Bulls

NBA Power Rankings: NBA parity evident through 3 weeks

paul-george-nba-power-rankings.png

NBA Power Rankings: NBA parity evident through 3 weeks

Three unofficial weeks are in the books on the NBA's regular season, and the usual suspects head the top of the power rankings. Golden State hasn't lost, Cleveland is rolling and soon will get a 23-year-old All-Star back and Russell Westbrook is doing Russell Westbrook things.

But one glance at the NBA standings and it's clear there's a healthy parity this season. Nineteen of the 30 teams are .500 or better, and 17 teams are between 6-4 and 4-6. On this date last season only 14 teams were at or above .500 and six teams were 3-7 or worse; in 2015 there are only four such teams. They're small differences and may or may not make a difference by season's end, but regardless it shows the talent gap getting a smidgen closer as younger teams begin to see their futures make progress on the court.

On to the power rankings.

Previous power rankings: Preseason | Week 1 | Week 2

Rank (LW) Team
Record Comment
1 (1) (11-0) It's beginning to seem a little less crazy to consider this team flirting with 72 wins. Steph Curry: Still ridiculous.
(2) (8-2) All that offseason talk of LeBron pacing himself? He's averaging 27.0 PPG on 50.5 percent shooting. Third in NBA in FGA.
(3) (7-2)  After a slow two-game start, LaMarcus Aldridge has averaged 17.9 points and 10.4 rebounds in his last seven.
4 (8) (6-4)  Russell Westbrook among point guards: 2nd in points (25.2), 1st in rebounds (8.6), first in assists (10.9), 4th in steals (2.1). Simply incredible.
5 (11) (6-3)  Chris Bosh is balling. The Heat power forward is averaging 19.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.
6 (9) (7-4)  The Raptors are averaging a league-best 30.7 free throw attempts per game. Kyle Lowry has the Toronto offense humming. 
7 (12) (6-3)  Pau Gasol is averaging a double-double (16.0 points, 10.4 rebounds) since his opening-night dud against Cleveland. 
8 (4) (8-4)  Al Horford and Paul Millsap have quietly turned in spectacular seasons early on. If the former stays healthy, Hawks will remain dangerous in the East.
9 (14) (6-3)  Wins over the Clippers and Rockets (and Lakers) this week. Zaza Pachulia and Dwight Powell have played really well inside post-DeAndre fiasco.
10 (16) (6-4)   They've shaken off an 0-3 start and won six of seven. Paul George (24.3/8.8/4.6) has returned with a vengeance.
11 (6)   (6-4)  Difficult week with Chris Paul (groin) in and out of the lineup but they're still the third most efficient offense behind Blake Griffin's MVP-like start.
12 (10)   (4-3)  Tough sledding on a four-game road trip without Rudy Gobert for two nights, but they finished the week with a nice win over the Hawks.
13 (13)   (4-4)  Always scary seeing Bradley Beal on the injury report. Wizards will need him healthy if they want to contend in the East.
14 (5)   (4-6)  Will the real Rockets please stand up? Losses to Brooklyn, Dallas and Denver this week. James Harden can only do so much.
15 (18)   (5-4)  Jae Crowder leads the NBA in steals per game for the Celtics, who have won four of five after a slow start.
16 (7)   (5-5)  They've lost four straight to end their six-game West Coast trip. Awaiting them at home? A Tuesday matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.
17 (21)   (5-4)  Eric Bledsoe averaged 28.0/8.5/6.5 and 2.0 steals in an important 2-0 week for the Suns to get them back over .500.
18 (24)   (5-4)  They've won five of their last seven, and Nicolas Batum is heating up, averaging 23.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in his last three games.
19 (15)   (5-6)  They pick up two wins before facing this upcoming gauntlet: vs. OKC, vs. HOU, @ SA, vs. DAL, @ HOU, vs. ATL. Godspeed.
20 (19)   (5-6)  Evan Fournier is looking like an early candidate for Most Improved Player. He's averaging 18.8 points in 38.0 minutes per game.
21 (22)   (5-6)  His outside shot still isn't falling - though his near-buzzer beater in Charlotte was pure as it gets - but he's still looking like the steal of the 2015 draft class.
22 (17)   (5-5)  Jabari Parker had a few highlight reel dunks in Milwaukee's 2OT win over the Cavs. Milwaukee adds another dimension once he's back to full-speed.
23 (25)   (5-5)  Emmanuel Mudiay is averaging 9.2 assists in the Nuggets' five wins. In their five losses, he's averaging just 3.2 dimes.
24 (26)   (4-7)  Boogie Cousins making a strong case for first team All-NBA honors. Averaging 26.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and is shooting 43.5 percent from deep.
25 (20) (4-7)  They've now lost five straight since a 4-2 start, and the road doesn't get any easier this week (@SA, @HOU, vs. LAC).
26 (23) (4-6)  Rough five-game week in which they went 1-4. Oddly enough, the T-Wolves are 0-5 at home and 4-1 on the road.
27 (28) (1-8)  Jordan Clarkson's continued improvement is helping hide DeAngelo Russell's invisible rookie season. Lakers have to find a way to get him going.
28 (27) (1-9)  Worth mentioning again this week that the Pelicans are the NBA's least efficient defense by a wide margin. Unfathomable with Anthony Davis in the middle.
29 (30) (1-9)  Going toe-to-toe with the Warriors in Golden State is no small feat. Brook Lopez's missed bunny at the buzzer was crushing.
30 (29) (0-10)  They're the last winless team, and the first in NBA history to begin two straight years 0-10. Trust the process, I guess?

Player development still the key in Year 2 of the Bulls rebuild

wendell_carter_media_day_usa_today.png
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

nba_power_rankings.jpg
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.