Wendell Carter

Bulls beat Wizards with 'next man up' mentality, but rotation quandaries persist

Bulls beat Wizards with 'next man up' mentality, but rotation quandaries persist

For the Bulls, winter has come.

It wasn't without warning. The team's gauntlet of a January schedule was discussed ad nauseum in the build up to the new year. Seventeen games, 31 days. Nine opponents with records above .500 (at the time). Wednesday night's 115-106 victory over the Wizards marked the team's eighth of the month, the win just their second.

Only now, the injuries are beginning to pile up. Daniel Gafford went down in the first minute-and-a-half of Wednesday's game with a grotesque thumb injury, and is now set to miss two-to-four weeks with a dislocation. Midway through the fourth, Chandler Hutchison took a hard fall on a dunk attempt and appeared to reinjure the same shoulder that ailed him all through December (Jim Boylen said he'll be re-evaluated tomorrow). Wendell Carter Jr. has been out since Jan. 6 with a badly sprained right ankle, his return still weeks away.

"Next man will step up and we'll continue to play hard and do what we do," Jim Boylen said after the game. "We just gotta go play. So we'll figure it out and we'll do it."

That mantra was in full effect tonight. After Gafford went down, Luke Kornet slid in with the starters and played a game-high 35:40 minutes, netting 10 points to pair with four rebounds and a block. Hutchison played 12 minutes and scored 11 points before exiting. Cristiano Felicio saw his first run of the season.

It must be said that on the final box, the frontcourt rotation reads a little wonky. Kornet's aforementioned 35:40 minutes trumped both Lauri Markkanen (31:11) and Thad Young (20:56), while Young, specifically, posited his second strong performance in a row, scoring 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting (3-for-3 from deep) and snaring eight rebounds off the bench. 

"I'm just hooping. Just trying to continue to go out there and be confident, continue to go out there and just do what I do in the time that I'm getting," Young said. "And just continue to play no matter what. Whatever happens happens."

Perhaps that can be forgiven after a win, especially one that began so adversely. But that distribution will remain something to watch in games which Boylen has time to asses who's available and formulate a gameplan. After this one, he took a 'we'll see' approach when pressed on adjustments that might be necessary in Gafford and possibly Hutchison's absence.

One thing he was firm on, though, is that the style of play won't change.

"You may see some guys that haven't been playing start playing more and you may see us play small," Boylen said. "But we're not gonna change what we do."

If Kornet slides into the starting lineup — and he's currently the presumptive favorite — many will continue to question his ability to hold up in space in the Bulls' aggressive, trapping pick-and-roll coverages. Tonight, at least, the team held up. The Bulls forced the Wizards into 16 turnovers and generated 26 points off those giveaways. Sixteen of those 26 in the second half helped loosen the Bulls up and break open the game.

"We play the way we do, and I'm committed to playing that way, and we've been doing it all year, so it's nothing new, really," Kornet said. On if he's ready for the potential vault to 30 minutes per night: "Yeah, yeah... I play basketball for a living, it's my favorite thing to do, so yeah, absolutely."

Could we see more Lauri Markkanen at the five? A Denzel Valentine re-entry (he was the only of 13 active Bulls not to play tonight)? The rotational puzzle will be made trickier by an unforgiving stretch — the Bulls jet to Philadelphia on Friday, then are back home for Cleveland on Saturday. But Boylen's work is certainly cut out for him. 

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Bulls' rookie Daniel Gafford to miss 2-4 weeks with dislocated thumb

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USA Today

Bulls' rookie Daniel Gafford to miss 2-4 weeks with dislocated thumb

On the one-year anniversary of losing Wendell Carter Jr. to a season-ending thumb injury that required surgery, Bulls rookie Daniel Gafford dislocated his right thumb just 1 minute, 21 seconds after tipoff.

The Bulls in a statement said that Gafford will miss the next two to four weeks. His streak of registering at least one block in 12 straight games ended.

Replays showed a Wizards pass catching Gafford's right hand. The thumb appeared to bend backward. Gafford ran straight off the court and into the locker room.

