Bulls excited for showdown against former coach, mentor Tom Thibodeau

Bulls excited for showdown against former coach, mentor Tom Thibodeau

When Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg was in the early stages of his head-coaching career, he sought out advice from anywhere he could. The 10-year NBA veteran, whose career was cut short by a heart condition, had spent a handful of years in the Timberwolves front office before accepting the head coaching job at Iowa State University, his alma mater in 2010.

While on recruiting trips Hoiberg would stop in at NBA camps from time to time to pick the brains of NBA personnel. Hoiberg went to Milwaukee Bucks training camp and met with then-head coach Scott Skiles. Two years ago he stopped by training camp in Cleveland and met with then-head coach David Blatt. And during one recruiting trip, Hoiberg made his way to Chicago and met with Tom Thibodeau, who he’ll face tonight when the Bulls host the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I came to Chicago and had a great opportunity to sit with Tom and talk a lot just about different philosophies he had,” Hoiberg said at Tuesday’s shootaround. And then you put your plan together and how you’re going to go out and play, and stick to those philosophies. I was fortunate to have the connections that I had in the league and to be able to help me mold my coaching career early on.”

While injuries and a locker room that at times appeared turbulent made for a rocky first season, Hoiberg’s Bulls in Year 2 are 13-10 and sit fifth in the Eastern Conference – and just 4.5 games behind the East-leading Cavs – through the season’s first quarter. They’ll carry some momentum in Tuesday night’s matchup, having won back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 15 and 17, and their next five games come against teams with a .500 or worse record – four of those are at home.

The stretch begins against a Timberwolves team that, despite their 6-18 record – tied for worst in the NBA, has been competitive against some of the premier teams in the league. Minnesota led the Warriors by 10 entering the fourth quarter on Sunday, only to watch that lead disappear in an eventual eight-point loss. Hoiberg noted that the Timberwolves have held double-digit leads in seven games this season, and fast starts have been the main factor behind it.

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They have the league’s fifth-best net rating in the first quarter (+8.0) and fourth-best net rating in the second quarter (+7.1). The second half has been a different story for the young Timberwolves, so slowing down Minnesota’s early runs will be key.

“So it’s a team that is playing very well, especially early on in games, getting off to great starts,” Hoiberg said. “We know they’re going to come out and play hard like they always do, and we’ve got to be ready early on in the game to withstand the runs they’ve been starting.”

A young three-headed attack of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine lead the way. The trio of 21-year-olds each average more than 20 points per game, and along with point guard Ricky Rubio and center Gorgui Dieng have formed the NBA’s 10th most efficient offense. Hoiberg called the trio “franchise-type players,” and forward Doug McDermott agreed with the assessment.

“They’re an elite young talent. They’re all three very impressive. It’s good to see,” he said. “I think they’ve got a bright future, obviously, in Minnesota, and Thibs will coach them up and they’re going to mature and grow up and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

They’ll do so under the guidance of Thibodeau, who also coached McDermott in his rookie season. And while McDermott had four years of college experience when he entered the league – McDermott was older when he entered the league than any of the Timberwolves’ trio are currently – he said he was grateful for the guidance Thibodeau gave him in their one year together, especially on the defensive end.

“He just really laid the foundations, the principles. He’s got a brilliant defensive mind,” McDermott said of his former coach. “So I definitely learned a lot from him, especially being in the right spots, the terminology that’s used around the NBA. I thank him for that, but at the end of the day we want to beat them.”

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

The Bulls signed guard Shaquille Harrison to provide depth to a rotation that is missing it’s best perimeter defender in Kris Dunn and is lacking playmaking/ball-handling when Zach LaVine gets a rest. So far the results have been positive. Though Harrison hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of promise in terms of being a playmaker, he provides a solid option in the backcourt due to his defensive fundamentals.

Harrison racks up a lot of steals but it is more impressive due to the fact that he is not gambling for steals too often (i.e. getting out of position to try to strip a player you aren’t guarding). He picks up a decent amount of his steals by “digging”, which is a basketball term for applying pressure with a second player without making it a true double-team.

Simple “stunting” (jumping towards an offensive player to mimic pressure) or digging would help the Bulls prevent many of the easy drives to the rim they give up.

A big part of successful NBA defense is making the opposition think you are committing to one thing before executing something else. And the Bulls defense does little to keep the opposition on their toes.

The aggressiveness of Harrison in on- or off-ball defense has serious potential to be contagious to the Chicago roster, and even more so once Dunn returns. We don’t know if we will ever see Hoiberg trot out the Dunn-Harrison pairing or if that duo could do enough to spur on a change--over a big sample size-- in the overall team defense, but the basketball world has definitely started to pick up on his 110 percent effort on the struggling Bulls:

Even when Harrison does things that coaches traditionally don’t like—such as the ol’ ‘Rondo/CP3 reach around swipe’—he makes it work out:

In the above clip he was going over the screen on Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker--the correct play since Wanamaker is a solid shooter--and prevents Felicio from having to contain the guard for too long. A common thing you see from NBA guards in the pick-and-roll is the “snake dribble” that gets them into the paint. Harrison times up this move perfectly, knockling the ball loose as soon as Wanamaker transfers his dribble from his right to left hand.

Part of the reason that Harrison’s gamble in the above play was so great is that fouling can be a good thing, so even if he had fouled Wanamaker, that would’ve been a preferable outcome when compared to Felicio vs a guard or Cam Payne coming over in help defense to contest the 6-foot 8 Daniel Theis.

Harrison’s locked-in defense will certainly be needed as the Bulls head into a three-game slate that features matchups against the Bucks, Raptors and Harrison's former team, the Suns. All three teams have excellent wing scorers in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Devin Booker, and rookie Chandler Hutchison and Jabari Parker can’t be depended on to slow down those players by themselves.

Per Basketball-Reference, the 2018-19 season represents the first time that Harrison has played small forward in his NBA career (6 percent of the time). It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg deploys Harrison against two of the best three offenses in the league, his newfound versatility and consistent effort level should afford him a long-term on the Bulls.

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.

Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.

For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.

LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.

It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).

But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.

But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.

Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.

He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.

But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.

Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.

It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.

Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.