Bulls

Bulls' Jimmy Butler setting tone in camp with his play and his mouth

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Bulls' Jimmy Butler setting tone in camp with his play and his mouth

Wake-up calls at 5 a.m. for summer workouts in San Diego forged camaraderie between Jimmy Butler and the visiting Doug McDermott, but it didn’t stop Butler from incessantly trash talking his teammate in Bulls practice, leading McDermott to believe Butler forgot whose side he’s ultimately on.

“It didn't feel like he was on our team for a second,” McDermott said. “Talking crap to all of us. That's just kind of the way he is. He has a completely different mindset. He really wants to win. It's been really obvious the first few days of practice.”

Whether it’s showing little to no mercy on poor McDermott on the defensive end or showing off even more improvement on the offensive end, Butler is making good on his word that his new maximum contract would only make him work harder as opposed to relaxing.

“I knew Jimmy was good (before). But he’s been awesome,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s so strong right now. He’s in great shape and another guy where the amount of work he put in in the summer is paying off.

“He’s probably in the best shape of anybody out here. He’s all over the floor, offensively, defensively. There aren’t a lot of two-way players in this league but he’s definitely one of them.”

[MORE BULLS: Joakim Noah wants another shot at pairing with Pau Gasol]

Who knows where Butler ranks in the hierarchy of two-way swingmen in the class of a healthy Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, but it’s clear he’s not resting on the laurels of having two significant jumps in his game in the first four years.

It wasn’t long ago when the Bulls balked at giving Butler a nearly $50 million deal in camp this time last year, unsure of whether he could improve enough as a consistent offensive weapon.

But now, Hoiberg is openly stating he believes Butler has yet another leap to go, after last season’s leap that netted him an All-Star appearance and discussion among the league’s top 20 players.

“I think so. In talking to him, he wants to add to his game,” Hoiberg said. “Every offseason, he’s in here working on stepbacks, one-footers, runners. His 3-ball looks great right now. He’s such a well-rounded player. And when you have a guy who has that type of drive and desire and work ethic, he’ll continue to get better.” 

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Being impressive in the first couple days of training camp certainly differs from doing it when the lights are brightest, but Butler has made quite the impression on his coach and teammates.

McDermott came to San Diego to train with Butler for a couple weeks, under the watchful eye of Butler’s trainer, Chris Johnson. It appears to be another step in the maturation of a player now validated but not spoiled by stardom, becoming more vocal on an everyday basis.

“I know going into this camp he really talked a lot about that,” Hoiberg said. “With the amount of veteran guys we have, we should be able to lead by committee with this group. That’s something he wanted to do going into this camp.”

And even if it’s playing point guard, as Butler is wont to do, Hoiberg won’t set any limits on the player who came into camp clearly on a mission.

“He has the confidence,” Hoiberg said. “There’s no doubt about that. You can put him anywhere on the floor and he can make plays, make baskets. So, yeah, if he’s got that feeling, we do as well.”

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.