"The ball came so fast and I deflected it," Gafford said. "I thought it was just a slight jam of my thumb. I looked at my thumb and it was way more than a jam. It kind of caught me off guard. I had to double-take look at it. This is the first time this has happened to me. I saw the tip of my finger was almost hanging. I was a little starstruck. I ain't seen nothing like that before.

"The pain didn't set in until I got back here in the locker room. Once I sat down, it hurt. It wasn't the type of pain you can't bear. I withstood it. The doctors did a great job. They got me back together. They put my my finger back together like a jigsaw puzzle."

Carter again is out, this time with a severely sprained right ankle that will sideline him for four to six weeks. With both Carter and Gafford sidelined, coach Jim Boylen used Luke Kornet initially. He also featured some lineups with Lauri Markkanen at center.

"It's real disappointing," Gafford said, who had been starting for Carter. "As much as I want to be out there, I'm going to have to take this time to recover and make sure I can go back out there and do the things that I've always been able to do. It's taken a toll on me right now."

Bulls' midseason report features more misses than hits in slow start

Bulls' midseason report features more misses than hits in slow start

The Bulls began this season with playoff expectations and arrived at its midway point as one of the league’s biggest underachieving stories.

After Monday’s loss in Boston, their seventh in eight games, they sit 5 1/2 games out of the playoff picture in a there-for-the-taking Eastern Conference. Starters Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. remain out for extended periods. Their defense, something coach Jim Boylen has pointed to as a positive, is trending downward.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s a mess or reflective of a young team, trying to figure things out.

That wasn’t the message back on the team’s media day in September. Then, Boylen and executive vice president John Paxson talked confidently about buy-in during voluntary September workouts and nightly competitiveness that would lead to possible playoff positioning.

Whether this season is viewed by fans as the third season of the rebuild or by Boylen and his staff as the first because they had a training camp to install their preferred philosophies and systems, it has fallen short to this point.

Their midseason record matches what it was in 2017-18, the first season of the rebuild, and is four games better than last season’s mark that came largely without Lauri Markkanen.

Here’s a midseason look at some of the storylines:

Boylen’s performance

He quieted some speculation about his aptitude for the job with a strong offseason in which he visited players to strengthen relationships, had say in acquiring personnel that was widely praised by pundits and pleased his bosses by placing emphasis on defense while modernizing the offense.

Still, the stylistic changes resulted in systems that have come across as extreme. The Bulls employ an aggressive, trapping defense that is predicated on forcing turnovers. It works in that they lead the league, by a wide margin, with causing 17.2 per game.

But it exposes them to allowing drives to the rim and corner 3-pointers, particularly by opponents adept at making multiple reads. They sit 18th in opponents’ field-goal percentage. The current top-10 defensive rating of ninth is a positive.

Offensively, the Bulls have languished in the bottom five all season. Their current offensive rating ranks 28th. The equal opportunity system places an emphasis on 3-pointers and shots at the rim, largely eliminating the midrange and post-up game.

Thad Young, who has fashioned a 12-year career out of scoring in the lane after starting on the right block, said this week that the Bulls didn’t mention this system during his free agency recruiting period, which Boylen essentially confirmed by saying he installed it in September and October.

A 7-7 record in December against an easier schedule brought good vibes and more public acceptance of Boylen’s systems. However, more often than not, players have used some variation of the line “it’s what’s being asked of me” when asked if the systems are putting them in the best position to succeed.

Even in light of Carter’s injury, which places rookie Daniel Gafford and journeyman Luke Kornet in the daunting defensive task of trying to emulate Carter’s mobility and intelligence, Boylen has doubled down. He has pointed to establishing a style of play at both ends as one of his main accomplishments to this season.

This unwavering belief is reflective of Boylen’s coaching philosophy. He waited two decades for his first chance, and he’s committing to doing what he thinks is right to build a foundation, even if it leads to short-term pain.

But it also underscores an oft-repeated criticism of Boylen, that he’s slow to make adjustments. Opponents have routinely run away and hid in the second halves against the Bulls. Just this week, Young talked about the need to finish games better.

