Bulls

Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note

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Bulls top Pacers again, end preseason on high note

It's just one game, an exhibition at that, but if Tuesday's 93-85 win over the Pacers was any indication, this season's edition of the Bulls won't just be Derrick Rose, his supporting cast and a dominant defense.

On some nights, they'll be a balanced offensive squad that's fun to watch.

Back in the United Center for the first time since losing the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago dispatched last spring's first-round playoff opponent, Indiana, and while it couldn't be called picture-perfect or up to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's impossibly high standards, it was at least a positive sign for the upcoming campaign.

"I thought the whole team played very unselfishly. Everyone made the extra pass," said Thibodeau, whose squad dished out 30 assists in the outing. "We got easy baskets, we got the ball up the floor quickly, we were inside-out, our post guys played very unselfishly--they kicked the ball out--so offensively, I thought it was excellent."

Perhaps learning from their lackluster start in the preseason opener in Indianapolis, the Bulls played high-energy basketball from the outset. Carlos Boozer (24 points, seven rebounds, three assists), in particular, opened the game on a positive note--the power forward made an early impact with his low-post scoring--as did Luol Deng (14 points, seven rebounds), for whom beginning the game with a flourish is a fairly consistent habit.

The team's newest addition, Rip Hamilton (13 points, six assists, four rebounds), gave the home crowd something to look forward to, connecting on his first attempt as a Bull, then sprinting out in transition--ahead of even the speedy Rose (12 points, nine assists, five rebounds), who fed him the ball--for a fast-break layup.

"Probably the first time I ever played with somebody that was faster than me, so trying to keep up with him every time he pushed the ball on the break, it was fun, it was exciting, because I could get so many easy baskets," said Hamilton. "Everything's new. Everything is on the fly. But this is my 13th season and basketball's basketball. Once the ball is thrown up, when you've got good guys on your team like I have here, they helped me through the whole time, so it makes my job a lot easier."

Solid defense, that held the visitors to a paltry 23.8 shooting percentage for the quarter, resulted in a 24-15 Bulls advantage after the opening period.

When backup power forward Taj Gibson picked up three early fouls in the second quarter while guarding Pacers counterpart Tyler Hansbrough (24 points, 13 rebounds), Indiana's primary offensive source, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau re-inserted Boozer, who resumed his productivity as both a scorer and facilitator.

Ronnie Brewer (11 points, four rebounds), despite being relegated again to a reserve role, provided additional firepower, showing he either didn't take the demotion too hard or he didn't mind sacrificing his starting spot for the team's benefit.

Meanwhile, Deng and Pacers go-to scorer Danny Granger (12 points on 4-for-11 shooting) waged their usual small-forward battle--Deng was more efficient, but Granger got hot late in the quarter--and Rose showed his maturity and development by orchestrating Chicago's offense to perfection as a distributor.

"I'm a winner. That's the way that I think of myself. Anything to win and if that's me passing the ball, that's just what it is and being in situations, I know Thibs is going to give me the ball, but I'm not rushing," said Rose, the recipient of a new five-year, 94-million contract extension. "If anything, I love a game like this every night, especially seeing my teammates happy."

Added Thibodeau: "That's what the game was dictating. Derrick can beat you a lot of different ways. He can beat you with scoring, passing, active with his defense, pushing the ball up the floor, getting easy baskets. So, I thought he was real patient. He got into the post one time, so he'll be excited about that, but overall, he played terrific. The way he ran the team, I think his help defensively is vastly improved from last year, so we're encouraged by that."

Following Indiana fighting back from a double-digit deficit when the second unit was in the game, the starters again gave the home team some breathing room, and at the intermission, the Bulls had a 50-42 lead.

Boozer picked up where he left off in the the third quarter, producing points in a variety of fashions--agile post moves, mid-range jumpers and putbacks after offensive boards--and helping the Bulls extend their cushion.

"I think he was very aggressive. In the first game, I thought he played a great floor game. He was posting deep, he passed the ball well, did a lot of good things in that game--he didn't score well and we tend to judge him that way--and this is the way he's been practicing in training camp," explained Thibodeau. "He's done a great job with running the floor and getting deep post-ups. He had good balance, he's in great shape, so I'm not surprised by his play."

Hamilton also showcased his proven scoring ability, while center Joakim Noah (five points, eight rebounds, five blocked shots, three assists)--besides Rose, the only starter not to reach double figures by the time Thibodeau began to mix in his reserves--made his presence felt on the defensive end by either altering or outright denying multiple Pacers' shot attempts.

Hansbrough was again a bright spot for the visitors, as was second-year swingman Paul George (14 points, six rebounds), who flashed his talent and versatility, along with an improved perimeter stroke. This time around, however, Chicago's reserves withstood Indiana's push and took a 78-66 winning margin into the final stanza.

Gibson finally got into an offensive rhythm in the fourth quarter--his most aesthetically-pleasing play was a dunk off a Hamilton behind-the-back pass--and with Brewer continuing to contribute as a scorer, the Bulls maintained their comfortable double-digit lead. Thibodeau inserted his regulars (sans Boozer, who earned a well-deserved break; he'd eventually replace Gibson later, after his understudy fouled out) back into the contest.

Chicago cruised during the game's stretch run and Pacers head coach Frank Vogel eventually waved the white flag, sending in his deep reserves, although the majority of Bulls starters would play out the string.

After concluding a brief, yet undefeated preseason, the Bulls head to Los Angeles for their Christmas Day season opener Sunday against the Lakers.

"For Thibs, he was in a pretty good mood," Boozer said. "But again, it's preseason and the 25th, things will change."

Rationalized Thibodeau: "You can't get carried away with this. This is preseason. David West is a heck of a player and he's working his way back off an injury. That team is an excellent team. They play hard and they play unselfishly, they're very well-coached. We're not going to get too excited about a preseason win.

"Well, there's still a lot of work to be done. I like the attitude of our team. They're serious-minded, they come to work every day, they strive for improvement and we know we have a long way to go. In this type of season, you have to keep grinding. Sometimes the schedule will be going your way, sometimes it won't," he continued. "But the games will keep coming. We really believe that if we defend, rebound and keep our turnovers down, we'll be in position to win. So, those are three things that we want to do every night and we've got to keep working towards that every day."

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.