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Playing '20 Questions' with the Bulls, NBA season

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Playing '20 Questions' with the Bulls, NBA season

LOS ANGELESWith the NBA regular season officially starting Sundaythe Bulls face the Lakers at the Staples Center on Christmas afternoonthere are plenty of questions waiting to be answered; even more than usual after the lockout-prolonged offseason. If all the answers were available, the games wouldnt need to be played, but here are educated guesses about 20 of them:

1) Will the Bulls beat the Lakers on Sunday?

Yes. With no Andrew Bynum, an ailing Kobe Bryant and Mike Brown in his first game as Lakers head coach replacing Phil Jackson, the Lakers just wont be ready to deal with the focused Bulls. Bryant will come to play, as he always does, but as savvy fans have witnessed over the years, when hes gutting out injuries and trying to will his team to victory (not to mention dealing with personal issues and frustration over the Lamar Odom trade), the results arent always pretty. Without the size advantage theyve enjoyed in the past (Pau Gasol alone isnt nearly as intimidating without Odom and Bynum alongside him), inexperienced players and newcomers still trying to fit in and Derrick Rose matched up with aging players association president and veteran point guard Derek Fisher, it might not even be close.

2) Are the Clippers the best team in Los Angeles now?

Most talented, without a doubt. Best, not just yet. As much as the aging Lakers are seemingly reeling after the trade of Odom for virtually nothingnot to mention Bryants injury and Bynums five-game suspension (reduced from four by the NBA) to start the season theyre still the Lakers. While Mike Brown caught a lot of flack for not winning a title in Cleveland with LeBron James, hes a former Coach of the Year and a year off seems to have rejuvenated him. That said, if the Clippers jell by the middle of the season, its wise not to bet against Chris Paul (especially with his most talented supporting cast ever, led by reigning Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, promising young center DeAndre Jordan and veterans Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler) in the playoffs, no matter what you think about Vinny Del Negros coaching strategy. We should know more after the Bulls get back from their season-opening road trip.
3) What can Rose do to top his MVP season?

Win a championship. Seriously, not to put pressure on the guy, but thats all he and his teammates talk about. The youngest MVP in league history has eyes and ears, so he knows that some critics were skepticalthat he was a deserving winner and even more jumped on that negative bandwagon when the Bulls came up short against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rose is also realistic, so he knows that the answer to shutting them up isnt scoring more points, but winning a title. At the very least, hes focused on taking his team to the next step, which would be advancing to the NBA Finals in the first place.

4) Is Richard Hamilton the Bulls'missing piece?

It might not show up on the stat sheet every night or even in the standings, but yes. The Bulls are no longer a cute story; theyre a legitimate title contender entering the season and theyll get everybodys best shot all year. Thats where Hamilton comes in. Besides deep reserve Brian Scalabrine, Rip is the only Bull with championship experience and hell know how to deal with the pressure that brings. As far as on the court itself, his shooting is what people will focus on, but his solid team defense, speed in transition, underrated playmaking skills and subtle ability to draw attention whether he has the ball or not will open up easy opportunities for the big men, while deflecting attention from Rose and forcing defenses to play Luol Deng honestly.

5) Will Carlos Boozer rebound from his disappointing end to last season?

Maybe. Not the most definitive answer, but if Boozer is judged on his individual statistics, hell never be the player Bulls fans are looking for (did Tom Thibodeau put some Kool-Aid in the Christmas eggnog?), as his numbers last year were pretty similar to what he did annually in Utah (maybe it was Gar Forman who spiked the punch), where he was a two-time All-Star and with Hamilton in town, there will be one more scorer on the court, so its unlikely theyll go up this season. But all will be forgiven if Boozer stays healthy and performs in the playoffs. Face it, hell never be a great defender and it looks like his lift wont return despite losing 20 pounds in the offseason but if he can be a 20-and-10 guy when it counts and the team wins, nobody will care.

6) CanJoakim Noahfurther developon offense?

A little over a year ago, Noah looked like he had turned the corner as a scorer. Coming off an offseason in which he worked out one-on-one with then-new Bulls head coach Thibodeau, Noah was knocking down the occasional elbow jumper, making post moves with confidence, finishing with authority, running the floor on the fast break and of course, getting hustle baskets from offensive rebounds and loose balls, as well as setting up teammates as a playmaker. Then, he got hurt and his offensive game was never the same. Following a summer in which he played for Frances national team, Noah appears to be in better physical condition, but he hasnt seemed to regain his previous form as an offensive threat. However, these arent the days when Noah was heavily relied upon to score 10-15 points a game, so consider it a bonus on the nights he does.