Lauri Markkanen’s ceiling

The Bulls painted this season as the third-year forward’s breakout campaign. Instead, a mystifying start in which he too often faded into the background and consistently missed open shots raised legitimate questions on what player he can become.

Markkanen’s December righted the ship. He cut more forcefully in halfcourt sets, ran hard in transition and shot well from 3-point range. His current production is tough to gauge since he’s playing through a sore left ankle.

Nevertheless, Markkanen’s scoring average of 15.1 points and playing time of just over 30 minutes sit near those from his rookie season. That’s not progression.

Markkanen admitted to taking a while to figure out and feel comfortable in Boylen’s offense. His team-first mentality often precludes him from playing selfishly. Combine that personality trait with the equal opportunity system and that’s recipe for failure.

Markkanen’s low playing time and usage rate of 21 — below even his rookie season — haven’t helped his situation. He needs more minutes and more shots.

Markkanen isn’t the Bulls’ only problem, but he is the biggest one. Other warning signs include Porter’s inability to stay healthy and rookie Coby White’s inconsistencies.

White has been a ton of fun and clearly possesses NBA talent. His NBA-record seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of a home victory over the Knicks marked one of the first half’s highlights. But he needs to become more than just an inconsistent shotmaker for the rebuild to progress.

Zach LaVine’s polarizing production

The team’s leading scorer by a whopping 9.4 points, LaVine’s 24.5 points-per-game gets viewed by some as All-Star worthy and by others as empty calories.

Boylen has cited LaVine’s growth as a decision-maker and finisher. His defense, while still prone to off-the-ball lapses, also has improved.

LaVine may not be the lead player on a championship-caliber team, but few players possess the athleticism and natural scoring ability to do what he does. His 13 3-pointers and 49 points in the miraculous comeback victory in Charlotte offered another example.

The Bulls’ offensive rating plummets when LaVine sits. And while the defensive rating improves when he does the same, this is an offensive league. And ask yourself this: Where would the Bulls’ 28th-ranked offense be without him?

Answer: You don’t want to know.

LaVine is shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range, is averaging 1.4 steals and has been the main bright spot from an otherwise forgettable first half.

Other bright spots include the development of Carter, which makes his injury all the crueler, and Kris Dunn’s role acceptance and elite defense.

Carter posted 17 double-doubles while serving as the team’s defensive anchor. Just before his injury, he displayed a willingness to shoot open 3-pointers, reflective of his offensive potential. His rebounding is essential for a team lacking in that department, and his communication and IQ at the defensive end are irreplaceable.

What does it all mean?

With the season headed to lost cause status, the Bulls should look to trade Young to a playoff team. This not only would place him with a contending team that could better utilize his skills but also force Boylen to play Markkanen more.

Young has done what the coaches and system has asked of him and has shot near his career 3-point percentage of 32 percent, taking the second-highest attempts of his career. But if the Bulls can get a wing or a draft pick for him, it’s time to move on.

Same goes for Denzel Valentine, who remains moored to the bench following a brief respite despite being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Valentine will be a restricted free agent. Find a playoff team that seeks shooting and get what you can for him.

Dunn, too, will be a restricted free agent. But his buy-in for any role — starting or reserve — and ball-hawking defensive toughness make him an easy match for any offer sheet that isn’t ridiculous. Credit to Dunn for reclaiming his career trajectory.

Speculation exists that the Bulls will make offseason changes. According to sources, nothing has been definitively decided but everything is on the table — except one thing. Paxson is still held in high regard by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and will be counted on to figure prominently in basketball operations.

The most likely scenario is the Bulls adding to the front office. This person would be from outside the organization, with fresh eyes and insights.

Gar Forman, whose general manager title is more ceremonial with each passing season, has largely moved almost exclusively to scouting, a skill for which he is valued. However, his days as the face of the franchise and powerbroker have faded.

Boylen signed an extension last summer. He enjoys a strong relationship with ownership and management. His salary makes him among the league’s lowest-paid coaches, so it wouldn’t preclude the Bulls from moving off it if the rest of the season leads them to that decision.

Who said there’s nothing to play for over the final 41 games?

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