Bulls' defense carrying the load thus far; Dunleavy on the mend


Bulls' defense carrying the load thus far; Dunleavy on the mend

CHARLOTTE, N.C.- A new emphasis on offense and inserting gifted forward Nikola Mirotic hasn’t gotten the Bulls away from their defensive roots, as early returns indicate their defense is far and away ahead of their offensive production.

Entering Tuesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, their defensive stats rank right up against where they were last year, as they lead the NBA in defensive points per possession (1.00)—a stat they lead the league in last season under defensive-minded coach Tom Thibodeau (1.13).

At some point, the Fred Hoiberg offensive system will catch up to where he wants it, but as of now the defense has carried the Bulls to their 3-1 record. Even in their lone loss in Detroit, the one thing they didn’t do well defensively was finish the possession on the glass, allowing 20 offensive rebounds, which resulted in 20 more shot attempts for the Pistons last Friday night.

“Not necessarily,” said Hoiberg when asked if he was surprised about the defense being stout thus far. “These guys have great defensive instincts. They’ve been obviously taught very well on that end of the floor and we’re just trying to build off of that.”

[MORE: The Point Game podcast, featuring guest David Aldridge]

Considering offensive efficiency is the last thing to come to teams in the beginning of seasons, especially in shooting if your name isn’t Steph Curry, it’s not a big enough sample size to assume it’ll hold over 82 games.

But if habits are being retained and reinforced in some way, it’s a decent sign—a far cry from when Jimmy Butler openly bemoaned the lack of intensity on that end in the preseason.

The Bulls are sixth in opposing field-goal percentage and first at defending the 3-point line, holding teams to under 25 percent shooting. Even Mirotic, believed to be the weak spot of the defense, has a defensive rating of 92 points per 100 possessions, a nine-point drop from his rookie year.

“We’ve been much better in defensive transition as we’ve gone along, we’ve been keeping teams off the free throw line, especially in the preseason,” Hoiberg said. “So you’re just trying to force teams to take shots in the mid-range, contested jump shots, and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”

Dunleavy increasing basketball activities

The Bulls’ defense could get another boost when Mike Dunleavy returns from his back injury, but the Bulls are taking his recovery slow and Hoiberg said the initial prognosis of 8-10 weeks could be headed toward the back end.

“He feels really good. He’s upping his activity level every day,” Hoiberg said. “He was out getting shots during our team meeting the other day. He’s doing underwater treadmill work, still trying to keep impact off but also ramping it up. The biggest thing for him is going to be getting his conditioning and legs before you throw him out there.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Dunleavy underwent surgery right before camp and shouldn’t be expected back until around or after Thanksgiving.

“When you’re dealing with a back, you don’t want him to not have the strength, especially the core strength, to re-injure it,” Hoiberg said. “He’s coming along as scheduled.”

30 Days to Opening Night: Michael Jordan's career scoring average


30 Days to Opening Night: Michael Jordan's career scoring average


No one in the history of the NBA has averaged more points per game than Air Jordan.

His 30.12 points rank just above Wilt Chamberlain’s 30.07 mark, and those two are the only players in the game who have averaged more than 27.5 points per game.

Jordan averaged 20.0 points or more in all 15 of his NBA seasons, he led the league in scoring 10 times and averaged 30 or more points eight times, including seven straight seasons from 1987 to 1993. It’s hard to think that Jordan’s career mark will ever be topped.

Previous Countdown to Opening Night posts:

38. Bobby Portis' career-high in points

37. Michael Jordan's career-best PPG in 1987

36. Lauri Markkanen's 3-point FG% as a rookie

35. Michael Jordan's PPG in 1988, his first MVP season

34. Wendell Carter

33. Scottie Pippen

32. Kris Dunn

31. Michael Jordan's 50-point games

Five Burning Questions for the Bulls: Who takes the last shot?


Five Burning Questions for the Bulls: Who takes the last shot?

Each Tuesday leading up to the start of the 2018 regular season, Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are analyzing a burning question the Bulls must answer this season. Today the pair looks at which player the Bulls will lean on most in the clutch.

Vincent Goodwill: Who takes the last shot? The answer is easy: The hot man. But that isn’t the fun answer to give as the preseason approaches and roles are yet to be defined. Despite last season’s record and the Tank-a-thon that plagued the Bulls along with several other franchises, the Bulls had their share of clutch moments—so in theory, they’ll have plenty of options when close games wind down.