7) Has Deng reached his ceiling?

Now in his eighth professional season, the longest-tenured Bull is no longer a spring chicken. At the same time, he had arguably the best all-around campaign of his career last season, showcasing deeper range on his jumper, playing the third-most minutes per game in the league, remaining healthy for all 82 regular-season contests and embracing a role as a defensive stopper. Deng flourished under Thibodeau and barring injury, he should continue to expand his game as a ballhandler something he worked on during the summer with Great Britains national team and although the numbers might not bear it out, the Sudanese-born small forward continues to make subtle improvements.

8) What's next for Thibodeau?

If the Bulls front office is paying attention, a contract extension, coupled with a fat raise. One of the leagues lowest-paid coaches, Thibodeau reportedly turned down more money in New Orleans and New Jersey to come to the Windy City, then won a league-high 62 games, led the team to the conference finals and won the NBAs Coach of the Year award, all in his first season as a professional head coach. The organization has a reputation for undervaluing coaches, but if the team continues its trajectory, they cant afford for another team to swoop him up if Mike DAntoni, in the final year of his contract, doesnt get it done this season, the Knicks, one of Thibodeaus former employers, are rumored to be interested in bringing him back to the East Coast after this final year of his contract, though he has an option for a third season. Plus, Rose would be devastated if Thibodeau moved on; that alone is reason to lock him up for the foreseeable future.

9) Who's the Bull most likely to get traded?

Unfortunately, fan favorite Taj Gibson. Unless the Bulls are willing to make a financial commitment to the third-year backup power forward and its quite possible they will team management knows they might get outbid for him when he hits free agency, meaning it could be more prudent to deal him and gain another asset than to lose him outright. Gibson is regarded highly around the league and with Nikola Mirotic set to eventually cross the waters, they could eventually decide to cut their losses, especially if injuries hit or they believe additional depth is needed at another position. At the same time, Gibson certainly upgrades the teams defense and athleticism when hes in the game and with Boozers injury history, the Bulls could very well exercise caution.

10) Can the Bench Mob replicate what they did last season?

Hopefully, for the sake of Bulls fans. Chicagos second unit bailed them out of a countless number of games last season, either rallying the team from behind or protecting and extending leads with their unique brand of pressure defense, transition offense and a group with individual parts capable of dominating stretches every game. Backup point guard C.J. Watson provided instant offense, swingman Ronnie Brewer gave the team slashing, fellow wing Kyle Korver is one of the leagues best marksmen, Gibson contributed energy and athleticism at power forward, while center Omer Asik was a major surprise as an effective presence in the paint in his rookie season.

With the exception of Korver, all of them are strong individual defenders and as a group, they were downright excellent, as Gibson and Asik, in particular, were outstanding deterrents to opposing scorers. The secretive Thibodeau hasnt revealed how hell use his rotation this season, but with the departure of Keith Bogans, theres no longer a shooting guard playing only token minutes, meaning either Brewer or Korver (or both) will probably see a decline in minutes. Still, with the shortened season and the injury histories of both Boozer and Noah, look for the reserves to play a major factor in a campaign where team depth is extremely important.
11) Will Jimmy Butler get significant playing time this season?

Probably not early in the season, but word from both management and the coaching staff is that if he continues to progress, he could earn some minutes down the road due to the desire to rest the regulars during the condensed season, as well as his defensive effort and better-than-advertised outside jumper. Butler was obviously very impressive in the preseason opener, in both performance and demeanor, but theres a big difference from exhibition games to the regular season. Still, if he was on a team with less depth and expectations, it wouldnt be a shock to see him crack the rotation. But the Bulls arent that team. The organization remains high on him if Brewer or Korver (or both) dont return after next season, Butler could move into a more prominent role, serving as Dengs primary backup but that wont necessarily translate into court action for the rookie.

12) What else do the Bulls need to add?

A veteran backup big man, with toughness and a defensive mentality, preferably one who can knock down a 15-foot jumper basically Kurt Thomas. But since that isnt happening, a big body capable of learning the system, defending the paint with some competence (or committing six hard fouls) and staying ready to play extended minutes at a moments notice will do. The list of available players fitting that description isnt impressive, so look for the Bulls to be patient, until its absolutely necessary.

13) What will the Central Division race look like?

