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How 2015 Game 6 beatdown by Cavaliers foreshadowed disastrous Bulls season

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How 2015 Game 6 beatdown by Cavaliers foreshadowed disastrous Bulls season

The long, angered and confused faces worn on the Bulls’ faces as they sat on the bench in the waning moments of Thursday’s disappointing but predictable loss to the New York Knicks have been seen plenty of times before.

Yes, this season, along with the look of bewilderment Fred Hoiberg has worn while trying to explain what he considers the unexplainable—how a team he believed to be disciplined shows no signs of it.

But also, it was worn on May 14, 2015, a night that should’ve spawned the Bulls’ best effort but produced a jarring one, one that started a series of events which has led to where the franchise, the coaching staff and locker room find themselves in today—on the outside looking in the playoff party, as a hungrier and more unified Detroit Pistons team makes a more definitive push toward a postseason berth while the Bulls flail away aimlessly, unable to produce anything more than a moment of peace, let alone optimism.

One can go back to May 14 for Game 6 against the Cleveland Cavaliers last spring to produce the genesis of what you’ve seen for the better part of 70 games this year. On a night where they could’ve come closest to making LeBron James sweat in the postseason by forcing a winner-take-all Game 7, they produced an embarrassing effort as the Cavaliers seemed to give the Bulls chance after chance to send them staggering to the corner with body shots.

[MORE BULLS: Hoiberg 'not going to sugarcoat' Bulls' loss to Knicks]

The Bulls were punchless that evening, those old flicks had no snap to them and it turned out they were more bark than bite. It was because that collection of players was punch drunk—like an old contender who looked formidable but it was only in appearance once the bell rang.

Taj Gibson said it best when he pointedly stated opposing teams look forward to playing the Bulls, and that the Bulls are losing to “trash teams”, a statement one can take some form of exception to considering the Bulls’ record is right at the doorstep of mediocrity.

When fans see the Bulls, they see what the Bulls used to be—a tough, rugged team that would push and push until you broke, a squad that had enough competitive character to push through injuries to the best players and give the best teams their best shot.

Hoiberg, upon taking over for Tom Thibodeau, thought he was taking over a team that had its best punch left to give, apparently bolstered by reinforcements and a new style that supposedly was the new wave of where the NBA was going.

But he was mistaken on a number of levels, and perhaps overestimated the positive affect he could have on a veteran team.

Turns out this team was far more fragile than anyone expected or wanted to believe, and with the bully on the block no longer being feared by even the lowest of the low, all have been exposed.

“It’s simple: We have no discipline,” Pau Gasol said in a visitor’s locker room in Los Angeles in early February, after a blowout loss to the L.A. Clippers on a national TV stage.

The Bulls were six games over .500 that day, which could be termed as the “good-old days” considering they would be firmly entrenched had they just held serve from that embarrassing day—which was preceded by several befuddling losses and followed by…more misery to come.

Since that day, there’s been the Minnesota Timberwolves completing a season sweep with a win over the Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks using them as target practice, the Miami Heat doing the same but with more force and even Friday’s opponent, the Orlando Magic, putting a clown suit on the Bulls.

That’s not to mention the games where the Bulls can’t close because getting defensive stops seems to be offensive, and the belief that outscoring teams is the way to go.

Even if the Bulls overtake the Pistons for a playoff berth, or the Indiana Pacers falter, who honestly believes a Bulls team would be a tough out—especially as Jimmy Butler continues to show mind over matter doesn’t matter when your body is telling you to sit?

Well, outside of the Toronto Raptors, the Bulls aren’t feared, nor should they be.

(Remember when Hoiberg was worried about his offense not catching on early in the season while the defense won games? Ahh, the good old days!)

[BULLS PGL: Clear lack of leadership in Bulls' locker room]

The injuries have certainly hastened the process, but they’ve often been rudderless many nights, unable to galvanize around one player because they don’t have that one player experienced enough in the ways of leadership or a coach who’s had enough games on the sidelines to read a locker room he didn’t expect to walk into.

But this isn’t all on Hoiberg, as that aforementioned day occurred under Thibodeau, the coach who’s now entering martyrdom with the state of affairs of his former team making him look like the Wizards of Oz.

But the roster itself was packaged and presented as something it could never achieve, at least in present form.

(Remember when the biggest question was whether Derrick Rose could stay on the floor and if he could be what the team needs? Turns out he’s held up his end of the bargain, eh? The good old days)

It was too much to ask of this constructed roster, full of “what ifs” and other question marks that never seemed realistic. Changes need to be made, philosophically, personnel wise and the narratives need to disappear before they come out of the closet.

Whether you believe the higher-ups when they said some time ago they never claimed this was a championship-caliber team or not, it’s irrelevant at this point. Tacitly, it was in the air, and the hope was they could be proven right, and all the naysayers would have to eat crow.

But even they didn’t know this team had nothing emotionally to give, that all the blood had been spilled and life had been sucked out of them en masse.

There comes a moment in a playoff series where both teams realize who the better squad is, and the remainder of the games usually bear that out. In the regular season, there’s games, instances where players look around in the locker room at each other realizing they aren’t what they’re depicted.

[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]

They aren’t what they’re projected.

They aren’t what they used to be.

Perhaps our expectations were too high.

Maybe theirs weren’t high enough.

But with 11 games left, expecting a team that has put together Jekyll and Hyde efforts from October to suddenly turn it on is too much to ask, even if it miraculously happens.

At least the façade has been removed, and all parties can move forward with a clear directive because the 82-game season definitely showed everybody what May 14, 2015 should’ve taught everyone.

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.