wednesday in Las Vegas, and remains hopeful of signing with a team ahead of training camp next fall.

The Pacers were listed along with the Bulls as teams that could be looking at Okafor, though neither team was at his summer workouts in Las Vegas.

From a public relations standpoint, the Bulls could sell the idea of having a roster with multiple IHSA champions. It would be a feel-good story, with Okafor and Parker joining a young and developing core. But from an on-court perspective, the move makes little sense.

Chicago has a clogged frontcourt rotation that includes Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio and No. 7 overall pick Wendell Carter Jr. And while Parker is likely going to play the majority of his minutes on the wing, he will see time at the four and possibly five as well in spot minutes. Okafor has proven to be a capable low-post scorer and little else at this stage in his career.

Okafor has averaged 12.9 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game, but has only played 131 games over three seasons. He struggled to get minutes last year with the Sixers or the Brooklyn Nets (12.6 minutes per game in 2017-18). His continued poor defense and lack of rebounding prowess were the main reasons why.

He had a 59.3 true shooting percentage in his 26 games with the Nets, as well as 18.2 points per 36 minutes. But his defensive rating of 110 points given up per 100 possessions would do little to help a Bulls team that currently lacks established defensive centers sans Lopez. Even on a minimum contract, an Okafor signing would likely signal a forthcoming trade from the Bulls. In today’s NBA, having four centers on your roster would be ridiculous, no matter how good the narrative is.