It's not panic time for the Bulls, but warning signs all around


It's not panic time for the Bulls, but warning signs all around

It’s certainly not the time for the Bulls to panic, even after another home loss that should be deemed inexcusable, which occurred two nights after another inexcusable home loss.

But still, while it’s not time to take a trip down Panic Street, they are nearing the intersection of extreme concern and panic at this point in the season, one which can shouldn’t be called “early” any longer.

One can seek solace in the fact that the Eastern Conference is a tightly-wound group, that the difference from being a top seed to being lottery-bound is two games. In a sense, the season is young with more than three quarters left to determine playoff positioning and such.

But it’s not early to see which teams are developing certain identities, hallmarks in select instances that will let you know which direction they’re trending even before the record bears it out.

“Hell, you either got it or you don’t. Right now we don’t have it,” said Jimmy Butler when asked about a killer instinct, something that hasn’t been present the last two years.

[RELATED: Hoiberg admits Bulls 'have yet to find' killer instinct to close out teams]

The Bulls, unfortunately, are becoming known for patterns that inevitably will be increasingly hard to shake as time goes on. At some point, blown leads will become as much a part of their DNA as their once fortress-like defense.

Or maybe it already has.

Teams, no matter if it’s the San Antonio Spurs or the Philadelphia 76ers, will know no lead is safe, no job too insurmountable on a given night because the Bulls don’t have the mental concentration in them to handle their business over 48 minutes.

“I really don’t know. That’s tough,” Butler said. “I think we got complacent, thinking they were going to lay down. In this league, that never happens.”

One wonders if the Bulls have too much freedom after years of the iron-fisted Tom Thibodeau, and now don’t know what to do with themselves with the new free-flowing offensive system employed by Fred Hoiberg.

“We’re still learning each other,” Taj Gibson said. “We believe in ourselves and Fred. We just have to get some things right.”

It was surprising to see Nikola Mirotic in the game late against Phoenix, as Hoiberg wanted his offense in the game for a two-for-one situation, as well as Mirotic being a +11 overall, second to Tony Snell.

But it backfired a bit when Mirotic had a weak dribble and turnover when Hoiberg began subbing offense for defense and vice-versa, which left Gibson on the bench for the final play when Mirza Teletovic crashed the offensive glass for the winning play.

“(We have to) Want to win games more than anybody else,” Butler said. “You have to have that mentality that no matter what, you continue to build on leads.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

They scored better and defended better last year, though that’s an 82-game sample size, and that was with Mike Dunleavy on the floor, so it’s only worth but so much.

But Wednesday’s opponent, the Boston Celtics, don’t seem to have a better personnel group than the Bulls, yet average over 103 points a game and the Bulls, who expected to be the offensive-minded unit, are second to only the Miami Heat in terms of fewest points scored per game (98.8) amongst the top eight teams in the East.

At a point differential of +0.6, the Bulls have the lowest margin for victory of the top eight, which could change over 24 hours given the jumbled nature of the top 10.

And while their early-season shellacking they took against the Hornets played a part in that statistic, they hit the 76ers with a 23-point win that evened things out. In other words, the Bulls are playing far too many close games so far.

In fact, eight of them have been decided by five points or fewer, and although the Bulls are 6-2 in those games it’s been very rare occasions where they’ve walked away saying they executed down the stretch, particularly on offense.

Last season, the Bulls played just 19 games decided by five points or less and went 12-7, so for all their struggles a year ago, they put teams away better than they’re doing now.

There’s a school of thought that these heartbreaking losses will harden this bunch into learning they can’t take teams or moments for granted.

But didn’t they supposedly learn that lesson in last spring’s playoffs?

SI names Lauri Markkanen a top-five candidate for a breakout season

SI names Lauri Markkanen a top-five candidate for a breakout season

Lauri Markkanen has been making headlines this offseason, mostly for bulking up considerably, and making appearances around Chicago at Nike camps and Jabari Parker’s camp, but as the season nears, his on-the-court exploits are starting to come up as well. On Thursday, Sports Illustrated put Lauri Markkanen on their list of five breakout candidates for the 2018-19 season

SI writer Michael Shapiro had this to say about Markkanen:

Markkanen has all the tools to be a future All-Star, and it looks as though he has the mindset, too. He seemed to take his matchup with Porzingis personally in early January, demanding the ball down the stretch en route to a career-high 33 points in a road victory. The Bulls enter 2018-19 on the outside of the East playoff picture, but Chicago is now home to the NBA’s newest unicorn.

High praise indeed for Markkanen, and well-deserved praise considering that he finished with a usage rate lower with the Bulls than his college stint at Arizona, yet still was able to have an impact on the Bulls. Shapiro mentioned Markkanen’s burgeoning off-the-dribble game as the skill that most stood out, and speaks to the Finnish big man’s All-Star potential. 

While the 21-year-old’s threes lived up to the hype, it was his prowess of the bounce that made the biggest impression. Markkanen showed a deft handle and array of canny fakes in the post, adding a mean streak to boot. The Finnisher lived up to his nickname, unafraid of contact and eager to fight for position in the post. The stereotype of the soft European big man doesn’t apply here.

The numbers back this up. 

Among the Bulls top 10 players in drives per game last season, Markkanen finished second in field percentage (on drives) at 46.1 percent. If that numbers rises, or more likely, Markkanen drives to the basket more, his scoring total will increase. And when it came to finishing around the paint in general, he shot  67.6 percent on shots from zero-to-three feet, making him the third best in that range out of the Bulls top nine rotation players last season. Yet among the same group of players, Markkanen ranked sixth in shot attempts from zero-to-three feet. With the presence of Wendell Carter Jr., and another year of internal growth from Bobby Portis- bigs that can stretch the floor -Markkanen should be the recipient of more plays putting him in a position to score around the basket.

On a roster that will surely give big minutes to Parker, Kris Dunn, Carter, Chandler Hutchison and a working-his-way-back to form Zach LaVine, Markkanen may be surest 3-point shooter on the floor. This means defenses will key in on his outside shot. If players are routinely closing out hard on Markkanen- as they should -this will open up more driving opportunities for the nimble seven-footer. 

The third or fourth season is usually when young players take the leap from good to great, but Markkanen will be playing with the most talented group of teammates he has ever been surrounded with. How he handles playing with this group will go a long way towards establishing what kind of player he will be in the future, specifically if he is an All-Star caliber talent. On the 2018-19 Bulls, someone will have to hover around a 20 percent usage rate, making them a clear third-option, whoever that player is, his last name should not be Markkanen. 

Bulls Talk Podcast: Is Zach LaVine really one of the most over-hyped players in the league?


Bulls Talk Podcast: Is Zach LaVine really one of the most over-hyped players in the league?

Mark Schanowski talks all things hoops with Indianapolis Star Pacers beat writer J.Michael. Is Victor Oladipo ready to take the next step as a legitimate MVP candidate? Can the Pacers challenge the top three teams in the East? Is Zach LaVine really one of the most over-hyped players in the NBA? And, will the signing of Dwight Howard mean disaster in the nation’s capital? Plus, the guys make their predictions for the upcoming season.

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below: