Bulls

Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

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Once again, LeBron James is all alone but it could be enough

Fitting that David Blatt is exposing himself as a less-than-stellar option for an NBA coach, leaving assistants to prevent him from calling timeouts he didn’t have or drawing up plays that has the best player as an inbounds pass.

It’s fitting LeBron James is having to trudge through the Eastern Conference playoffs with one co-star severely hobbled and another out for the entire run with a bad shoulder.

“It’s huge. We didn’t have any timeouts and we didn’t want to get a T,” James said. “That’s why we’re a unit, that’s why we’re a team. Players make mistakes and coaches make mistakes. And we have to cover for one another. (Assistant coach Tyronn) Lue did that by covering for Blatt and I just tried to cover for my guys on the floor.”

Because for all his work to orchestrate which teammates would join him in his return to Cleveland and which guys would be jettisoned out, James again finds himself in a similar position — staring down the barrel of a team with multiple weapons, a re-emerging star of its own and a player determined to make every step for him as grimy and difficult as possible — alone.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

That feeling where the life leaves your body — where muscles turn to mush, where fans’ screams of joy turn to open-mouthed gasps of anguish? James transferred those emotions to the Bulls players and their fans with the stroke of one fadeaway jumper, a game-winner that probably was more debilitating to the Bulls than Friday’s Derrick Rose shot energized the city and franchise.

“I wanted to get a good look. I faked like I wanted to go for the lob and bounced back to the left corner and took a shot I was comfortable taking,” James said. “It’s a huge win for our group, it means more than just a win for our young group. For us to come into a hostile environment was huge.”

If not for the officials review and extra time to draw a play James made sure to scrap from the jump, the player-coach was blunt and truthful about what would’ve happened anyways.

“We would’ve been prepared. I would’ve made sure our guys were in the right position to get a good look,” James said. “In that situation I can get loose and get a good look no matter who’s on me.”

“To be honest the play that was drawn up, I scratched and told coach just give me the ball. And we’re either gonna go into overtime or I’m gonna win it for us.  It’s that simple.”

[MORE: LeBron's own buzzer beater sends series to 2-2 tie]

In the words of in-game performer and Chicago native Kanye West, “no one man should have all that power.”

Of course, James’ talent is unmatched, but the task of trying to get through the East to the Finals for a fifth straight time is starting to wear on him. Larry Bird’s body broke down. Magic Johnson couldn’t do it. Michael Jordan retired (twice) before his body and spirit had a chance to betray him.

James, looking at the supporting cast in Miami compared to what he could put together as de-facto general manager back in Cleveland, made the calculated decision to head back north, seeing a budding all-star in Kyrie Irving, a No. 1 pick in Andrew Wiggins who could be used as leverage, and plenty other pieces that could be used on the floor or as trade bait as opposed to an aging core in Miami led by his buddy Dwyane Wade.

With Irving’s effectiveness a serious question mark and James being unaware if Irving could muster Wade-like performances while playing through pain, he’s right back to where he started—only this time he’s being forced to depend on the likes of the combustible J.R. Smith, who actually helped save James in the fourth quarter with 11 points.

While James is finding out the toughness his teammates possess, an inexperienced team is learning and growing on the job, quite rapidly.

[RELATED: Cavaliers stand behind ailing Kyrie Irving]

“The kid is a warrior,” said James of Irving. “What he’s gone through right now nobody can relate. He’s played 48 minutes on a sore foot the last two games. Just his presence on the floor, no matter if he’s playing on one foot, you have to account for him because he can make shots. It goes a long way, it’s not just about basketball what this kid is doing for our team right now. He’s giving us everything he’s got and that’s all we can ask for.”

The James explosion hasn’t happened, which should give Bulls that same sinking feeling that was in the pit of their stomachs leaving Game 4.  With Jimmy Butler hounding him, he’s shooting just 37.7 percent from the field, which would qualify as his lowest since the 2007 NBA Finals, a four-game sweep from the San Antonio Spurs and the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics, a team whose defense was engineered by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.

