After a drama-filled first eight days under the leadership of new head coach Jim Boylen, maybe a trip to Mexico City is exactly what's needed for the 6-22 Bulls.
With all the reports of player unrest, a potential practice boycott and the formation of a players' leadership group, maybe a team dinner in a warm climate is the perfect recipe for reducing tension.
Of course, both the Bulls and Magic will have to adjust to playing at the mile-high altitude in Mexico City Thursday night. The Bulls' players are hoping to get their legs back after last week's training camp-style practices. They played well in the first half against Sacramento on Monday, running out to a 56-45 lead. But the Bulls looked stuck in the mud the rest of the way, getting outscored 63-33 in the 2nd half on the way to a 108-89 loss, their third in four games under Boylen's direction.
The Magic have also struggled lately after getting off to a good start that currently has them in the eighth playoff position in the East. Orlando has dropped seven of its last 10 games, the latest a 101-76 haymaker at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks on Monday.
The Magic are led by free agent to be Nikola Vucevic, who's averaging 20.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Aaron Gordon got the big contract he was looking for as a restricted free agent last summer and he's having a decent season, but not what the front office was hoping for after paying him close to 80 million dollars over the next 4 years.
Former Bulls guard D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant are running the point for Orlando. Augustin has started all 27 games so far and he's been decent, averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 assists, while Grant has chipped in 4 points and 3 assists in just under 20 minutes of action off the bench.
Orlando is also getting solid production from wing players Evan Fournier and Terrance Ross, but much like the Bulls, their future is about the development of recent top 10 picks Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Both have been inconsistent so far, and both need to add strength to be able to deal with all the physical contact in the paint. Unless one or both develop into a top tier post player, the Magic's grand rebuilding plan will fall apart pretty quickly.
Still, Orlando is 12-15 at this point which is about where the Bulls figured to be if they hadn't suffered so many injuries at the start of the season. It will be interesting to see which direction each of these teams go now that the Bulls have everyone back except for Denzel Valentine. Of course, trades could change the composition of both rosters with players like Vucevic, Fournier, Ross, Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez all of potential interest to contending teams.
Here's what it will take for the Bulls to get into the win column on Thursday.
1. Sustained effort. As my former studio partner, the late, great Norm Van Lier used to say, "I need 48 minutes of intensity." The Bulls gave Jim Boylen 24 minutes on Monday, with Zach LaVine throwing down a monstrous hammer dunk to punctuate his 12 point, 5-6 shooting first half effort. Whether it was tired legs from all the extra practice time or poor execution, the Bulls were done in by a turnover-filled second half. They'll need to find a way to avoid the nightmare quarters that have cost them a chance at several wins this season.
2. Limit second-chance points. Orlando has plenty of size with Vucevic, Gordon and Isaac in the starting lineup and Bamba coming off the bench. The Bulls' big men have to focus on boxing out and not allowing the Magic to get multiple shot opportunities. Robin Lopez played well in the first half on Monday, then didn't see the floor after intermission. His size will be important in this game.
3. More from Dunn and Portis. Both players showed encouraging signs in their first game since late October, combining for 14 points and 8 rebounds in the opening half against Sacramento. Best of all, they showed no hesitation in going all out following their rehabs from knee sprains. Dunn should return to the starting lineup soon where his ability to penetrate will lead to easier shots for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Portis can provide instant offense off the bench, something that's been sorely lacking for most of the season.
Don't forget you can watch Thursday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and MyTeams by NBC Sports app. Sticking with the Mexico City theme, we'll be doing the preame show live on location from Harbee Liquor and Tavern in the Pilsen neighborhood, 1345 W. 18th St. If you're going to be in the area, come on out and say hello to Kendall Gill, Will Perdue, Horace Grant and myself. Pregame coverage begins at 8 p.m., with the play-by-play call from Neil Funk and Stacey King at 8:30, followed by Bulls Postgame Live and Bulls Outsiders.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.
