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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Around the Association

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.

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: LaVine turns in an All Star performance as the Bulls beat the Clippers


Bulls Outsiders Podcast: LaVine turns in an All Star performance as the Bulls beat the Clippers

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, See Red Fred joins Big Dave and Matt Peck. The guys talk about some big plays down the stretch by Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine. Plus a great defensive job by Kris Dunn on Paul George. (1:30) See Red Fred states his case for more playing time for Denzel Valentine. (4:00) Plus what's going to happen when Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison come back. (8:00) The guys share some concerns about Coby White in the short term. (10:30) See Red Fred tells you about 3 players who have exceeded expectations this year. (13:00) Plus the guys debate whether Zach LaVine should compete in the dunk contest or 3 point competition. (18:00) They discuss the impact that Kris Dunn has had on the defensive end of the floor. (20:30) Plus See Red Fred lays out his blueprint for the Bulls to make the playoffs. (23:30) Plus the guys make a wager regarding the rest of the season. (25:00)

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Outsiders


Bulls down Clippers, post 1st victory over winning team with strong finish

Bulls down Clippers, post 1st victory over winning team with strong finish

Just over two hours before tipoff, in his first public comments since Media Day, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson talked about how Jim Boylen’s teaching and coaching hasn’t always translated from the practice floor and film room to games.

Could the Bulls’ first victory this season over a winning team be a step?

And don’t mention that the Clippers played without Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams in the Bulls’ 109-106 victory, secured on Zach LaVine’s three-point play with 2 seconds to play.

“Well, we didn’t have (Otto Porter Jr.) or Hutch (Chandler Hutchison) or (Daniel) Gafford,” Boylen said. “So we can ‘Yeah, but’ it a little bit too.”

Bravado aside, there’s stuff on which the Bulls can build here.

LaVine posted his sixth 30-point game and ended a week filled with closing misses with a game-winner in which he powered through a Montrezl Harrell foul on a nice misdirection play involving Kris Dunn. Lauri Markkanen tied his season-high with 17 rebounds while posting his third double-double of the season. Denzel Valentine, playing all but two seconds of the fourth, hit a huge tying 3-pointer in the final minute and scored a season-high 16 points. Thad Young tied his season-high with 17 points.

And Dunn was everywhere, relishing the challenge of guarding Paul George down the stretch and winning a crucial battle for a 50-50 ball that led to Valentine’s tying shot.

“That was a huge moment,” Boylen said.

So was Valentine closing a game.

“I just thought we needed some more shooting on the floor,” Boylen said. “We’ve wrestled with defensive lineups, offensive lineups. We try to mingle them a little bit. I just thought we needed someone to make a big shot. And he did.”

Valentine has now scored in double figures off the bench in five of six games.

“I’m very confident in my abilities,” Valentine said. “I was just waiting for the ball to come my way. Zach is our best player. So the ball’s going to be in his hands. But shoot, I’m ready for it. I love those moments. I love to make those shots.”

Dunn, who finished a plus-22, defended George as he missed a good look for a tying 3-pointer. George scored 10 points in just over 7 minutes in the fourth but missed all three attempts following Valentine’s tying shot.

“I love it,” Dunn said of guarding great players. “I know my niche on this team is to guard. And I take pride in that. It feels good to go against a big-time player and be able to get stops towards the end.”

Markkanen actually received credit for the rebound that Dunn kept alive to lead to Valentine’s tying shot, which Dunn said Markkanen teased him about. Dunn finished with nine points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.

But his two biggest plays didn’t even crash the box score. He won the 50-50 ball to lead to Valentine’s tying shot and then confused the Clippers’ defense by slipping a screen on LaVine’s game-winner.

“I knew Zach was going to get downhill,” Dunn said. “Because once I did it, I saw Paul George look at me.”

LaVine couldn’t believe how much space he had to operate.

“I’ll take it,” he said. “Once I saw the lane open up, I think there were like 5 seconds left. We were trying to get the last shot. But once the lane opened up, I tried to get a one-on-one. He’s a tough dude. I knew I could attack his body.”

LaVine missed game-winning attempts on an isolation 3-pointer against the Warriors and over a double-team against the Raptors. His three-point play offered a dose of redemption for a player who is never afraid to fail.

“You’re not going to be perfect. As much as people are going to show more of the bad than the good, I’ve had a lot of good times in the clutch as well,” LaVine said. “I try to make the right play for us to win. And I did that tonight.”

For one night, matters were more positive. The Bulls closed out a game against a good team and received multiple contributions while doing so.

Heck, Boylen even downplayed Paxson’s vote of confidence.

“We understand what we’re trying to do. We’re in step on what we’re asking our guys to do and play like and work like and care like,” the coach said. “I’m thankful for it. But I wouldn’t expect anything less.”