Its likely that the Bulls run away with the Central again, but it might not be as easy as it was last season, when they only lost one division game. The team that beat them, the Pacers, made some under-the-radar improvements, acquiring Indianapolis native George Hill in a draft-day trade with the Spurs, then signing veteran power forward David West as a free agent. If West can recover from his ACL injury, hell take pressure off go-to scorer Danny Granger, while adding toughness and veteran experience, while Hill also knows what its like to be on a winner from his San Antonio days.

However, the division is extremely shallow, as both Detroit and Cleveland are going through various stages of the rebuilding process though both have some promising young pieces, if not yet a matching puzzle and Milwaukees addition of Stephen Jackson looks like it could already be off to a rocky start. On top of Jackson fitting into Scott Skiles system, the hopes of the Bucks, a major disappointment last season, hinge on center Andrew Bogut returning to his pre-elbow injury form and point guard Brandon Jennings development. Thats a lot of ifs, and with Indiana seemingly a year away from being taken completely seriously, the Bulls should again cruise in the division, especially with Thibodeau reminding them not to take any opponent lightly.

14) Who are the East contenders besides the Bulls and Heat?

Miami. Thats it. Sure, if former Bulls center Tyson Chandlers championship aura and more importantly, defensive effort, rub off on his new teammates, the Knicks could be in contention. But no surefire answer at point guard in Mike DAntonis high-octane offense Toney Douglas is better suited as a backup and Baron Davis mysterious health status doesnt exactly inspire confidence an overall lack of depth and questions of whether All-Star forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire will ever truly mesh make it seem like a reach.

Boston cant quite be counted out just yet after all, they do have three future Hall of Famers and an All-Star point guard but Rajon Rondo cant be happy with top Celtics executive Danny Ainge (who failed to make any significant offseason improvements) trying to trade him and the aging trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen arent getting any younger. So yeah, the Heat.
15) Who will emerge from theWest?

This might seem completely off for most of the season just as it did as late as the first round of the playoffs but the Dallas Mavericks are the team best equipped to make it out of the Western Conference and reach the Finals. Yes, they lost the aforementioned Chandler, but when healthy, Brendan Haywood can do many of the same things. Dallas also lost playoff hero Jose Juan Barea, but gained size, toughness and defense in acquiring Odom and Delonte West, while people have already seemingly forgotten how young, athletic guard Rodrigue Beaubois had the league buzzing as a rookie before missing much of last season due to injury. Vince Carter is no longer capable of a leading role, but he wont need one with the Mavericks and Shawn Marion showed in the Finals that he can still contribute, though hes no longer the high-flying Matrix of his youth.

But dealing for Odom was the cherry on top, adding another versatile player and great passer to a squad with the Methuselah-like Jason Kidd, sixth-man extraordinaire Jason Terry and of course, Dirk Nowitzki. And if things look like theyre not working out prior to the trade deadline, dont be shocked if Mark Cuban, with all of the assets listed and deep pockets, puts in a strong bid to acquire Dwight Howard.

16) Who will win the awards?

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat
Rookie of the Year: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats
Coach of the Year: Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies
Sixth Man of the Year: Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers
Most Improved Player: Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
Scoring: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Rebounding: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Assists: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
17) Who is this season's biggest sleeper team?

Doug Collins Philadelphia 76ersshould be regarded very warily by the Easts so-called power teams this season. The former Bulls head coach started woefully in his first campaign with the Sixers, but turned them around and though they succumbed to the Heat in the first round of the playoffs, they really competed. Bereft of a star, their by-committee approach, defensive mindset, unselfishness on offense and young, interchangeable athletes versatile swingman Andre Iguodala, re-signed reserve forward Thaddeus Young, second-year Chicago native Evan Turner, underrated young point guard Jrue Holiday and instant-offense scorer Lou Williams, to name a few are a problem for any opponent they face. Even scarier, they could be in position to make a trade for a star this season or be a player in free agency the next summer. Meanwhile, dont be shocked if Philadelphia pushes the more-ballyhooed Knicks and Celtics atop the Atlantic Division.

18) Which teams will make the playoffs?

East: Bulls (Central Division champions), Heat (Southeast Division champions), Knicks (Atlantic Division champions), Celtics, 76ers, Pacers, Hawks, Magic

West: Mavericks (Southwest Division champions), Thunder (Northwest Division champions), Lakers (Pacific Division champions), Grizzlies, Clippers, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Rockets

19) What will happen to Howard?

Hell get traded, but not to New Jersey. If the Nets had a chance to acquire Howard, it most likely went down the drain when Brook Lopez got hurt just before the regular season started. Now, Howard will certainly start the season in Orlando, but if the Magic struggle early, general manager Otis Smiths hand will be forced. Most observers believe history will repeat itself and the Lakers are the next team for the leagues best center, but dont count out Dallas as Howards future destination. No, Howard wont end up in Chicago.

