Bulls

Bulls lose Rose to injury, game to resurgent Wade and Heat

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Bulls lose Rose to injury, game to resurgent Wade and Heat

Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler shared space on the list of Marquette’s famous basketball alumna, the Eastern Conference All-Star ballot and Monday, the United Center floor.

Wade, the hometown kid who grew up wanting to be a Bull, has the championship resume, Hall-of-Fame credentials and old-man game that has kept him effective even as his body has prevented him from being the freak of nature he once was.

And while Butler is coming — and probably has supplanted Wade as the league’s best shooting guards, the old man still had a few aces up his sleeve as he helped the Miami Heat pull out a win over the Bulls, 89-84, in the last home game the Bulls will play before embarking on a seven-game western road swing that takes place in the next two weeks.

And the health of Derrick Rose has come into question as he exited the game in the first half, tweaking his right hamstring and hurting his lower back, not returning after 13 minutes.

[WATCH: Catch a full replay of tonight's Bulls-Heat game here]

Wade made every play down the stretch while the Bulls desperately searched for someone to start or finish a play in a game that should’ve been deemed winnable. And as Wade drilled a corner jumper, he let his right hand hang a bit as if he was in Salt Lake City in June, much to the chagrin of the United Center crowd, finishing with 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

“I love the matchup, going against one of my Marquette guys,” Wade said. “Just to see his development in his game. I’m a little older now, but you get up for these type of games. He’s one of the smartest defenders. You can’t play with him, you gotta get to your moves.”

While he got to his, the Bulls’ seasonlong pattern of inconsistency and at times jarring miscommunication doomed them as they failed to capitalize on the high of beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on the road.

Butler and Pau Gasol got mixed up on a defensive switch, leaving Chris Bosh open for a jumper with 1:02 left to break an 84-all game, as the two had an exchange headed to the Bulls’ bench.

“On that play, Jimmy tripped,” Gasol said. “When there’s a pick and pop, I take care of the paint and the guards veer back to take care of the shooters, because they’re not post-up players. It’s not a mismatch when we make those switches. He tripped on that play and the switch didn’t happen and Bosh got an open shot.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Yet another example of this team not being able to get on the same page and stay there, even when there’s wins for the taking.

“For whatever reason the ball just stopped and we took tough shots,” Hoiberg said. “We did not do a good job fighting through those times. We didn’t do that. We let a lot of little things bother us and affect us on the floor.”

Heat center Hassan Whiteside and point guard Goran Dragic were out with injury, leaving Wade to do the heavy lifting.

Wade showed the entire YMCA repertoire of moves in his collection — including a baseline fadeaway that hit the side of the backboard before falling in as if he’d planned it — along with other effortless moves and wily plays that helped him to 11 of 21 shooting in 34 minutes.

“I’m a little older now, but you get up for these type of games,” Wade said. “He’s one of the smartest defenders. You can’t play with him, you gotta get to your moves.”

Butler was tasked with guarding Wade while having to face an avalanche of athletic or experienced defenders including Wade but also rookie Justise Winslow and former Bull Luol Deng, illustrating the Bulls’ lack of depth at the swingmen spots.

[ALSO: Dunleavy hoping for February return]

The times Wade was guarded by Tony Snell, he treated the guard as if he didn’t exist, literally driving by him or around him on every occasion.

Without Rose, his shooting was necessary but after not forcing it in the first half, couldn’t get going after halftime, hitting just 5 of 15 for 13 points with six rebounds and four assists.

Even as Aaron Brooks started the second half, the Bulls took a nine-point lead but it was doomed, seemingly from the start as their field-goal shooting plummeted to 40.2 percent after shooting 47 in the first half.

The Heat, with Wade and Chris Bosh charging, tied it at 79 with a corner triple from Deng with 4:25 left. After Snell missed yet another open triple, Wade responded by finding Winslow for a dunk with 2:14 remaining, giving the Heat an 84-82 lead.

Gasol got them going with a double-double in the first quarter, quickly erasing the bad taste from his last home game, a one-point showing against the Golden State Warriors.

He finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds and Nikola Mirotic again scored in double figures, but it was easy to see they didn’t have enough playmakers or creative shot takers down the stretch, leaving a bad taste in their mouths as they say goodbye to their home floor for the foreseeable future. 

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.