Bulls

Early-season NBA filled with plenty of compelling storylines

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USA TODAY

Early-season NBA filled with plenty of compelling storylines

With Chicago sports fans and baseball fans nationwide captivated by the Cubs’ remarkable World Series run, you might have missed some of the early action around the NBA. Here’s a look at my top 10 observations from the opening 3 weeks, with most teams having played about 10 games out of the 82 game marathon.

10. Joel Embiid is legit. After waiting for two seasons to see the No. 3 pick from the 2014 Draft, Philly fans can finally understand why former general manager Sam Hinkie was so excited about landing the 7-foot center from Cameroon. Even though he’s not playing back-to-back games yet - to protect him from re-injury - Embiid is averaging 18 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in just 22 minutes, looking like a young Hakeem Olajuwon. The 22-year-old has range out to the 3-point line, and displays an Olajuwon/Kevin McHale skill set in the low post. If Embiid can stay healthy, the 76ers' rebuilding program finally has a foundation piece.

9. Luke Walton already making an impact in L.A. NBA observers were wondering how the former Golden State assistant coach would fare taking over a total rebuild with the Lakers, but the early returns are encouraging. Not many coaches would have the courage to start a D’Angelo Russell/Nick Young backcourt, but the Lakers' young players are justifying the faith being shown in them, already scoring victories over the Warriors, Rockets and Hawks. Julius Randle is playing the best basketball of his career, while Jordan Clarkson is averaging 15 points a game in a sixth man role. Time will tell if the Lakers can keep up their early pace, but at least they finally have the right man in charge.

8. Don't sleep on Atlanta in the East. Like many other media members who cover the league, I was skeptical about the Hawks signing Atlanta native Dwight Howard to a big-money free agent contract to replace Al Horford, who left for Boston. Horford is the model of consistency, while Howard destroyed team chemistry in Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston. But through the first 10 games, Howard seems revitalized playing in his hometown, and Dennis Schroder is making Hawks fans forget about Jeff Teague. I don’t believe the Hawks have enough firepower to make a serious run at Cleveland, but they still shape up as a top four team in the East with one of the league’s best coaches in Mike Budenholzer.

7. Thibs still has a lot of work to do. Tom Thibodeau’s return to the NBA as head coach and president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves was one of the big offseason stories. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it looks like it will take some time for a young roster to master Thibs’ defensive concepts. Andrew Wiggins exploded for 47 points in a recent game, and Karl-Anthony Towns is already among the top-25 players in the league, but it might take a little while for Thibodeau to get the T-Wolves back in the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if front office boss Thibodeau eventually decides to shake up the roster, most likely with a trade involving inconsistent point guard Ricky Rubio.

6. Trade rumors starting early. Normally, we don’t hear a lot of trade rumors until around Dec. 15, when players who signed free agent contracts in the offseason are eligible to be dealt. But just three weeks into the new season, we’re already hearing big names like DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Klay Thompson being mentioned in possible trades. The Warriors could have some salary cap issues to deal with next summer, but Thompson isn’t going anywhere for now. Similarly, Sacramento plans to give new head coach Dave Joerger some time to figure out how to best utilize a revamped roster. Gay will be a free agent next summer, and there’s a good chance he’s traded before February, but Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive has always been a Cousins fan and is unlikely to approve any deal involving Boogie in the short term.

5. Bulls will never see that first-round pick from the Kings. In case you’ve forgotten, the Kings still owe the Bulls a future first-round pick from the Luol Deng trade back in January 2014. But unless the Kings finish outside of the bottom 10 this season, it converts to a second-round pick in next June’s Draft. If you haven’t watched the Kings this season, they’re a lock for the bottom 10 after signing a bunch of journeymen vets last summer like Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Matt Barnes, Garrett Temple and Anthony Tolliver. The Kings might have a shiny new arena, but the product on the court is still dreadful with little hope of changing anytime soon.

4. McDermott and Mirotic are keys to Bulls' success. After watching the Bulls' first 10 games, it’s pretty clear their starting five of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Robin Lopez, Taj Gibson and Rajon Rondo should be competitive against just about any team in the league. The key to how high the Bulls can finish in the East probably comes down to bench production, specifically the play of young forwards Doug McDermott and Niko Mirotic. When those two players are spacing the floor by knocking down open shots the Bulls are capable of overpowering other teams' second units. But when Doug and Niko are struggling, it puts too big a strain on Butler and Wade to try to carry the offensive load. Getting Michael Carter-Williams back from an early-season knee injury should help the Bulls’ reserve group be even more productive, as will the development of top draft pick Denzel Valentine.

3. Harden and Westbrook shooting (and passing) for history. Former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and James Harden are staging a pretty unique competition. They’re each trying to become the first players since Nate “Tiny” Archibald in 1972-’73 to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists in the same season. Harden has taken over point guard duties under new Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, currently leading the league in assists at 12.6 per game, while also keeping up his scoring average at 30.3. Westbrook is out to prove he can lead his team to the playoffs (and maybe win the MVP award) without Kevin Durant, averaging 32 points and 10 assists. Their personal competition will be fascinating to watch throughout the season.

2. Clippers are a real threat to the Warriors. After Durant signed on with the Warriors this past summer, most NBA experts were ready to hand the 2016-17 championship to Steve Kerr’s group because of the four All-Stars in their starting lineup. But it’s the Clippers stealing the headlines right now, thanks to a 10-1 start. A lot of the names are still the same with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan playing at an All-Star level. Doc Rivers also made some moves to strengthen his bench, stealing long range shooting big man Marreese Speights from the Warriors, while adding productive vets Brandon Bass, Ray Felton and Alan Anderson. It might not be enough to win a seven-game series against the Warriors in late May, but the Clippers have probably passed San Antonio as the second best team in the West.

1. Phil Jackson experiencing some serious buyer's remorse. More than a few eyebrows were raised last summer when Jackson decided to commit $72 million guaranteed over the next four seasons to free agent center Joakim Noah. Noah was coming off the worst season of his career, which ended with a dislocated shoulder in mid-January, and the 31 year old big man had also been sidelined with serious knee and foot injuries in recent years. But Jackson took a leap of faith, hoping Noah could somehow return to the form that made him an All-NBA selection in 2013-’14.

So far, the results are not encouraging. Noah is averaging just 4 points and 8 rebounds in 24 minutes a game, and Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek recently benched him for the entire second half after watching the team manage just 36 points in the opening half against the Mavericks. The Knicks’ offense functioned much more efficiently with a lineup that included Kristaps Porzingis at center, Carmelo Anthony at power forward and Courtney Lee, along with former Bulls Justin Holiday and Derrick Rose on the perimeter. That could be a lineup Hornacek turns to a lot more in the future as the Knicks try to find a way to crack the eight-team playoff field in the East.

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.