Bulls

Bulls Season Preview: Improvement from Within

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Bulls Season Preview: Improvement from Within

Friday, September 25

Improvement must come from within

Despite a number of trade rumors this past summer linking the Bulls to potential deals for power forwards Carlos Boozer and David Lee, the front office chose to largely stand pat this offseason and look to the star-studded free agent class of 2010 for their next big roster adjustment. So, with Ben Gordon taking his 20 points a game to Detroit, and Luol Deng returning from the stress fracture that cost him the last six weeks of the regular season and the playoffs, are the Bulls better or worse than the team that took Boston to seven games in that thrilling series last spring?

Let's take a look at the team position by position:

Coaching
Vinny Del Negro figures to improve in all areas as he starts his second season as an NBA head coach. The Bulls did not run a lot of creative offensive sets last season with a first- year coach and a rookie point guard, but look for the playbook to be expanded this season. One of the major strengths of this year's team is its versatility. Several players can handle multiple positions, giving Vinny and his staff a number of ways to attack opposing teams. They can go with a big lineup, using John Salmons at the shooting guard position, with Deng, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah up front. Or, they can try to use a speed lineup with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt, and Salmons and Deng at the forward positions. First round draft pick James Johnson is also a versatile player who can handle both forward spots, and fellow first rounder Taj Gibson could see some time at center in certain lineup combinations.

The Bulls have added a "big man" coach this season to help the rookies, and the other frontline players on the roster. Former Bull Sidney Green will work with the talented young guys to try to refine and improve their low post games. And defending the post will be a big priority this season, especially after the way the Bulls were victimized on the offensive boards against some of the elite teams in the league. Having Green available on a regular basis should be a big help to all the big guys.

Former Bulls guard Pete Myers will take on an expanded role this season, replacing the retired Del Harris on the Bulls bench. Pete is very popular with the players, and is a hard worker who will spend extra time before and after practice with anyone who asks. The Bulls also hired former guard Randy Brown to work with the team's backcourt players in his role as a developmental coach. Bottom line, more attention will be paid to individual skill work, and that should pay off throughout the long NBA season.

Centers

This position has been a trouble spot in recent years, but it looks stronger than ever with an improved Joakim Noah and solid veteran Brad Miller penciled in for most of the minutes. Noah spent part of his summer working with coaches at the I.M.G. Academy to improve his jump shot and low-post moves. If Joakim can make himself more of an offensive threat this season, it will prevent other teams from doubling off him. Noah's confidence is high after an excellent playoff series against Boston. He appears to be ready to make major strides in his third NBA season. Miller brought a new dimension to the Bulls offense after he came over in the trade with Sacramento last February. The former Purdue star is an excellent passer out of the high post, and has shooting range out to the three-point line. He hit all kinds of big shots down the stretch and played a huge role in the Game 6 triple OT win over the Celtics. Having Miller around for an entire season should be a major plus for the Bulls. Del Negro went with Miller and Noah together for stretches of the series against Boston, and that could be a look he'll try again when facing some of the taller front lines around the league.

Aaron Gray is back for his third season to provide depth, and seven-footer Jerome James will get a look in camp to see if he's recovered from the Achilles tendon injury that ended his 2008-2009 season. If nothing else, James' expiring contract could come into play as we approach the trading deadline in February.
Forwards

The return of a healthy Luol Deng could be the key to the Bulls season. Deng told me he's been playing fullcourt games with teammates at the Berto Center and he's confident he's fully recovered from that stress fracture to his right leg. If Luol can return to the form that lead everyone to call him a future All-Star following the playoff series win over Miami in 2007, the Bulls will have a well-rounded offense with several go-to options down the stretch. But, if he struggles through another injury-plagued season, the Bulls might not be able to come up with enough frontcourt scoring to take pressure off Derrick Rose and John Salmons. Tyrus Thomas is back to start at power forward and says he's ready for his best season yet after a productive summer workout program. Thomas has frustrated two different coaching staffs with his inconsistency and reluctance to accept constructive criticism, but entering his fourth NBA season, he wants to show the league he's finally ready to reach his potential. Add in the fact Tyrus is playing for a contract this season and you've got the perfect formula for a breakout year.

The Bulls are intrigued by James Johnson's potential. He's a tweener at 6-8, 260 pounds, but he has the quickness and outside shooting ability to give Deng some rest at the small forward spot and he has the size to backup Thomas at the power forward position. Look for Johnson to get more minutes as the season goes on. Taj Gibson might have trouble earning regular playing time. He played in the low post at USC, but doesn't have the strength to bang with centers in the pros. Still his wiry frame reminds me of former Bull and Piston big man John Salley, and he should be able to contribute as a shot-blocker and defensive specialist off the bench.

Guards

This position figures to be the strength of the team, and why not, with Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose back for his second season with an improved jump shot and a burning desire to improve his defense and late-game decision making. Rose trained with the U.S. Olympic developmental team this summer, and spent countless hours in the gym working on his mid-range jumper. If Derrick consistently hits the 18 to 20 foot shot, opposing defenders will have no chance to guard him. He's easily one of the fastest players in the league, and his first step quickness is off the charts. Once he gets in the paint, he has opposing defenses at his mercy, since he can finish with either hand, and is a very willing passer, unselfishly setting up teammates for easy shots. Plus, Rose has been a winner at every level and his desire to be the best reminds me of a young Michael Jordan.