The Bulls will play 58 games before All-Star weekend, and to date they’ve played 28. That means we’re just about at the halfway point. The Bulls’ last All-Star was Jimmy Butler in 2017, though there’s a chance they could have another one take the floor on Feb. 17 in Charlotte. Here’s a look at where Zach LaVine’s chances stand in the Eastern Conference midway through the season’s “first half.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee: He’s the frontrunner for league MVP and given his international appeal has a chance to be the top vote-getter in the entire league. He’s an easy selection to make his third consecutive appearance.
Kawhi Leonard, F, Toronto: Oh right, that’s what a healthy Leonard looks like. Past his hamstring injury that cost him an entire year in San Antonio, Leonard is tearing up the East and has the Raptors sitting atop the conference. His recent play has him in the MVP conversation. He’s in.
Kemba Walker, G, Charlotte: He’s having a career year in this, a contract year, averaging 25.8 points without the real help of a second option around him. He’s been outstanding and consistent all year.
Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia: Another year, another step forward. Embiid has once again lifted his game to new heights in his third year, averaging a remarkable 26.3 points and 13.1 rebound per game. Since 2000, only Shaq, Kevin Love and Giannis Antetokounmpo (this year) have reached those numbers.
Jimmy Butler, G, Philadelphia: We thought it’d be in the West, but a midseason trade to Philadelphia will put Butler back on the East All-Star team for a fifth straight year. Even with his baggage he’s one of the league’s best.
The really safe bets
Kyle Lowry, G, Toronto: He’s struggled of late but Lowry is still the league leader in assists and the floor general of a dominant Raptors team. He should make his fifth straight All-Star appearance.
Blake Griffin, F, Detroit: He’d be the frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year if the NBA handed it out. Griffin is averaging career highs in points and 3-pointers and has a chance to be the 11th player ever to average 25-9-5.
Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando: This one may surprise you, but go look at his numbers. He’s averaging 20 and 11 and is one of eight players averaging 1 steal, 1 block and 1 3-pointer per game. He’s also shooting .541/.400/.840. He’s been incredible.
Ben Simmons, G, Philadelphia: Politics might have left him off last year’s team, but don’t expect that this time around. Simmons is unique, efficient and a budding star. He won’t get left off two years in a row.
Andre Drummond, C, Detroit: The Pistons’ big man is on pace to become the first player since Moses Malone in 1983 to average 18 points and 15 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. In fact, only six players have ever done it and they’re all in the Hall of Fame (Abdul-Jabbar, Bellamy, Chamberlain, Lucas, Malone, McAdoo)
Victor Oladipo, G, Indiana: A knee injury has slowed him down some but Oladipo remains one of the best two-way players in the East. His numbers are down slightly from last year’s Most Improved Player campaign but he’s still one of the conference’s best.
Kyrie Irving, G, Boston: It was an ugly start for the C’s point guard but Irving has righted the ship. Since Oct. 30 he’s averaging 24.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 43 percent from deep.
That’s 12 names. Here’s how the prospective All-Stars from the East would look. Yes, there’s a draft and these players will be mixed up, but the pool that the captains pick from will still come from this format.
2 guards: Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler
3 frontcourts: Giannis, Kawhi, Embiid
2 guards reserves: Lowry, Simmons
3 frontcourt reserves: Griffin, Vucevic, Drummond
2 wildcards: Irving, Oladipo
In this author’s opinion, LaVine has work to do. The two Wild Cards, Irving and Oladipo, don’t have flawless resumes this season. There’s certainly an argument that LaVine has had the better season of the three, especially given how much he’s been asked to do for the injury-ridden Bulls.
But he won’t get the seniority edge, and the Bulls’ 6-22 record won’t do him any favors (just ask Devin Booker last year). LaVine has also been in a funk the last month or so, though he’s put together two nice outings and (we think?) is now on the same page with new head coach Jim Boylen.
His counting numbers will decrease naturally with Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn in the fold, but perhaps his efficiency will increase, pushing the Bulls to a handful more wins. That’d give LaVine some notoriety and perhaps push him toward his first All-Star appearance at age 23.