Bulls

Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol relishes consistency with Spurs he couldn't find with Bulls

Pau Gasol has played under Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. He’s won championships playing alongside Kobe Bryant, made six All-Star appearances and will likely became the 42nd player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points. Now in San Antonio, the future Hall-of-Famer is getting to be a part of the incomparable Spurs culture that has seen the franchise win at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons.

That model of consistency doesn’t come easy, and it’s the reason Gasol, Popovich and the rest of the Spurs speak openly about still working and improving each day, despite their 18-5 record. And though they had won 13 consecutive road games to begin the year – the second-longest streak in NBA history – and entered the United Center on Thursday having won 13 of their last 14, the tone in the locker room was one of disappointment following their 95-91 loss to the Bulls.

Gasol posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in his return to Chicago after two All-Star campaigns with the Bulls, and he added three assists and a block in 31 minutes. But the Spurs put themselves in an early hole, scoring just 32 points before halftime, and a late rally that cut the Bulls’ lead to just four with 3 minutes to play was still too much to overcome. The loss will merely be a blip on the Spurs’ record by the end of the season – they’ve now lost three straight games in Chicago – as San Antonio is on pace to win 64 games.

Despite the loss, Gasol has noticed a stark difference within the Spurs organization that he couldn’t find in his two seasons with the Bulls.

“It’s all about winning here. It’s all about whatever it takes to win. It’s all about excellence. It’s all about the long run but being consistent and bringing it every single night, and not settling. So, all the right ingredients for a winning formula.”

Gasol alluded to the inconsistencies in Chicago that, without him this season, have crept up again. The Bulls entered Thursday night having lost three straight, and five of six. With their win over the Spurs, their last two victories have come against San Antonio and the defending-champion Cavaliers. Their fives losses in that span? All against teams with records at or below .500 (DEN, LAL, DAL, POR, DET).

Even last year, the Bulls touted a 3-3 record against the Finals participants in Cleveland and Golden State – one of two teams to do that – and were 9-3 against the four teams in the conference finals, which included the Thunder and Raptors. And yet, they were also 9-3 against the teams with the five worst records.

It’s why Gasol wasn’t surprised that the Bulls came to play against the Spurs despite being home underdogs and reeling with three straight losses.

“The Bulls usually get up against good teams. The challenge is getting up against the not-so-good teams and winning those games, and that has also been an issue,” he said. “But we knew that tonight they were going to bring it and they were going to be sharp, and unfortunately we weren’t for the first 24 minutes and that finally cost us a (road) game.”

Fred Hoiberg said as much in his postgame press conference, that "it's about having that collective effort each and every time you take the floor. It can't just be against the top teams in this league. You've got to bring it every night."

Those inconsistencies in Gasol’s final year with the Bulls – not beating teams they should have – resulted in the Bulls missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. And in the offseason the Bulls moved on from both Gasol and Joakim Noah, and traded Derrick Rose to the Knicks.

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Gasol spoke about why the culture in Chicago was a difficult one to adapt to in Hoiberg’s first season with the team.

“There was a coaching change. That was a big change for the team and we did have quite a bit of injuries once again,” he said. We didn’t have much continuity, and it was kind of an adjustment season for the team, trying to understand what the coaching staff wanted the team to do and the coaching staff trying to understand the personnel and the players. So it was a difficult year in that regard. It was hard to get the continuity and the consistency that the team needed to be successful.

Gasol said it was “special” to be back in Chicago, a city he cherished for two years. Upon entering the United Center 90 minutes before tipoff he said hello to Bulls reporters waiting to speak with Popovich before accidentally heading toward the Bulls locker room he had walked into each of the last two seasons.

The Bulls showed a brief highlight reel early in the first quarter welcoming him back, and he was able to compete against a few former teammates he still keeps in touch with, notably Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and fellow Spaniard Nikola Mirotic.

Hoiberg spoke highly of his time with Gasol and the year he’s had in San Antonio, adding that “he’s always a guy for me that I’ll cheer for. Just based on what he did for us last year.”

Gasol’s time in Chicago will be remembered more for what the Bulls didn’t accomplish – Gasol missed two games in their second round series against the Cavaliers in 2014 with a hamstring injury – despite Gasol putting up elite numbers for a well-traveled player in his late 30s. Now in San Antonio he’s averaging career-low numbers – 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds – but has immersed himself in the Spurs’ culture that has led to their annual winning ways.

