Bulls

Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

Bulls' fast start drawing attention around the NBA

When national writers and broadcasters were asked for their preseason predictions, most of them didn’t have the Bulls among their eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The reasoning was pretty consistent: A lack of 3-point shooting threats would allow opposing defenses to pack the paint against Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo, making it tough for the Bulls to score against the better teams in the league. Plus, many national observers wondered how much Wade had left in the tank at age 34 and if he would be able to hold up physically throughout the 82-game NBA marathon.

Well, through the first three games of the season, the Bulls are showing detractors just how productive their offense can be, leading the league with an average of 113.7 points a night. With Rondo pushing the pace, the Bulls are getting easy baskets in transition and creating wide-open opportunities for their 3-point shooters by making the extra pass. They’re averaging more than 28 assists a game, compared to 14 turnovers, and they’re also controlling the boards, grabbing an average of 53 rebounds per game.

Granted, they caught the Celtics and Pacers on the second night of back-to-back games, and Brooklyn might just be the worst team in the league. But we should learn a lot more about the Bulls over the next few nights, when they face rematches against Boston and Indiana on the road plus a home date against Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the Knicks on Friday night. No one should ask the Bulls to apologize for taking advantage of their favorable opening-week schedule, and their style of play should translate against tougher opponents to come.

It’s obvious Fred Hoiberg took the lessons learned from his first season as an NBA head coach and came back with a new approach for Year 2. Hoiberg was much more demanding during training camp, only giving the players a couple days off during October while insisting on proper execution and practice habits. Butler commented Tuesday in Boston about the changes in Hoiberg’s approach and how he probably made a mistake in judging him too quickly last season.

The changes to the roster are even more significant. It became clear last season time had run out on the Bulls’ core group, so Rose was traded to the Knicks for Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant, Mike Dunleavy was dealt to Cleveland to free up cap room to sign Wade, and Noah, Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks were allowed to leave in free agency. The Bulls drafted a versatile college star in Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, then added accomplished veterans Wade and Rondo in free agency, the two of them combining for four NBA championships and 16 All-Star game appearances in their careers. And just before the season began, the Bulls acquired former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams from Milwaukee for Tony Snell, who had completely fallen out of the rotation. Carter-Williams will miss the next four to six weeks after suffering a left knee bone bruise in the win over Brooklyn but should return in plenty of time to be a valuable contributor this season.

All of the roster changes made the Bulls a younger and more cohesive team. Already, players are talking about the great atmosphere in the locker room and how much fun the guys are having playing with their teammates. Never underestimate the value of team chemistry over the course of a grueling six-month schedule. The Bulls lost too many games to sub-.500 teams a year ago, ultimately keeping them out of the playoffs. The unselfish play we’ve seen so far should help them avoid some of those head-scratching losses and give them the 45-plus wins they’ll need to finish among the top eight teams in the East this season.

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It’s been a fascinating opening week in the NBA, starting with Chicago native Anthony Davis dropping 50 and 45 points in his first two games for the Pelicans. And how about Russell Westbrook’s one-man show in Oklahoma City? The Thunder have won all three games so far, with “Angry Russ” averaging 38.7 points and 11.7 assists. Westbrook & Co. will be in Oakland on Thursday for their first look at long-time Thunder star Kevin Durant in a Warriors’ uniform. Durant says he still considers Westbrook to be a friend and believes they’ll talk through any issues that might exist over the way he left Oklahoma City in free agency, but I’m still looking for Russ to try to put up one of those 50, 15, 15 stat lines against the Warriors. Don’t be surprised if Westbrook becomes the first player to lead the league in scoring and assists since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-73 for the old Kansas City Kings.

In the East, the defending NBA champion Cavs look as strong as ever with LeBron James taking dead aim at a fifth MVP trophy. J.R. Smith is back in the starting lineup after finally signing a new contract late in training camp, and Dunleavy should provide another capable 3-point shooting threat off the bench. Don’t be surprised if the Cavs also add a veteran backup point guard at some point like James’ former Miami teammate, Mario Chalmers, who’s working his way back from an Achilles' tendon injury last season.