“If I get one game where we shoot 50 percent, we might be able to do some things,” James said. “For seven straight years I’e raised it and I take that seriously. I also know that some challenges present different ways of winning. I know my point guard is hobbled and other all-star is out for the season. Shot attempts, efficiency, I want to be efficient but it’s not happening in this series now. I want to do the other things.”

He’s going to the glass, with 11.2 rebounds, and dishing it out to the tune nine assists per game.  So much of the Cavaliers’ fortunes rely in his capable hands and despite his turnovers, offensive fouls and moments where he looks more human than bionic—he’s still the most impactful player in this series.

And if you didn’t, you probably had your mouth wide open, gasping at that fadeaway, because even all alone, you’d still better fear him.

Bulls mailbag: Who is getting traded? Does system fit Lauri Markkanen?

Bulls mailbag: Who is getting traded? Does system fit Lauri Markkanen?

Two weeks remain until the NBA’s trade deadline. Yet, according to a majority of your questions, it’s never too early for speculation.

What are Bulls officials saying about areas of need ahead of the trade deadline? Will they be buyers or sellers? – Will G.

Shockingly, they say very little to reporters about their plans. That said, it doesn’t take a genius, or even a reporter, to ascertain that nobody should be untouchable on this roster in this most disappointing of seasons. Do I think Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen will be traded? No. Should the Bulls listen to any and all offers for those players if they come? Absolutely.

As for being buyers, you need assets to do that. LaVine’s reasonable contract is one, although, as previously stated, I don’t see him being moved. Beyond that, the only asset I see ⁠— the Bulls historically have frowned upon surrendering first-round picks ⁠— is Thaddeus Young. And that’s mostly because he’s a solid veteran who would help any playoff team.

I see Young and Denzel Valentine as the most likely candidates to be moved. Executives from other teams that I talk to think Young will draw interest, particularly since the third year of his deal isn’t fully guaranteed.

Has the front office considered keeping Kris Dunn beyond this season? Or are they still attempting to move him by the deadline? – Ryan B.

I’ve heard no trade discussions involving Dunn since last offseason. Back then, it was well documented how available he was. And the Bulls had talks with the Grizzlies, at least, to move him there.

But, again, when you’re in a position like the Bulls are, you have to listen to any offers. I personally think there’s a good chance Dunn will be back with the Bulls next season. His role acceptance and ability to defend have made him a valuable rotation piece. As a restricted free agent, Dunn’s offers can be matched by the Bulls. It’s their duty to have a sense of what Dunn’s market will be this summer in restricted free agency. As previously written in this feature, I think a three-year, $30-36M deal is feasible for Dunn. And while that sounds like a lot, remember that the salary cap keeps increasing.

What are your trade ideas/wishes for the February deadline that you think the Bulls should make? – Areeb A.

I have no wishes other than to make deadline. As for ideas, this isn’t really original but a Young-for-Maurice Harkless deal makes plenty of sense for both the Bulls and Clippers. The Clippers get another savvy, strong defender for a player who, while valuable, is somewhat redundant with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. And the Bulls get an expiring contract and look at Harkless, who helps with the uncertainty surrounding Otto Porter Jr.

Count me strongly in the camp against trading LaVine. I’ve said this plenty, but people far too often focus on his weaknesses rather than his strengths. He’s an athletic marvel who can score easily and is still growing as a player while on a reasonable contract. His decision-making has improved. Maybe he’s not a No. 1 piece on a championship team. You traded Jimmy Butler for him and if you’re trading him away, you’re looking for a player like him from the draft lottery to replace him.

