Bullies on the Block: Revising the Narrative

Photo: Darron Cummings/AP
By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

After an absolute avalanche of abominable ARRRRRRRGH over the first five months of the season, it would be almost impossible to imagine the Chicago Bulls as anything but a bad team this season. They slid down the slope from bad to laughingstock before Christmas.

Their record is about where you’d expect for a tanking team (read: awful) and both of this year’s draft picks are out with injury, one for the remainder of the season.

So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this article in The Ringer: “The Chicago Bulls Might Have a Proper Rebuild on Their Hands.”

Excuse me, what?

I don’t listen to sports radio that much anymore, and most Chicago pundits are focused on the White Sox’s free-agency failures (don’t worry, that sound is just me screaming into the abyss), but I watched the Bulls over the last month, and they looked…adequate. Not a vote of supreme confidence, but a great improvement from any of the adjectives in the second sentence of this column.

The Bulls have gone 5-3 since February 13, their best record in any eight-game stretch this season. They took a small measure of revenge for the 56-point loss to the Celtics by beating them at home, and hung tough with the Bucks two days later. Lauri Markkanen has been playing like a man worthy of the nickname ‘The Finnisher.” Robin Lopez and Ryan Arcidiacono have been contributing on the court and providing some much needed levity on the sidelines.

Does this really mean they have some hope for the future?

Suomi’s Finest

Lauri Markkanen’s elbow injury in training camp was a big setback for him and the Bulls, as they were without most of their starters for the first week of the season. Upon returning to the lineup, he got off to a slow start, enough that some friends of mine (won’t name any names here) lamented that the Bulls didn’t try to package him in a deal for Kristaps Porzingis.

The Bulls are now looking like they might have their future superstar, as Markkanen has exploded over the last few weeks.

Markkanen’s scoring and shooting numbers are particularly eye-popping, but his rebounding numbers reveal the main weapon that could turn him into a force across the league. The Big Finn has the size and tenacity to control the defensive boards, and can immediately push the ball up the floor to start the fast break. This means defenses can’t relax at all, even on made baskets. If he gets all the way down to the other end, it’ll usually result in a post-up or a good shot for a teammate, as the push has forced the defense into match-up problems.

The Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley, typically reserved in his analysis, had high praise for the second-year player in his February 27 column, comparing his recent run of play to Dirk Nowitzki. It’s still too early for that particular comp, but Markkanen has turned fears of a sophomore slump into justified hope for next season.

Robin and the Robins

While Markkanen and Zach LaVine have been anchoring the Bulls attack, Lopez has been a key cog in the revitalized offense. The Athletic’s Stephen Noh and Darnell Mayberry highlighted Robin’s role in a pick-and-roll play that’s become a staple of the playbook.

In this three-man game between Lopez, LaVine and Markkanen, Lopez essentially becomes a “option” distributor and screener, where he can find Markkanen or LaVine rolling to the rim if their man cheats out toward the three-point line, popping to the arc if the defense plays for the roll, or for a simple screen-roll to the baseline.

The main reason for success is that Markkanen and LaVine’s versatility as both jump shooters and penetrators forces to the defense into reactionary mode instead of proactivity, which gives the Bulls many different ways to score. However, Lopez’s intelligence and instincts as a passer can’t be overlooked.

The Bulls have also let Lopez find his own shot in the low or high post, now that Otto Porter, Wayne Selden and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are around to space out the floor. This has contributed to a major spike in shots and shooting percentage for RoLo  (48.2 FG% on 155 FGA from November through December; 60.5 FG% on 207 FGA from January to March 6).

Speaking of Porter, he has been the main reason for the change of opinion on the Bulls since coming over in the February trade. After years of being relegated to third and fourth option in Washington, Porter has turned the Bulls into a veritable hydra on offense, as teams have to account for his, Markkanen and LaVine’s whereabouts on the floor at all times.

He’s only played nine games so far, but he’s averaging the best per-36 minute numbers of his career in scoring, field goal attempts, three-point shooting, free throw shooting, assists and blocks. He almost single-handedly kept the Bulls from losing the four OT game in regulation, scoring eight points in the final minute, including three free throws to tie with four-tenths of a second on the clock.

Ryan Arcidiacono is not the “New Kirk,” as this stat comparison will illustrate, but he has been a fun player to watch for most of the season. His assist numbers have dropped a bit this month and his scoring has increased, but his willingness to push the ball in the open floor, ability to find the open man and spot-up shooting ability have made him a natural fit for the new offense.