Atlanta lost Al Horford to Boston in free agency and traded point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, but Mike Budenholzer is one of the best coaches in the league and he’s got the Hawks off to a fast start with Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and Dennis Schroder running the point. Power forward Paul Millsap figures to put up big numbers in a contract year, and the Hawks still have plenty of 3-point shooting in Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and Tim Hardaway, Jr. It’s probably safe to pencil Atlanta in for another trip to the playoffs.

The Bulls will play against Rose and Noah for the first time Friday night when the Knicks invade the United Center. Noah only averaged 20.5 minutes over the first two games, with Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek choosing to go small with either Kyle O’Quinn or Kristaps Porzingis at center. You have to wonder how long it will take Phil Jackson to regret giving Noah a four-year, $72 million contract over the summer. Rose is averaging 31 minutes and scoring 15 points a game, but only two assists, despite the fact he says he’s now a mature, pass-first point guard.

Toronto and Boston are expected to battle it out for the No. 2 seed in the East behind Cleveland, and after that it figures to be a log jam with the Bulls competing against the likes of Atlanta, Detroit, Indiana, Charlotte, Washington and possibly the Knicks for spots three through eight. But as we’ve learned over the years, injuries and the emergence of young players can dramatically change the fortunes of any team. At this point, the Bulls will try to stack up as many wins as possible while monitoring Wade’s minutes to put themselves in the best possible position for the stretch run.

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

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USA TODAY

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

In talking with Bulls' fans over the summer and reading posts on social media, it seems like expectations for the 2018-19 season are all over the board.

Some fans think the Bulls will finish at or slightly above the .500 mark and contend for a playoff spot, others are looking for more modest improvement with a win total in the low to mid 30's, while others believe Fred Hoiberg's team will be among the worst in the league.

Reality probably lies in the middle ground. Bulls' General Manager Gar Forman told us on media day the goals will be to win as many games as possible while still focusing on individual player development. The Bulls will again be among the NBA's youngest teams with 9 of their top 11 players under the age of 25. 

Bulls' Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson made it clear at the end of last year's 27-55 campaign that he couldn't endure another season of manipulating the roster and player rotations to improve draft lottery chances, while Hoiberg enters the 4th season of his 5 year contract needing to show improvement to keep his position as head coach. 

Clearly, no one in the front office or coaching staff is talking about tanking with the hopes of landing a top 3 pick in the 2019 draft. The Bulls will play to win this season, but they’ll also have to ride out the normal highs and lows of competing with such a young roster.

So, as a Bulls' fan, what should you be watching for this season to judge how much the team has improved? Here's what I'll be looking for:

1. Will Lauri Markkanen take the next step towards All-Star status?

Losing your best player on the 3rd day of training camp isn't the ideal way to start a season, but the good news is Markkanen should return from his elbow injury around Thanksgiving with plenty of time to re-establish himself as one of the league's rising stars. The 1st team All-Rookie selection put on needed bulk and muscle in the off-season to improve his low post game and he's ready to punish smaller defenders who switch on to him in pick and roll situations. Markkanen has all the tools to become a top 30 player in the league. The question is, how much closer will he come to reaching that status this season?

2. Is Zach LaVine all the way back?

Judging by what we saw during the preseason, LaVine appears to be ready to pick up where he left off during his 3rd year in Minnesota when he was averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting nearly 39% from 3 point range before an ACL injury set him back. LaVine should average 20 points a game or more this season, but how much he improves in other areas of his game (particularly on the defensive end), will be the key to whether the Bulls made the right decision in matching that 4 year, 78 million dollar offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings back in July. If LaVine reclaims his status as one of the league’s most promising wing players, the Bulls will have at least two foundation pieces in place. 

