The Bulls often played small this season, but on the other hand they weren't very physical.
That's a problem, and perhaps one the Bulls begin to address in next month's NBA draft and with their work this week at the NBA Draft Combine at Wintrust Arena.
It's not like a team cannot succeed with high offensive skill level players like the Bulls have with Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. The Brooklyn Nets, after all, were preseason favorites based on their offensive players. The Golden State Warriors appear headed for another championship with a team built around shooting and high-level offensive skills.
But in watching the playoffs this year, especially in the Eastern Conference, it seems to be no coincidence the best defensive teams remain standing, Boston and Miami. And another, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, lost in seven games to the Celtics. It's perhaps one significant reason why the Bulls had such difficulties last season against the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Those teams were often tougher and more physical with players like Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker in Miami and Marcus Smart, Al Horford and various Williamses with the Celtics. The postgame breakdown from the players usually starts with talk about who was more physical.
The draft generally isn't a place to begin to discover more physical players because the college kids come in so young and underdeveloped. The toughness and physical play usually comes with experience and maturity. But a team can add attitude and aptitude from the draft.
Here's a look at some Bulls draft possibilities at forward.
1) Jeremy Sochan, Baylor, 6-9 230.
Most likely a late-lottery selection, but with so much uncertainty after the top seven or eight, you never know who can slide and how far. He can defend while not being a great shooter, and he strikes me as a bit like a Pascal Siakam type, long and if not intimidating with the ability to defend the rim. Remember, we only compare guys to others who have become All-Stars or longtime NBA players. No comparisons to busts even as some will be.
2) Tari Eason, LSU, 6-7, 220.
Can make a shot despite a curious release, but also having started at Cincinnati you figure there's some toughness there because they recruit those players who don't have a position as much as an edge. And a little older at 21. He's physical with an NBA body who does all the defensive things, rebounds, steals, blocks. And dunks with power. The Bulls could use some more of those guys who attack the rim and the opponent.
3) E.J. Liddell, Ohio State, 6-6, 240.
Here's a guy who should be right there for the Bulls and seems like he could step right into a role off the bench with force. He reminds me a lot of Paul Millsap, who became a second-rounder even leading the nation in rebounding several times. No way, they said, he'd rebound in the NBA. And he did. And now everyone plays smaller guys. So a tough, physical player like Liddell fits in that Draymond Green mold of a big body who doesn't have to be seven foot to have en effect, like he did in college against bigger players like Illinois' Kofi Cockburn and Duke star Paolo Banchero. And Liddell turns 22 early next season. He'd look like another draft coup for the Bulls.
4) Kendall Brown, Baylor, 6-7, 200.
Not the ideal physical guy, though more for defensive potential. Another of those athletes who can make some shots in perhaps that Matisse Thybulle-type role off the bench. The usual good athlete who can run the court and provide some defense on guards and forwards.
5) Patrick Baldwin Jr., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 6-9, 230.
You don't usually look in the Horizon League for your first round picks, but he could be a flier who pays off like Michael Porter Jr. He had awful stats his one year in college after being one of the top prospects in the country. But he went to play for his father, got injured and his father got fired in a mess of a season during which he didn't get a chance to show much. He actually projects a bit like Porter with a nice shooting stroke and a handle and not much interest in sharing with others. For a sleeper, Marquette guys are tough. Justin Lewis is a 6-7 245-pound physical forward projected as a second round pick. But no one thought much of Jimmy Butler, who we recall was a No. 30 pick by the Bulls.
Vanderbilt's Scotty Pippen Jr.
Bonus Section: Point Guards.
I'm generally not much for taking a point guard in the draft unless they're a top-of-the-draft talent because the position is so difficult to learn in the NBA and takes so long to develop. But even with a surfeit of guards on the roster, the Bulls might want to pick up some insurance given the uncertain health of Lonzo Ball and the problems a high usage rate can be for Alex Caruso's health.
It's a noticeably weak draft for point guards with Kentucky's TyTy Washington Jr. generally regarded as the best prospect, though he tailed off later in his one season with injuries. He's about 6-2 and 200 and more a classic point guard than one of the super athlete scoring types of recent years.
The guy I like a bit more is Tennessee's Kennedy Chandler, though he's only about six feet and 175, a bit on the small side and we know those guys have defensive problems in the NBA. But he's really good with the ball and a good shooter who can defend thanks to his aggression and quickness.
And then there's Scotty Pippen Jr., that is. I believe the Pippen we knew from the championships spelled his name the same way when he was growing up, but he was a bit shy when he came to the Bulls in 1987 and maybe never corrected us. His son doesn't play like Sr. did. Well, maybe like Sr. did before that growth spurt when he was a walk-on without a basketball scholarship at Central Arkansas. Young Scotty from Vanderbilt isn't the big time athlete, but I watched him at the Combine and he wasn't bad. He's not a high-flyer, but at 6-1 and about 175 gets into the lane and draw fouls and was doing a good job reversing his collegiate reputation as an indifferent defender. Might be worth a look for a Summer League team spot.