Key injuries, a square peg star signing and a solid Eastern Conference spell a long season of hard lessons for the still-young Bulls.
By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)
What will the Chicago Bulls be this season, you may ask?
Will they be an exciting group of young, hungry and determined players who run the floor willingly and often while stretching defenses with the 3-point shot and pushing the NBA’s contenders to the limit?
Or will they be a defensive sieve without a dependable outside shooting game as well as shaky ball-handling and a coach who is finally shown to be out of his depth?
If the team’s preseason is any indication, we might be looking more towards the latter.
No doubt, there were positive signs in the five practice games the Bulls have played since late September. Zach LaVine has gotten his touches and made the most of them, averaging almost 18 points per game on 52 perent field goal shooting including 44% from three-point range. Galvanic fourth-year forward Bobby Portis has nearly similar stats as LaVine and picked up nearly six rebounds per game as well. Antonio Blakeney’s offense has also been a bright spot for the team.
However, the good news slows to a trickle after that. Kris Dunn did shoot 57% in five preseason games, but he turned the ball over 17 times against 18 assists and seven steals. Jabari Parker clocked his best game of the preseason against Denver, but is reportedly not happy with being moved out of the starting rotation.
Top 2018 draft pick Wendell Carter Jr. is expected take his lumps from opposing centers this season, and injuries to Lauri Markkanen and Denzel Valentine leave the Bulls with an incredibly thin bench which doesn’t pair well with a starting five featuring one of the league’s worst guards (shooting-wise) at shooting guard.
Things are liable to gel as the season goes on — Dunn and Portis are tough players with something to prove and both have stated their reverence for playing with the Bulls. Also the returns of Valentine and especially Markkanen should only help with the team’s overall development, but this lineup will have a lot of trouble starting out the season.
The $20 Million Man
Closer examination is merited regarding the situation with the returning hometown hero Parker. After all, it didn’t completely make sense to bring him onto this team.
The stated desire of the Bulls since the hiring of Fred Hoiberg has been to create a “pace-and-space” offense where the Bulls look to run into their half-court sets and diagnose ways to get as many 3-point shots as close looks by spacing players on the floor.
The system requires good shooters, yes, but it also requires running big men who will get out ahead on in-bounds and turnovers to pressure the defense into bad match-ups, as well as taller players who can draw post defenders out of the paint with jump shots or threes. Jabari Parker does not classify as either of those things.
An average 3-point shooter over his four years in the league (though it has improved every season), the Simeon High School graduate is a player who really requires the ball in his hands to be effective. Add to the equation Hoiberg’s unfortunate ACL injuries and he’s just not the fleet-footed forward Hoiberg’s system really needs.
But, alas, Parker’s a Chicago kid getting paid starter’s money, so there is an impetus to put him in the starting lineup, never mind that he played much better off the bench in preseason. Also, never mind that Portis is a much better fit for the coach’s scheme.
When you’re getting $20 million for one year, you start. Give credit to Hoiberg for having Parker with the second unit at this time of transition even as he voices his displeasure. It is a move that could keep the Bulls in games early while they await the return of Markkanen.
A Long Road Ahead
If the team’s obvious deficiencies don’t give optimistic Bulls fans pause about the upcoming season then the schedule should.
Bulls Season Opener
- NCAA Tournament: Michigan St. Spartans vs. Bradley Braves — March 21, 1:45 pm (CBS)
Don’t be fooled: LeBron going to the Lakers doesn’t mean the Eastern Conference got weaker. The Bulls play the Celtics three times this year and the Raptors four, and both teams within a week merely sixteen games into the season. The Celtics made a strong statement in Tuesday’s opener against Philadelphia and can only be deemed as stronger with the return of Gordon Hayward, while the Raptors picked up Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio. Both of those teams will be battling for the conference crown as well as Joel Embiid and the Sixers, against whom the Bulls will both open and close the season.
That’s 11 total games already against the top picks to the make the Finals. Plus, Mike Budenholzer’s hiring as coach has some thinking Giannis and the Bucks could make a big jump this year.
Finally, nearly all the Western foes the Bulls play twice have more talent on paper: Portland, both LA teams, OKC, Houston — even Dallas and Phoenix — landed more prized rookie commodities than Chicago. Oh, and those two guys have made a greater impact so far than Wendell Carter. Sorry, kid.
So what will the Chicago Bulls be this season? This first game should tell us much more than all the preseason games could. The Sixers took a bad loss against a division rival to open their season and will be in front of a Philadelphia crowd hungry for more after a football championship and long-awaited playoff basketball appearance, they may even bring Meek out to ring the fake Liberty Bell again.
The Bulls will most likely be a sacrificial lamb for Philly and get all the jokes from the NBA on TNT panel, but if they can push a better team for at least three quarters, it will be a victory for them. It also won’t likely be the last “moral victory” of the year.
“Grow with us,” indeed.
Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls for WARR