Bulls

Goodwill: Bulls roster at a crossroads, in need of real change

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Goodwill: Bulls roster at a crossroads, in need of real change

On paper, it appears the Bulls are in the midst of a somewhat usual three-game losing streak that occurs in the throes of an 82-game season.

But things could be much more critical, and the front office must consider the crossroads the franchise is in.

Last year is over, and when the Bulls failed to show up for the second half of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference semifinals at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers, their best chance with the core being constructed as such likely went up in smoke with it.

The theories and finger-pointing has been entertaining, if not fruitless in the time since, as the same participants have deflected attention or tacitly stated the issue lies in other directions.

But none of that matters now, as the Bulls are in the one space teams aspire to get to, but hate staying in beyond a short period of time: the no-man’s land of contention.

Good enough to be better than the also-rans, talented enough to be ensured of a playoff spot in an improved Eastern Conference but not good enough to be feared by the true championship contenders.

Many have asked if the Bulls are the scintillating bunch that can win six straight, showing offensive efficiency to Fred Hoiberg’s intended desire or if they’re the seemingly lifeless bunch that doesn’t look very happy to play with each other consistently, and can’t sustain the proper mental concentration over a 48-minute game.

The uncomfortable answer: They’re both, which makes things that much more difficult for Gar Forman and John Paxson leading to the trade deadline a little over a month away.

When you’re good enough to pull off wins against the best of the best, it’s seduces many into believing this momentum can be carried into June because when called upon, championship-style teams have fallen to your talent and continuity.

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But there’s fewer games against the Spurs or the Cavaliers in the regular season and more against the likes of the Wizards or the Pistons or Bucks or Hawks, where consistency is formed.

Where a championship is forged, along with championship habits, which the Bulls don’t appear to have 37 games into the season.

Aside from Jimmy Butler and on occasion, a healthy Derrick Rose, there aren’t any other impact players on the roster, someone who can have a tangible effect on games consistently from a ball-handling position.

And how comfortable will the Bulls be with their swingmen headed into the playoffs being Tony Snell, Doug McDermott and presumably, Mike Dunleavy coming back off a back injury at his age, after the all-star break, which by proxy is after the trade deadline.

The team is built around Rose and Butler being stars for the Bulls to have a chance to overtake Cleveland, as long as LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving don’t get hurt.

James, Love and Irving are three impact players, with Tristan Thompson capable of winning a playoff game of his own with his offensive rebounding, and J.R. Smith capable of doing the same with a hot streak of shooting (although he can give one away, too).

By this count, that’s five potential impact players with your biggest rival, to one and a possible for the Bulls, assuming the two parties actually meet in the conference finals as-is.

And if you’ve played a game of spades, a guarantee of one book doesn’t leave you feeling very confident.

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Which leaves the Bulls in a spot where change is necessary and seems likely to happen, deemed by the contract situations of Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and even Taj Gibson.

Noah will be an unrestricted free agent and Gasol has already told CSNChicago.com a few weeks ago that opting out is likely, even though one would say it’s a near certainty Gasol goes for his last payday approaching at age 36 come July.

Their contracts just so happened to be up at the same time, so it wasn’t some oversight from the front office that the two centers could very well leave Chicago for another city after the season.

And they have acquired a surplus of bigs, particularly with Bobby Portis having earned more minutes with his play—except there aren’t any minutes to have, and one can see him rushing to produce because he knows there’s likely one stint in the game plan for him with things laid out as such.

If they can acquire a decent swingman or at worst a shot creator, maybe Trevor Ariza away from Houston, or even take a chance on the likes of Phoenix's Markieff Morris or even Memphis' Jeff Green, maybe things can tilt a bit toward the Bulls’ favor.

Identifying the need for change is the easy part. Knowing what parts to change is where the curiosity about the remainder of this Bulls season begins.

Winning is fragile, so for all the Bulls’ inconsistencies, there’s a belief the players will get it together and continuity and familiarity will win the day, especially over the course of an 82-game season.

Making personnel changes requires the acknowledgement that the assembled roster isn’t good enough for compete for a title, and that taking a temporary step backward for the greater good is best.

Anybody with a set of eyes can tell this roster isn’t tailor fit to Hoiberg’s preferences, but it likely will be over the next couple of years where the front office brings in players to switch gears of a different kind of roster, and a different kind of philosophy.

The change will likely happen sooner than later, but to what extent?

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

Kris Dunn thinks Zach LaVine could be 'a good defender in this league'

We all know what Zach LaVine is capable of doing on the offensive side of things. But what about his defense?

