After a cringe worthy performance to start the preseason, the Bulls have looked far more competent in two victories over the Rockets and Thunder and dare I say….. fun? Let’s take a look at what has changed in the past two games and also explain why Bulls fans shouldn’t be as cynical as me when examining the team’s chances to make the
playoffs play in tournament. As promised, this post will be a bit more optimistic even if that means a part of Jason Caffey dies in the process. Let’s basketball!
Tis the Preseason
After a not so festive start to the year, the Bulls bounced back nicely with a 104-91 revenge win over the Rockets followed by a 124-103 shellacking of the OKC “I’m not even supposed to be here!” Thunder. So what changed in these two victories? For starters, the Bulls knocked off some rust and remembered that playing basketball against an opponent is much harder than playing scrimmage against Luke Kornet and Co at the Berto (Im not calling it the Willis Tower nor acknowledging the Advocate Center ever). Simply put, the Bulls hadn’t played “real” basketball in 9 months and it showed. The Bulls are operating a new offensive and defensive scheme under Billy Donovan and with just a few practices before game time, an adjustment period is to be expected. With that said, there just seemed to be a greater effort and more attention on defensive rotations and appropriately utilizing the drop coverage in pick n rolls. Donovan was quoted as saying after the first loss that the Bulls “got their asses kicked in” and give credit to the team for responding. In the blowout loss, the Bulls tallied a combined 5 blocks and steals. Compare that to 12 and 13 total blocks/steals in their two wins and it shows me a greater level of effort and energy. On offense, the ball movement was significantly better (just don’t look at the turnover numbers for any of the 3 games, yikes) as the Bulls dished out 26! assists in their win over the Thunder. There were also quicker decisions and reads on passes and the ball didn’t seem to stick as much on the perimeter. It was simply a more aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball and the fact that the defense looked infinitely times better than the first game was a good sign. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the Bulls key players and their performance the last 2 games:
Patrick Williams – Maybe the best surprise of the preseason has been the play and sheer coolness of Patrick Williams. In a surprising move, Billy Donovan inserted the rookie into the starting lineup against the Thunder, and he didn’t disappoint. Through 3 games, P Dubs has shot 50% from the field and beyond the arc (15/30fg, 3/6 3P) in 25 minuter per game. What’s been most impressive though has been his apparent feel for the game and comfort within the offense. This kid is 19 yet has scored in a multitude of ways and never seems to be forcing up a shot or looking overwhelmed by the speed of the game. He absolutely has a TON to work on (tightening his handle, getting a single assist in a game?, and his 3 pt stroke to name a few) but I wasn’t expecting him to look this polished and poised from the jump. There was a great deal of skepticism about what kind of player Williams was and how much he could actually contribute from day 1 in a shortened season (especially difficult for rookies with no summer league), but this is a great start to this career. I hope the Bulls let him learn through mistakes and continue to give him 25 minutes a night. Bulls fans should be genuinely excited about Patrick and the fact he already showcased the euro step last game.
Coby White – After looking severely outmatch by John Wall in game 1, Coby really settled down and made some nice strides the past 2 nights. I was more excited about how he ran the offense than I was about his scoring barrage against OKC (18 points in the 3rd quarter on his way to a 27 point effort in 26 minutes). Coby surprised many (including myself) when he finished the season as an offensive force in 2019. His 3 point shooting (11/19, 58%!) already looks to be a serious weapon and his speed and quickness is elite. Finishing at the rim, ball handling, decision making, and setting up shots for others remains a real concern. Basically, the question remains if Coby White is a real point guard or just a scoring guard along the lines of Jordan Clarkson. There’s nothing wrong with a microwave scorer, but when paired next to Zach LaVine a serious void of passing and playmaking exists. So I was pleasantly surprised with how poised White looked in his last game especially, with some great passes and getting easy looks for LaVine and Wendell (who needed some easy dunks). Coby is fast (beep beep) and as he learns how and when to slow down, he will become a better point guard. Donovan seems committed to letting Coby learn on the fly. Point Guards historically take longer than any other position to mature and the Bulls will have to be patient with his growth (He’s 20!) and mistakes (10 turnovers compared to 14 assists in 3 games).