Zach LaVine came up big in his showdown against Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves, carrying the Bulls to an emotionally-charged win. He also stole an inbounds pass against the Orlando Magic, racing downcourt for a clinching dunk with his team trailing.

Kris Dunn was a catalyst when the Bulls had their best stretch of the season, a 14-7 mark buoyed by the return of Nikola Mirotic. He showed signs of maturity and growth with his decision-making, helping inspire the Bulls with his energy and moxie.

And if you want a bucket, a healthy Jabari Parker can get one as quick and easy as anyone with his combination of shooting and ballhandling at his size—if he’s right and if he’s a fit with this roster.

But we all know the Bulls believe in Lauri Markkanen being the future of the franchise and will put him in premium positions to succeed. However, to trust one with the singular responsibility would be unfair.

No one has proven anything consistently enough to get the call yet, and there’s only a handful of players you give the ball to, clear out the offense and let him work. With that said, the Bulls can employ a variety of options and Fred Hoiberg has shown an ability to draw up late-game actions to free up shooters with off-ball movement and cutters.

From this seat, Markkanen has to be involved, as the best shooter on the team and the matchup problems he’ll present even later in games when teams traditionally go small.

And if he comes with an improved game this season, armed with a better handle to break down a defense, the answer could be easy.

But as it stands, having Markkanen as a screener with LaVine or Dunn as a ballhandler could be a pick-your-poison proposition for defenses, with LaVine and Dunn being quick enough to get to the lane and Markkanen’s defender unable to leave him beyond 20 feet.

If LaVine is the ball handler, it could negate Dunn because he’s not yet respected as a jump shooter to keep help defenders away. If Dunn is handling, LaVine can’t be left alone by defenses, and neither can Parker if he’s on the floor.

No matter the option, late-game situations are about creating matchup problems and Markkanen’s size and shooting will be feared by opposing teams.

So…clear the floor from 25 feet. If LaVine is handling, watch for an in-and-out dribble to the elbow for a jumper. If Dunn is there, he’s going straight to the bucket until something collapses.

And if Markkanen catches with confidence…good night, Chicago.

Mark Strotman: Last year’s 27-win Bulls didn’t find themselves in many scenarios defined by the NBA at “clutch,” a five-point game with 5 or fewer minutes remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime. And seeing as the stakes weren’t all that high, there isn’t much we can take from those clutch numbers.

But it’s not a surprise that, if narrowed down to clutch situations in the final 2 minutes of contests, Lauri Markkanen (35) and Kris Dunn (32) led the team in field goal attempts. Zach LaVine had 15 attempts in just nine qualifying games, while Markkanen (30) and Dunn (26) appeared in more closely contested games.

With LaVine’s injury-riddled season and Markkanen being a rookie, Dunn actually found the most success in clutch situations. He averaged 2.8 points on a blistering 48.3 percent clip and made 85 percent of his free throws. Markkanen averaged 2.3 points on just 37.7 percent shooting, while LaVine averaged 3.0 points but on just 27.3 percent shooting in those nine games.

So, does that make Dunn the go-to guy in the clutch? We understand the open-endedness of this question. Time, situation, hot hand and opponent will dictate which player takes the final shot more often than not. Regardless of how much you like one of the Bulls as potential closing scorers, there isn’t a Harden, LeBron, Lillard or Curry on this team. At least in the early going the role will be dictated by outside factors.

But one would think the goal is for Markkanen to find comfort being that player. There isn’t a player on the Bulls with a more unique and versatile skill set, something that comes in handy in clutch moments when a secondary or tertiary move is at times necessary when the defense reacts. Markkanen should lead the team in 3-point shooting next season, has shown some ability to put the ball on the floor and, if needed, is a superb free throw shooter.

What’s more, even though Markkanen is just 21 years old this feels like one of the stages of his progression. LaVine is the $78 million man, but Markkanen has the look and feel of a future franchise player. No one should expect Kevin Durant NBA Finals daggers from the get-go, but Markkanen should want the ball in clutch settings. It remains to be seen how LaVine will handle not being a primary guy down the stretch, and Dunn’s numbers have earned him looks. Jabari Parker is a pure scorer, lest we forget about the free agent. But your best player should have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line. That’s Markkanen.