John Salmons moves to the shooting guard position this season to replace Ben Gordon. Salmons averaged 18 points a game after coming over in the trade with Sacramento, and he lit up Boston during the playoffs with his versatile offensive game. Salmons will be able to take smaller guards into the post, and he'll take advantage of Rose's penetration skills to hit open jumpers from everywhere on the floor, including beyond the three-point line. Salmons is coming off his best season as a pro and there's no reason to think he won't be even better this year. He'll also get some minutes at the small forward spot.

Depth won't be a problem with Captain Kirk Hinrich ready for back-up duty at both guard spots. The Bulls weren't quite the same when Hinrich was sidelined with a thumb injury last season, and his steady play was a big asset in the drive for the playoffs. Hinrich can run the team when Rose is resting and he has the ability to score points in bunches with his long range shooting and ability to drive to the basket. The Bulls also brought back Chicago native Jannero Pargo as a free agent. Pargo is capable of running off 10 to 12 points in limited playing time, and he should get plenty of open three-point shots when paired with Rose in the backcourt. Ageless vet Lindsey Hunter is also back to continue his mentoring of Rose while serving as an "unofficial" assistant coach.

Overview

It's hard to say if the Bulls will be able to improve on last year's 41-41 record and 7th place finish in the Eastern Conference. Teams like Washington and Toronto look to be a lot stronger after missing the playoffs last season and Charlotte and Indiana will be more competitive than what we've seen in recent years. The Bulls are counting on improved play from Rose, Noah and Thomas to go along with a healthy Deng, and savvy vets Salmons, Miller and Hinrich. If the coaches' emphasis on improved defensive play comes to fruition, the Bulls could challenge Atlanta and Miami for the 4th seed in the East. But if Deng isn't 100 percent, and the defense is still shaky, the Bulls could find themselves out of the playoffs and that would be a huge blow to their plans of attracting a premiere free agent next summer. It will be exciting to watch what kind of jump Rose makes in year 2, let's just hope he's playing in meaningful games down the stretch.

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

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USA TODAY

Shaquille Harrison is on a defensive hot streak

The Bulls signed guard Shaquille Harrison to provide depth to a rotation that is missing it’s best perimeter defender in Kris Dunn and is lacking playmaking/ball-handling when Zach LaVine gets a rest. So far the results have been positive. Though Harrison hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of promise in terms of being a playmaker, he provides a solid option in the backcourt due to his defensive fundamentals.

Harrison racks up a lot of steals but it is more impressive due to the fact that he is not gambling for steals too often (i.e. getting out of position to try to strip a player you aren’t guarding). He picks up a decent amount of his steals by “digging”, which is a basketball term for applying pressure with a second player without making it a true double-team.

Simple “stunting” (jumping towards an offensive player to mimic pressure) or digging would help the Bulls prevent many of the easy drives to the rim they give up.

A big part of successful NBA defense is making the opposition think you are committing to one thing before executing something else. And the Bulls defense does little to keep the opposition on their toes.

The aggressiveness of Harrison in on- or off-ball defense has serious potential to be contagious to the Chicago roster, and even more so once Dunn returns. We don’t know if we will ever see Hoiberg trot out the Dunn-Harrison pairing or if that duo could do enough to spur on a change--over a big sample size-- in the overall team defense, but the basketball world has definitely started to pick up on his 110 percent effort on the struggling Bulls:


Even when Harrison does things that coaches traditionally don’t like—such as the ol’ ‘Rondo/CP3 reach around swipe’—he makes it work out:

In the above clip he was going over the screen on Celtics guard Brad Wanamaker--the correct play since Wanamaker is a solid shooter--and prevents Felicio from having to contain the guard for too long. A common thing you see from NBA guards in the pick-and-roll is the “snake dribble” that gets them into the paint. Harrison times up this move perfectly, knockling the ball loose as soon as Wanamaker transfers his dribble from his right to left hand.

Part of the reason that Harrison’s gamble in the above play was so great is that fouling can be a good thing, so even if he had fouled Wanamaker, that would’ve been a preferable outcome when compared to Felicio vs a guard or Cam Payne coming over in help defense to contest the 6-foot 8 Daniel Theis.

Harrison’s locked-in defense will certainly be needed as the Bulls head into a three-game slate that features matchups against the Bucks, Raptors and Harrison's former team, the Suns. All three teams have excellent wing scorers in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Devin Booker, and rookie Chandler Hutchison and Jabari Parker can’t be depended on to slow down those players by themselves.

Per Basketball-Reference, the 2018-19 season represents the first time that Harrison has played small forward in his NBA career (6 percent of the time). It will be interesting to see how Hoiberg deploys Harrison against two of the best three offenses in the league, his newfound versatility and consistent effort level should afford him a long-term on the Bulls.

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.

Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.

For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.

LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.

It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).

But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.

But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.

Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.

He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.

But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.

Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.

It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.

Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.