Chandler Hutchinson – I think his last game against OKC was the best game I’ve ever seen him play. It was also the first time that he looked like an NBA player. He had some strong finishes at the rim (followed by some subtle Stacy Kingisms that haven’t gotten old at all…) but was incredibly active on defense and running in transition. Hutchinson needs to try and replicate the play of Derrick Jones Jr and just be a general game disruptor on both ends of the floor. I’m never trusting his interstellar stopping of time 3 point form, but he’ has the ideal build of a modern day NBA wing and if he can just wreak havoc as a cutter and defender, then maybe he has a role. I doubt I ever speak this highly of Hutch again, so enjoy it. This dunk was nice….
Otto Porter – After getting benched, I wonder if Donovan was trying to send a message to
Norbit Porter. But Otto responded with 12 rebounds, served as the offensive fulcrum with the second unit and even showed some hustle plays. In all fairness he plopped down on a loose ball and Stacy King acted like he just climbed My Kilimanjaro (shout out all you mountain heads). Otto is in a contract year so maybe this can serve as some motivation. When healthy (and in shape!), Otto is still a really serviceable NBA wing who does a bit of everything. Let’s hope this served as a wake up call and maybe a bench role suits him and the team best moving forward.
Zach LaVine – I’ve never been shy about being a LaVine hater of sorts, but the dude can score. And he makes it look sooooo easy. His shooting looks better than ever (21/36-58% FG , 8/17-47% 3P). Those numbers are pretty nasty and I thought Zach played within the offense, deferred to Coby when he was hot in the 3rd and scored in a multitude of ways including the return of the mid range. Donovan wants players to play to their strengths and LaVine looks comfortable and ready to go. His defense has at times looked more attentive (what’s that really saying though?) but his passing and vision just isn’t his strong suit. It’s not Zach’s fault he’s the best player on a roster that lacks high level talent, but he is at his best when he’s strictly a scorer. Coby’s development at the 1 is critical for LaVine and the Bulls success. But LaVine looks to be in incredible shape and his shot looks deadly and smooth as ever.
Lauri Markkanen – Ok, here’s where the fun stops. Did you know that Lauri has never shot better than 36% from 3? Did you also know that was his rookie year and his % has dropped each year since? That’s not good Bob! I’m kind of tired of talking about Lauri because its the same fucking story. His talent and potential as a stretch big (who actually hasn’t proven to be an above average shooter) is key essential for his success. Lauri isn’t particularly good at any other skill, so if he cant space the floor or have defenders run him off the line out of fear, he’s just kinda blah. He doesnt post up smaller guys, he can’t play defense, and he can’t pass or dribble. So what is it exactly that you do here? With the deadline looming for an extension for Lauri (December 22), I’m really at a loss for what to do with him. It’s up to Billy and his development team to find that once sacred untapped potential Lauri seemed poised to unleash. Through 3 preseason games, Lauri has shot 5/19 from 3P, 26%, gotten to the line only 6 times and has as many turnovers as combined assists/steals/blocks. I’m just kind of tired of waiting here……
Wendell Carter Jr. – I LOVE Wendell Carter Jr but have been pretty concerned with what I’ve seen thus far. We all heard about how Wendell was going to be encouraged to shoot more 3’s this year and be used as an offensive vessel to help play-make, pick n roll, dribble hand offs, etc. The shooting has sucked. He’s gone 1/12 from 3P, but what was most concerning was his growing hesitancy to shoot until he once again wasn’t even thinking about it. I’m worried about his confidence and Donovan needs to take him out of the game when he passes up a wide open corner 3. This specific incident as noted by Stephen Noh was incredibly alarming.