3. Can the backcourt pairing of LaVine and Kris Dunn succeed long term?

The Bulls' young guards didn't get a chance to play many minutes together last season because of LaVine's ACL rehab and Dunn's scary fall after making a breakaway dunk against Golden State. Both players are most comfortable with the ball in their hands, and both showed the ability to make big shots at the end of games. Dunn will need to sacrifice some of his offensive game to get the ball into the hands of the team's best shooters, but he's already one of the better defensive point guards in the league and looks like a potential leader on future Bulls' playoff squads. Developing better chemistry with LaVine is critical in year 2 of the rebuild.

4. Is Wendell Carter Jr. the answer at center?

The Bulls used the 7th pick in last June's draft to grab the 6'10" big man, who played in the considerable shadow of Marvin Bagley during their one season together at Duke. Carter Jr. showed enough during Summer League play and pre-season games to move into the starting line-up ahead of 10 year veteran Robin Lopez, but whether he's ready to stay there is another question. Carter Jr. is an excellent rim protector and also has the lateral quickness to switch out on to smaller perimeter players, but right now he's a reluctant shooter. Given the fact Carter Jr. is only 19, it will be fascinating to track how much he improves throughout his rookie season. Did the Bulls strike gold again with the #7 pick?

5. How does Jabari Parker fit?

More than a few eyebrows were raised around the league when the Bulls decided to sign the Chicago native to a 2 year, 40 million dollar free agent contract. Parker was expecting to move to the small forward spot, but returned to power forward when Markkanen was injured, and then moved to the bench when the coaching staff wasn't happy with how the starting line-up was playing early in the pre-season. Parker could be a valuable weapon as a big-time scorer and facilitator with the 2nd unit, but if he's unhappy with his role or playing time, this season could turn out to be an unhappy homecoming. How Parker adapts to the challenges of establishing his role will determine whether the Bulls exercise the team option on the 2nd year of his contract. 

6. Which other players will be part of the roster when the Bulls are a playoff team again?

Questions remain about a number of the team's young players. Bobby Portis has established himself as a legitimate NBA scorer and team leader; his improved 3 point shooting will be critical to the team's success, whether he starts or comes off the bench. But after failing to reach agreement on a contract extension by the Monday deadline, will Portis be chasing stats as he looks ahead to restricted free agency next summer? Denzel Valentine, Cameron Payne and rookie Chandler Hutchison will all have to make the most of limited minutes, with each player needing to prove to the coaching staff and front office they deserve to be in the rotation long term.

So, don't get caught up in the Bulls chasing some arbitrary win total number. Even though the Eastern Conference is weaker overall than the West, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Indiana, Milwaukee, Washington, Miami and Detroit all appear to be likely playoff teams, barring an injury to a key player. 

Hoiberg's offense will continue to emphasize pace, floor spacing and 3 point shooting which should bring out the best in a young and developing roster. 

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

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USA TODAY

2018-19 NBA Power Rankings: Opening Week edition

The theme of the 2018-19 NBA season will be: “old faces in new places”. Like a season-long game of the NBA on TNT crew’s “Who he play for?” game, this year will be about fans trying to get used to the idea of LeBron James in purple (I won’t call it ‘Forum Blue’)-and-gold, DeMarcus Cousins being on a championship-contending franchise and Kawhi Leonard being the new face of Toronto.

The Warriors are still the easy favorite to make it four NBA championships in five years, but they will be tested perhaps more than any year before in a loaded Western Conference, where even the lowliest of teams (here’s to you Phoenix and Memphis!) made solid offseason moves geared towards winning games.

Over in the now-LeBron-less East, there is hope amongst at least four-to-five teams that they could actually have a shot to win the conference. The Pacers still have budding superstar Victor Oladipo, the Sixers still have Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Raptors and Bucks made head coaching changes that could lead to deep playoff runs. But with the rest of the Eastern conference being stuck between lottery contention and middle of the pack, expect the half-experienced, half-youthful Celtics to takeover as East juggernaut.

But whether or not your favorite franchise is aiming for a high draft pick or a postseason berth, there is tons to be excited in a 2018-19 NBA season that will surely be an intriguing one. Check out Week 1 of our NBA Power Rankings right here.