Arch’s benefits are on display in the clip below: a rebound and immediate outlet to a streaking LaVine, a transition three on a fast break, even a box out of the bigger Daniel Theis that leads to a rebound.

As the populace continues to sour on Kris Dunn, Arcidiacono has been the best point guard on the roster this year, his imitation of Robin Lopez’s moves from the bench have been a minor hit on a team who can always use a source of levity.

#FireWho? Boylen Now in Media’s Good Graces

So how does Jim Boylen fall in all this? Derided for his rah-rah attitude as recently as six weeks ago, Boylen is back in the proverbial sun in the eyes of the media. In an article for The Athletic, Noh praises Boylen for “flipping the switch on the offense” and credits him repeatedly for the Bulls’ recent run of success. A ringing endorsement from the same writer who said in January “the franchise must cut ties with Boylen” following the end of the season.

This 180-degree change of opinion on Boylen has to be taken with a grain of salt, and many have recognized these recent offensive changes as the manifestation of Fred Hoiberg’s ideas. However, it could be that Boylen was right in saying the Bulls needed to learn the fundamentals of a slowed-down offense before they could spread their wings. The jury is still out on the head coach, but it seems safe to say that his seat has cooled down a lot since he was first hired.

Don’t Believe the Hype…Yet

After LeBron shocked the sports world in 2010 by teaming up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, the “Heatles” actually got off to a rough start, with much of the blame being placed on Bosh. Tas Melas and J.E. Skeets of The Starters — then plying their trade as “The Basketball Jones” –memorialized Bosh’s status as whipping boy in the video “Like A Bosh.”

Aside from also forcing you to remember how unstoppable the Lonely Island was in 2010, the end of the video makes the greatest point: it was way too early to count Bosh out. In fact, he, at times, ended up carrying a Heat squad that won two titles in four tries, and made the key play to send them to the 2014 championship.

I was annoyed so much at the incessant griping about the Bulls and Boylen at the outset of the coaching change because I also thought it was too early to judge him. Granted, his talk of “improved conditioning” and “slowing it down” were at once weird and obtuse in the modern NBA. The brighter outlook on the Bulls’ fortunes are largely due to quickening the pace and the addition of Otto Porter, and Boylen evidently still has issues with clock management that could prove fatal in the future.

The Bulls are better now than they were in January, that’s undeniable. But the players everyone said had to go back then (Boylen, Paxson, Forman, Reinsdorf) are all still here. So while it might be more palatable to sit down and watch a game, take your time before jumping on the hype train – and please, don’t buy tickets. Keep hitting ‘em where it hurts if you want real change.

Beast of the Week: Putting anyone other than Robin Lopez in this spot this week would be criminal — he dropped 26 points on the Bucks and hit a three over his brother (sip that tea), blocked five shots in the win over the Grizzlies, charted 11 points and 11 rebounds in the home marathon against the Hawks, then put up 16-6 with four assists on the return match of the home-and-home with Atlanta.

When including his 20 points in this week’s loss to the Pacers and 25 against the Grizzlies on February 13, here are his averages over the last eight games:

17.1 PTS,61.0 FG% (11.9 FGA), 6.1 REB, 2.3 BLK, 1.9 AST, +5.1 P/M

The Bulls may be more fun to watch now, and Lopez’s play is a big reason why (a 7-footer with a Sideshow Bob ‘do spinning all over the Celtics is guaranteed fun), but this doesn’t mean he’ll be a part of the plan going forward.

However, considering that he was benched at the end of last year in favor of the youngsters — let’s be fair, he’d be backing up Wendell Carter Jr. if the rookie wasn’t hurt — Lopez’s veteran presence and recent output could sway management into keeping him on. Let’s see now, who said he was anachronistic in today’s NBA?

One Last Thing: Antonio Blakeney has had a really up and down season. He was one of the Bulls best players in terms of scoring, shooting and plus/minus for the first 20 games of the year, but he was dropped to the 11th or 12th man position following the coaching change in December. Prior to the Sunday matinee versus the Hawks, he registered three scoreless games and seven DNPs or inactives, so it was nice to see him put up some nice numbers against Atlanta (17 points on 13 shots.)

If he can work on being a spot-up or off-screens three-point specialist – he’s shot 46 percent on treys this year — he’ll be able to find work in the NBA for longer than anyone would have expected.

Until next time, beware of bullies.

Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR
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