“He’s a good teammate and he’s caught on pretty quickly to the notion of what we’re doing,” Popvich said of Gasol. “It’s just basketball, so it’s not very difficult for him.”

Bulls mailbag: There's Lauri Markkanen angst, Jim Boylen queries

Bulls mailbag: There's Lauri Markkanen angst, Jim Boylen queries

Q: Do you anticipate Lauri Markkanen being more aggressive and getting out of this funk sooner rather than later? - Jeremy K.

A: His career numbers suggest yes. Markkanen is an extremely talented offensive player. He can be a matchup nightmare. The Bulls are taking some solace in the fact Markkanen has missed plenty of open shots. That is true. And perhaps Markkanen’s now disclosed oblique injury has played a factor as well, though, since he has never landed on the injury report, that can’t be a major issue. Markkanen said it hasn’t affected his play. Plus, his slow start can’t be completely explained away by just those factors.

Markkanen has looked less aggressive. That could be a byproduct of him struggling to adapt to the new offensive system or spending less time in the post. Perhaps a stretch like he authored last February is on the way to make all this a moot point. But until his production nears his career marks---and this is the season it was supposed to be beyond it---such questions will remain. He was more aggressive in the Knicks game but then also committed six turnovers. Stay tuned.

If Lauri Markkanen continues to struggle, would it make sense to let him come off the bench and start Thad Young to get more production from the first unit? - JordynsDad, via Twitter

No chance. Thad Young is a complementary piece signed for the next two to three seasons to provide stability, durability and veteran leadership. Markkanen is a cornerstone for the rebuild. If anything, Markkanen needs to play more, or at least get more shots.

What potential do you see in Markkanen? Future All-Star or great role player? - Lawrence N.

Can the answer be somewhere in between? I had a conversation last season with someone I respect who has been associated with the NBA in some capacity for 30 years. This was during Markkanen’s breakout February. This person said Markkanen would be like Detlef Schrempf. My first reaction was to say, “No way.” Because you associate Schrempf with mostly coming off the bench. Then I looked up Schrempf’s career numbers and was like, “Man. What a solid career.” Dude averaged 13.9 points on 49 percent shooting, including 38 percent from 3-point range, over 16 seasons. Now that said, the Bulls need Markkanen to be an All-Star, or at least close to one, for this rebuild to fully take off towards success.

Can Daniel Gafford take Luke Kornet’s minutes? - Sears Centre Uber, via Twitter

Kornet dropped out of the first-half rotation for one game but then returned and then dropped out of the rotation completely against the Knicks. He has struggled defensively in the Bulls’ aggressive pick-and-roll coverage, so his touted rim protection hasn’t been very noticeable. Worse, he is shooting a career-low 21.7 percent chance from 3-point range. He entered this season at a career 35.8 percent. Gafford has become many fans’ favorite backup quarterback. His strengths of running the floor hard and playing with energy translate no matter the venue. However, Boylen has talked about staying on Gafford in practice about all that he demands from the center position. Boylen needs his center to be a strong communicator on defense. For now, that appears to be holding him back. And a three-man rotation at center is fine by me.

Is the foundation of Jim Boylen’s coaching purely based on analytics rather than on the players’ strengths and weaknesses? Kris Dunn can’t and doesn’t want to shoot 3-pointers, but he’s constantly stationed on the perimeter. PapaBearIII, via Twitter

Boylen is proud of the fact the Bulls lead the league in shots at the rim and have increased their 3-point attempts drastically from last season. Dunn never will be a consistent threat from the latter, but the opportunity for him to be a driver remains. Particularly since he is often paired with Coby White, who has been playing more off the ball. Offensively, I agree that Dunn hasn’t driven the ball as much as he did as a starter. He’s been solid defensively. As for Boylen’s approach, he keeps saying he believes in the math. So this approach is here to stay.

What do you think of the stadium’s new scoreboard? Devin M.

If it’s good enough for Derrick Rose, who noticed it and commented on it at Pistons shootaround when he was in town, it’s good enough for me.

Developing young players is one of the most essential parts of being a good NBA coach. Under Tom Thibodeau, Derrick Rose developed into an MVP, Luol Deng into an All-Star, Joakim Noah into a Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star and Jimmy Butler into Most Improved Player. All of the current young Bulls players, aside from Wendell Carter Jr., have badly regressed under Jim Boylen so far this season. Zach LaVine isn’t as efficient this season as he was last year, Lauri Markkanen looks like a shell of himself and Kris Dunn is practically unplayable on offense playing with a second unit. How is this lack of development being overlooked by the Bulls front office? - Dan B.