Like everyone else, I’ve been very disappointed in Lauri Markkanen’s season thus far. He is being criminally misused as a spot-up shooter in Jim Boylen’s vaunted offense that has a “modern” shot profile and emphasizes 3-pointers and layups. This is mentioned frequently by Boylen in press conferences. But it produces points at a level that the Minneapolis Lakers would recognize. Is there any credence to the recent trade rumors on Lauri, and if so, what type of return would we get? I’m sure he’ll immediately flourish if he’s able to escape the dumpster fire that this team has become this season so I wish him the best of luck. -Nick P.

Tell us how you really feel.

I’ve heard no trade rumors surrounding Markkanen. I do think, whether he’s being misused or not, this season raises legitimate questions on whether his ceiling is as high as the Bulls projected. That said, I completely agree he’s not this ineffective and he’d be better served if he’s on the move more. I know coaches have talked to him about cutting forcefully in halfcourt sets and running the wings hard in transition. But, yes, the fact this offense largely eschews midrange looks or postups has affected Markkanen.

Remember that drag step, one-legged fadeaway off the glass that he sank with regularity during his dominant stretch in February last season? It’s getting hard to since he rarely uses it anymore. Over half of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been from beyond the arc. He has certainly missed his share of open looks, which is on him. But he’s much more than a stationary shooter.

Do you think the front office will step in at some point regarding how Boylen is using Markkanen, especially since Lauri is starting to air some frustration with the system? – Jack S.

John Paxson and Boylen talk basically every day. They have a strong working relationship. Paxson also talks to Markkanen and other players regularly. Paxson’s M.O. with all coaches has been to offer input or suggestions if he sees fit but let the coach do the coaching. So this is Boylen’s system, for better or for worse.

I found it telling that Thad Young, at a recent shootaround in Boston, said how his role of staying more on the perimeter and shooting more 3-pointers wasn’t disclosed during the free agency process. At the same shootaround, Boylen went on to say how that was conveyed to Young during those voluntary September workouts and in October training camp. This seems clear that Boylen arrived at this offensive system late, although Chris Fleming’s hire likely started talks towards this style earlier in the offseason.

A lot has been made about Chris Fleming’s offense in Brooklyn. Why hasn’t that translated to Chicago? How Lauri is being handled in this offense is pathetic! – Derek B.

Speaking of . . .

To clarify, it’s not Fleming’s offense — either here or in Brooklyn. He’s an assistant coach with ideas and input and known for his offensive acumen. But the head coach signs off on the systems.

The Bulls wanted to modernize their offense with a more free-flowing, read-and-react system that emphasizes rim and 3-point attempts. Despite languishing in the bottom five for offensive rating all season, Boylen has touted strengths of the team’s shot profile and an establishment of a system. As of this writing, the Bulls rank second in attempts at the rim with 35.6 per game while converting just 56.7 percent. That’s tied for last with the Knicks. And that’s hard to do.

Can you please tell me why Jim Boylen feels it is more appropriate to build a system on both ends of the floor rather than play to his players strengths? I just don't get it, and the more I try and figure it out the more it baffles me. This equal opportunity offense is just stupid. Surely he can see that? – Matt A.

This isn’t meant to defend Boylen but to provide context. You have to remember management’s charges when he took over for Fred Hoiberg: Raise accountability. Build a culture. Establish a style of play.

Boylen waited over two decades for this opportunity. It’s pretty clear, from his strong relationship to the Reinsdorfs to the fact that he had some input on personnel moves this offseason, that he likes pleasing his bosses. So he is trying to establish a style of play with interchangeable parts so that if one player is injured, another can step in and play the same way.

You can call it whatever you want, but Boylen is doing what he believes is best to build championship habits. I personally would have, say, Luke Kornet playing more at the rim as a shotblocker than blitzing way out on the perimeter or more of a pecking order offensively. But I’m also not coach of the Bulls who waited two decades for his chance.

I hear all these comments about giving Lauri more minutes, but am I the only one that sees little if any production from him when he is playing? Missing wide open shots, going weak to the basket, turnovers, overpowered in rebounds. He looks very disinterested the majority of the time, so I, for one, don’t think giving him more minutes is warranted. Just my frustrated take. – Shawn J.