It's no secret that LaVine has had his fair share of struggles on defense, but Kris Dunn thinks highly of his 23-year-old teammate and what his potential is at the other end.

"On the defensive end I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast.'" Dunn said of LaVine. "And personally, I like to score. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet — maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.

"But I think he's been going a good job on the defensive end. It's not going to be easy. We all got to learn and I think we're all trying."

Improving his defense would obviously be a big step forward for LaVine (and the Bulls), and he knows it. 

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” LaVine said when assessing his preseason. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

LaVine and the Bulls travel to Philadelphia to face the 76ers on Thursday night in their season opener. You can watch Bulls Pre- and Postgame Live on NBC Sports Chicago before and after the game for highlights and analysis.

3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

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3 keys for Bulls in season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers

1. Provide help defense on Joel Embiid early and often. Embiid's high usage rate means going to score regardless, and has even added moves like a step-back jumper that he can go to comfortably from 15-feet. But if you make him see multiple defenders and force him to be unsettled, you can harass him into poor shooting nights like Boston did (Embiid shot 9-for-21 on Tuesday night). There were plays where as soon as Embiid took one or two dribbles, a help defender—even a guard—was flying in to go for block shot opportunities.

Wendell Carter Jr. earned the starting center job with his ahead-of-his-age defensive IQ, but no matter how ahead of the curve he is, stopping Embiid will take a group effort. He can become enamored with the 3-point shot, so the Bulls will have to work together to coax Embiid into taking poor shot attempts. Boston did a great job of denying him deep post position om Tuesday night, cutting off the Sixers' easiest source of offensive production.

Wendell Carter Jr. will get his first big defensive test on Thursday night, as he will have to use his lower body strength to prevent Embiid's low post dominance. We have seen Carter struggle with bigger low post scorers in the preseason, and if the Bulls don't provide help fast, Carter will be in trouble.

If Carter does what many rookies do, and tries to use his hands to stop Embiid from gaining ground, the referees will call a foul quickly, especially since he is a rookie learning the ropes. Helpside defense will be the difference in this game for the Bulls.

2. Get back quickly and build a wall on transition defense. Below is the combined shot chart of Embiid and Ben Simmons from Tuesday night against the Celtics. Notice where the attempts are mostly concentrated. 

Ben Simmons and Embiid like to put pressure on the opposing defense by putting pressure on the front of the basket, and with good reason. They are both dominant finishers in the paint and questionable outside shooters.

In 207-18 Embiid shot 57 percent when 0-3 feet from the basket, Simmons shot a staggering 83 percent in the 0-3 foot range, which is even more impressive when you consider that defenses are gameplanning for his drives. We all know that Simmons will likely never be an even average 3-point shooter, and Embiid shot a dreadful 25 percent from the 3-point line last season despite a career-high 214 attempts. But the above the break 3-point shot is a major part of the Philadelphia offense, with Embiid shooting a much better 30.4 percent on above the break 3-pointers. 

Chicago would be wise to let the Sixers get these shots. 

In transition Simmons (or Markelle Fultz) will run the break with Embiid trailing directly behind them, either looking for a straight-line drive to the basket or an above the break 3-pointer after their forward momentum has been stopped. 

If the Bulls can summon the words of former Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy and form a wall around the restricted area, they can wall off aggressive drives from the Sixers young, dynamic duo. The Bulls need to force this game to be about turnovers and free throw makes, areas in which the Sixers have struggled last season (dead-last in the league in turnovers and 23rd in FT percentage).

3. Force the defense to move side-to-side. Philadelphia had a top-five defensive rating last season, and a big reason for that was that while the Sixers would often switch one through four, they wouldn't switch the five, meaning Embiid was often dropping back on pick-and-roll D and stationing himself near the basket. Staying as close as possibe to the rim is obviously beneficial to Embiid, who has averaged 2 blocks per game for his career. But when you get Philly's aggressive defense to shift, they try to jump passing lanes to ignite their fastbreak, which can lead to plays like this:

The above play contains the exact type of ball-movement and cutting principles that Fred Hoiberg has stressed throughout the preseason.

Zach LaVine is the type of quick, explosive guard that the Sixers can have trouble containing with their personnel, more so that they are depending on Fultz so much. But if the Bulls get bogged down into a bunch of one-on-one play, it will allow Embiid to sit back and be a huge deterrent at the rim.

Carter's ability to stretch the floor—along with Bobby Portis' shooting—should be enough of a threat to keep Embiid occupied, but if not he will not respect their shots, and simply clog up driving lanes.

Handoff plays contained some of Carter's best moments this preseason, so we should expect to see Hoiberg call for lots of plays that get a Bulls guard or wing attacking a backpedaling big.