20) How will the Bulls finish this season?

Accurate preseason predictions are almost impossible, but is says here that theyll finish with about 45 wins, give or take, and either the first or second seed in the East, which isnt bad at all for this abbreviated season. Look for a lot of parity at the top of the league this year, with four or five teams standing out above the rest, and their coaches periodically resting stars. But after winning 62 games last season, what really matters to the Bulls is the playoffs and specifically, the Heat.

Just a gut feeling, but here goes: Chicago will beat Miami in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, then unseat the defending-champion Mavericks in the Finals to win the franchises first title since 1998.

Of course, the right to change opinions on a weekly basis during the course of the season is reserved.

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

MILWAUKEE — When Thad Young played for the Pacers, this was, according to Young, that team’s scouting report on Lauri Markkanen:

“He’s a guy who can score in different levels of the game. He can shoot the midrange. He can take you off the dribble and do his hanging fade to get his shot off. Or he can step behind the line and tee up some 3s,” Young said. “So we tried to keep him seeing bodies so he wouldn’t take the ball from one side to the other.”

Markkanen’s struggles — and the Bulls’ usage of him — is becoming an almost daily storyline. It certainly dominated Monday’s postgame questioning after the Bulls dropped to 1-18 versus winning teams with a 111-98 loss to the Bucks.

For the second time in three games, Markkanen failed to score in the second half. Seven of his 11 attempts came from 3-point range — all of which he missed. His eight points came from two putbacks and four free throws.

That’s it.

“He missed some shots he normally makes. That happens,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was moving well. He had a couple great cuts to the basket, opportunities at the rim. That’s what we want from him — inside, outside.”

But that’s not happening enough. Fifty-three percent of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been 3-pointers. That’s up 11.5 percent from last season and 4.1 percent from his rookie season.

Too often, Markkanen is being relegated to playing as a stationary, 3-point shooter and not the dynamic, multifaceted scorer for whom Young’s Pacers teams prepared.

“Yeah, I think I can do a lot of good things besides just shoot threes,’’ Markkanen said. “Haven’t really been able to do that lately. Just have to figure out the way I can attack the rim more and get to the free-throw line. I need to figure out my spots.”

This is not meant to fully absolve Markkanen, who has indeed missed open looks consistently this season. For the second straight game, Markkanen joked about how Boylen called a play for him on the first possession, only for Markkanen to turn it over.

Markkanen also again acknowledged the sore left ankle he is playing through as he tries to reach his well documented goal of playing all 82 games. Markkanen called the ankle “not normal but getting there” and also shook off banging knees with Donte DiVincenzo that left him running hobbled for a few possessions.

Markkanen said he has no problem talking to Boylen about his usage and, as is his nature, looked inward.

“We’ve talked about it. He ran some plays for me. I turned it over. He does run some stuff for me. I just have to make the plays,” he said. “If you shoot the ball like [I have], you don’t really deserve touches. Can’t really complain.

“When you’re feeling it and actually making shots, it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going. A lot of our plays I screen and pop.’’

The Bulls tied their franchise record with 48 3-point attempts. Boylen said that was the gameplan since opponents averaged 40 3-point attempts and 17.5 makes in the Bucks’ mere six losses.

Never mind that even if the Bulls hadn’t gone ice cold in the second half to finish with 14 makes that adding 3.5 more makes would’ve still left them on the losing end. The Markkanen problem is bigger than a math problem.

“I think the system complements him to the point where he has a lot of freedom to do different things,” Young said. “If he’s open, he takes a 3. If he’s not, he tries to make a play. He’s doing the best he can, just like me and any other guy on this roster. He has to continue to believe in what we’re doing.”

Markkanen now has nine single-digit scoring games after posting just four last season. He has nine 20-point games after registering 22 last season.

This is a huge season for Markkanen not only because his success is tied into the success of the Bulls’ rebuild but also because he’ll be eligible for an extension of his rookie contract following this season.

“I know he’s going to work. And he cares. He has high character,” Boylen said. “I believe in him. And our team believes in him.”

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Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:

Kris Dunn is unafraid

Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn when set, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.

But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to three (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3%, though that figure is skewed by tonight's performance.

Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.

Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever

That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.

But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.

The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.

"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."

The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.

Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.

A step back for Lauri Markkanen

To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."

All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.

"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."

"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."

The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.

"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.

Another reality check

Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a relatively quiet 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.

"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."

The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.

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