I also expected some issues of chemistry with Coby White and running pick n rolls and expect that to improve. I expect his decision making and passing to get better as well as the season goes on and he gets used to having more freedom and responsibility in the offense. But he also got bullied around Boogie Cousins (who in all fairness is a professional bully #ODoylerules) and just doesn’t look comfortable out there at either end. If the Bulls have any shot of contending for the playoffs, WCJ has to be consistent on both ends. He doesn’t need to be Bam or Al Horford lite, but he has to play more decisively and with a bit more of an edge
Denzel Valentine – The Eric Trump of NBA players. What a waste of money. High five your own arm if you stole $4.6 million
The Path to the Playoffs
At this time last year, the Bulls were the trendy 8th seed projection in the East by many experts and hoops pundits. This time around, the Bulls are projected 9th or 10th at best (which gets you into the play in tournament!) Part of it is that this Bulls team simply needs to prove it. Show don’t tell. The Bulls overhauled their front office, hired a new coach, drafted a promising rookie in Patrick Williams and are Wells Fargoing on the development of their young core to take that next step from laughing stock to Sports Night (Are they serious? A comedy? Wait, is this good? Or just okay?). In order for the Bulls to sniff the 8-10 seed, these 5 key things need to happen:
- Stay healthy! It’s cliche and every team deals with injuries, but the Bulls core has missed too many games together and failed to develop cohesively as a group. In the past 2 seasons, Lauri and Wendell ALONE have missed a combined 105 games. That’s brutal. Factor in LaVine missing 19 games last year, Otto missing 51, and even Hutch Baby Don’t Say A Word missed 37. This team desperately needs to stay healthy to see who plays well with each other and who is expendable. Fred Tanaka is gone, but I’m not sure the Bulls organization has always had the best reputation for player health and safety. Let’s hope that changes this year under AK and Donovan.
- Coby White continues to develop as a Point Guard. This offense will look rough and stagnant unless Coby can get others involved and get into the teeth of the defense. Expect a lot of turnovers, like a lot…but that’s okay. What’s most important in finding out Coby is a legit starting 1, or best suited as a Lou Williams esque microwave scorer off the bench. Should be fun to watch.
- Patrick Williams makes an impact right away. This is probably too much to ask for from a 19 year old rookie, but the Bulls will need real contribution from Pat if they are to make the playoffs. Pat is a versatile defender with a growing offensive game and he could provide some real stability in the front court for a team that has battled injuries and inconsistencies. He doesn’t need to start, win ROY, or play 30+ minutes a night, but he needs to be a positive player for this team if they are to make a leap. Asking a lot, but I’m really intrigued by his game. Bulls fans might fall hard for this one.
- Bounce back years from BOTH Wendell and Lauri. Lauri has a contract extension looming and Wendell needs to prove to AK and Donovan that he can be a force on both ends of the floor. This preseason start has left me feeling anything but confident in these two but I have alway stanned for WCJ and his skillset and basketball IQ. For the Bulls to have any chance this year, they need both of these guys to stay healthy and improve their play. Lauri needs to get to the line and shoot closer to 40% from 3 then 35. Wendell needs to be a playmaker at the elbow on offense, helping the guards (who are not natural playmakers) and needs to be the anchor on defense, recovering for those very same guards (who also suck at defense). Huge year for both guys. Time is up, its now or never for Wendell and Lauri.
- Arturas Karnisovas doesn’t sell off parts at the deadline. If AK is underwhelmed by the roster or sees an opportunity to get better long term through a trade, then this team’s current projections take a dive. Veterans like Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky could be moved (probably better suited and more useful on a good team than a rebuilding one) and a desperate team in need of offense could make an offer for LaVine for the playoff push. If AK can get some more young assets or picks, it’s hard to blame him. To date, this young core lacks talent and production. Also, don’t forget that the 2021 NBA draft is projected to be loaded with high level star potential. With the lottery odds changed, the Bulls can potentially get lucky (see 2020) again and end up with a future superstar (or Anthony Bennett). Either way, the Bulls lack a #1 and the draft is their best bet to land a star. It will be fascinating to see what AK does with this roster depending on the Bulls record(or maybe he doesnt care). He’s been methodical (I’d say overly so) since he’s been in power, so we may not see any moves until closer to the deadline, if any.
In the shortened 72 game season, I am predicting better health with slightly bette results from this team. I do believe the coaching change will make a big difference as Jim Boylen was
arguably easily the worst coach i n the NBA at any level last year. Although the Bulls should have a descent 3 point shooting team, I struggle to find any areas offensively or defensively where they will be anything better than average. I’m hopeful WCJ and Coby White take big steps this year and the rookie Patrick Williams proves the front office’s surprising choice to grab him at #4. With all that said, I think the Bulls finish at 33-39 and battle for the 10th seed.
Stay tuned for a quick recap following tonight’s final preseason game, and stay tuned throughout the year for adequate Bulls coverage depending on your standards. Go Bulls!