You’re assuming it is. You’re also assuming this all falls on the coaching staff. I somewhat agree with your overall premise, that only Carter has shown dramatic signs of growth through 10 games. I think LaVine’s decision-making and defense are coming on and I think Coby White has shown signs of growth beyond his scoring. A couple caveats: It’s early. And Boylen keeps citing players shooting well below their career averages on good shots. So he expects shots to fall and players like LaVine and Markkanen to play better.

What’s the vibe in the locker room right now with Bulls being at 4-7? - Hamza B.

Overall, it seems fine. There’s frustration, to be sure. But for now, guys are saying and doing the right things.

My questions are regarding the coaching. You point out almost every week that the bond between Boylen/Gar-Pax/Reinsdorf is as strong as you've seen, how committed they are, etc....but why? What has Boylen done to get such treatment? I'm not necessarily calling for his head, but many pro coaches have been fired for a lot less. Boylen seems like a solid assistant but why all this monumental trust? He hasn't won anything, and the team is somewhat healthy and they're still not winning, and aren't showing the improvement that they should've, since they added veterans, had a full training camp, etc. It'd be different if he had a track record other than being an assistant (and sure, see: Tom Thibodeau...but where's he now); maybe Doug Collins or D'Antoni or somebody, but I don't get it. And 2) I wasn't really a Hoiberg fan but I fear we're gonna end up back where we started, and have to wipe away both the Hoiberg/Boylen eras. I really thought they were showing signs of being a decent team under Hoiberg and couldn't understand why he didn't get the remainder of last season. The injuries made the season a waste and that wasn't his fault. Can't say I believe we would've won more games but it felt like his connection to the team was better, as well as style of play. Boylen swung from slow-it-down gritball to...now he's got the space/pace thing figured out, in less than a year? Again I don't get it, and despite what you've reported about how much he cares for his players etc. can't help but wonder how long before they tune him out. But I wanna see some wins! Totally happy with a scrappy, near .500 team. Shouldn't be out of the question for this bunch. Elijah H.

And it still could happen. I get the frustration. And skepticism for Boylen remains no doubt for some fans. If you’re aware of the bond between Boylen and management and ownership that I and others have reported about ad nauseum, then you should be aware of the reasons. They value his communication, collaboration and teaching. They think he’s the right voice to drill fundamentals into a young team. Perhaps more directly, Boylen and Paxson believe in a lot of the same philosophies---mental and physical toughness, hard-playing, fundamental basketball.

As for Hoiberg, he’d agree with you that he didn’t get a fair shot last season. Also reported then ad nauseum: Paxson believed the issues went beyond won-loss record and more to a lack of accountability and a lax approach in the locker room. I personally think Hoiberg would’ve loved to coach this current roster.

Lastly, here’s a news flash: Plenty of losing teams tune out coaches. At 4-7, it isn’t currently happening. It’s early.

Not sure if you've received this in the past, but something I have thought about over the last couple of years: Since the NBA switched to Nike last season and allowed teams to choose the color jersey they wear at home, why have the Bulls elected to go with red the vast majority of the time? Given the equity and history of the Bulls white home uniforms since MJ, it seems odd to make that shift. Wondering if anyone in the organization has given rationale, or maybe I am the only person it bothers?  Just seems weird to make that switch with such iconic uniforms.  – A.J. Schaub

I’m gonna go with the guess that red jerseys sell more? Surely marketing has something to do with it. Whatever the case, your question prompted me to discover a website I didn’t know existed. You can see which jersey each team is wearing for each game. Who knew? http://lockervision.nba.com/

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you soon.

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Ready for a track meet?: Bulls-Bucks a matchup of two of the league's best transition attacks

Ready for a track meet?: Bulls-Bucks a matchup of two of the league's best transition attacks

The Bulls got a much-needed 120-102 win over the New York Knicks on Tuesday behind a historic night from rookie Coby White, some excellent defense from Kris Dunn, and the rest team finally catching fire from deep. Coming off of the win over New York, things ramp up in difficulty in a big way as the Bulls will be taking on a Bucks squad that — even without All-Star Khris Middleton — will present quite a large challenge. 

Here are three things to look for in Thursday's Bulls-Bucks matchup:

Bring your track shoes: Two of the best transition offenses in the league face-off

Bulls head coach Jim Boylen talked earlier this week about being encouraged by the Bulls' shot profile, saying, "We're getting the shots that we want." Boylen and Co.'s new-look offense is heavily focused on getting shots at the rim and from the 3-point line, and both of these facets are aided by their transition offense. Chicago is leading the league with 35.3 restricted area field goal attempts per game and they are 12th in 3-point attempts per game (34.5).