Frustration is allowed. I think everyone, Markkanen included, would agree he hasn’t played to the level of which he is capable. Any discussion of this season-long issue shouldn’t fully absolve Markkanen of his role in his struggles. I just personally think he has shown an ability to play at a higher level than this, so you also have to look at the system.

Will we get a chance to see Coby White actually run the point? Do the Bulls see him as a primary ball handler long term, or as an off-ball scoring threat? I know he’s valuable to us as a bench scorer this season, but I worry about the kind of habits that he’ll develop in such a scoring focused role for an extended period of time. – Patrick S.

The Bulls view him as a 19-year-old lottery pick who is extremely talented and will grow into whatever his proper role is. This is a byproduct of taking young players in the lottery who aren’t fully formed. Yes, he played point guard in his lone season at North Carolina. But that basically consisted of Roy Williams telling him to dribble up the floor as fast as he possibly could and get the best first available shot for him or others.

When, or if, the Bulls shift fully to player development as opposed to this pipe dream of chasing a playoff berth will be a storyline I’ll be monitoring once the trade deadline and All-Star break pass. It certainly wouldn’t hurt playing him more minutes as a pure point if the Bulls reach that full-on development stage. For now, their lack of pigeonholing or limiting him has been the right move for a young, raw talent.

Why was the Shaq Harrison contract guaranteed? How can you not make a single roster move all season? Will they admit the rebuild needs a rebuild? When will Lauri reject contract extension because he wants away from Boylen and Bulls? Does Doug Collins have any hair left after watching this disaster? – Andrew G.

The best part is this dude sent in two other questions that I trimmed because others asked them. Angst, much?

I assume you mean: Why was the non-guaranteed deal of Harrison allowed to become guaranteed past the guaranteed date? Because Boylen likes defense and toughness.

They’ve moved Cristiano Felicio back and forth between the G League. Does that count?

John Paxson answered that question during his round of media interviews “There is no quick fix,” he said. So I’m going with no.

I wrote that last week: The Markkanen extension talks will be more difficult because of Markkanen’s slow start to his season. His camp almost certainly will point to less opportunity, both in terms of touches and minutes. (Not to mention the system has affected Markkanen.) The Bulls, as always, will try to sign him on a team-friendly deal. Expect difficulty. (The Bulls would still own his rights, obviously, even if they fail to reach an extension.)

Doug has his hands full because he also watches his son, Chris, at Northwestern.

Hypothetical seven-game series. Each team has the exact same players, but the coaches are Boylen vs. Floyd. Who wins? – Andy H.

Not sure. But I know I’d like to interview Charles Oakley afterward.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you soon.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen and LaVine lead Bulls over T-Wolves

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen and LaVine lead Bulls over T-Wolves

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, John Sabine, and David Watson react to the Bulls' 117-110 win over the Timberwolves.

0:45: Reaction to Bulls winning 10th game at home this season and good game from Lauri Markkanen

3:50: On Cristiano Felicio having his best game of the season

6:45: Viewer comment on Lauri Markkanen

8:20: On Jim Boylen calling a timeout with five seconds left

10:05: Viewer comment on Lauri’s play and postseason chances

11:15: Viewer comment on Kris Dunn not getting enough credit

13:30: Viewer comment celebrating a win

14:30: Viewer comment why the Bulls should sign Joakim Noah

15:20: Kendall Gill wants to know if Matt Peck saw what Derrick Rose did tonight

16:25: Viewer comment on afraid Lauri Markkanen becomes the Bulls Andrew Wiggins

17:30: Viewer comment on Chandler Hutchison developing his offensive game

19:30: Viewer comments on Felicio and Denzel Valentine

22:05: The Outsiders react to Channel 7’s Mark Giangreco throwing shade at the Bulls Outsiders during an appearance on Waddle and Silvy