Over the last five games, the Bulls are second in the league with 18 points per game in transition. It will be very important from the onset of Thursday's game for the Bulls to push the rock in transition early and often, as they will need to do their best to wear down a Bucks team that currently ranks second in the league in opponents' field goal percentage in the restricted area (54.3%).

Both the Bulls (8th, 1.14 PPP) and the Bucks (9th, 1.12 PPP) are in the top 10 in the league in points per possession in transition, so slowing down the opponent will be the theme of Thursday's matchup.

On the defensive side of things, the Bulls are trending in the right direction. Over the last five games, the Bulls have the fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA at 102.3. But on the season overall, Chicago is still in the bottom 10 in defended field goal percentage (i.e. shots where the Bulls have a player contesting the shot).

This highlights the fact that the Bulls may need to get a tad more aggressive with their shot contests as a unit. 

Getting back in transition and contesting aggressively will be key to slowing down the Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. As Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul learned on Sunday, one man being in the way of "The Greek Freak" does little to deter him from attacking the rim with aplomb.

In the above clip, notice that the Bucks go from defensive rebound to outlet pass to a Giannis layup with a mere four seconds coming off of the shot clock. The Bucks will put this type of pressure on the Bulls transition D through the game, so this will be a great litmus test to see the attention to detail for the Bulls, as Milwaukee has been off since Sunday.

Defensively, the Bulls have started off most games strong only to fade away down the stretch.

So while it would obviously be encouraging if the Bulls play the Bucks tough in the first half, their second-half defense is going to have to show up if they hope to keep this matchup from getting ugly. 

Giannis, the marksman?

The nickname "Giannis The Marksman" is going to catch on anytime soon—or ever for that matter—but the moniker looks like it could catch on one day, especially if the reigning NBA MVP continues to shoot the 3 ball as he has through the first six games of November. Below is Antetokounmpo's shot chart 10 games into the 2019-20 season, which shows off his new confidence in his 3-point shot (30.8% from 3-point range through 10 games).

This month Antetokounmpo is averaging 33.7 points, which includes shooting 40% from 3-point range on 4.2 attempts per game. 

Antetokounmpo is looking quite comfortable shooting the ball from the perimeter on the season overall. His career-high 3.9 attempts per game from 3-point range showcase that — unlike Ben Simmons up in Philadelphia — he will look to punish defenses from deep if they continue to play off him and go under screens, 

With Otto Porter Jr. still out nursing his foot injury, the onus will be on Chandler Hutchison and Thaddeus Young — with Young being one of the better "Giannis stoppers" in the league — to keep Antetokounmpo from getting clear driving lanes to the rim, while simultaneously trying to get up (at least) a half-decent contest on his jump shots.

Crunch-time conundrum

The Bulls have played the 11th most clutch time minutes in the league and have a +4.8 net rating in the clutch, good for 14th in the association.

In the clutch, the Bulls are posting a 111.1 defensive rating, which reflects their struggles to close out games pretty well and highlights why Boylen has often gone with Young down the stretch over Markkkanen.

On the flip side, Chicago is posting a 115.9 offensive rating in the clutch (with a 59.7% true shooting percentage) which even with the obviously small sample size, illustrates the immense offensive potential of this young Bulls squad.

For the Bulls to start to convert that offensive potential into consistent and great production, they will need to come to an agreement on a clear and concise crunch-time offense. Their great offensive rating in the clutch so far this season was likely inflated by Coby White's 23-point fourth quarter in Tuesday night's win.

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The Bulls know that they obviously can't count on that type of incredible production from the rookie guard on a regular basis but the fact that he and Zach LaVine were the only Bulls to make more than one shot from the field on Tuesday says quite a bit about the state of the Bulls' crunch-time offense. Like everything else on O this season, it heavily based around the perimeter shooting and when those shots aren't  falling, it's not clear who is going to be the player to get to the charity stripe and get the Bulls some easy baskets.

In the fourth quarter scoring barrage that sealed the game for Chicago on Tuesday, White and LaVine combined for 14 of the Bulls 22 shot attempts but neither one of them got to the free throw line a single time in that final frame.

That will get you a win against the lowly Knicks, but the Bulls will have to up the aggression on both sides of the floor, especially down the stretch, to take down the Antetounkmpo-led Bucks.

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