As the Bulls transition to a game focused around three-point shooting and getting to the rim, has the league shifted back to the importance of bigs? Or are bigs (and rebounding) just an important addition to three-point shooting in the modern NBA?
A funny thing happened to the Bulls on the way to being the Golden State Warriors. Many in the NBA now are starting to think size isn't a bad thing. But, c'mon guys, would you just make up your minds!
And now Tuesday for the 2-5 Bulls come the Los Angeles Lakers with their "small" guys like 6-10 Anthony Davis and 6-8 LeBron James to complement — and surprisingly, also, compliment — their centers JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.
About the Bulls being last in the league in rebounding margin? Better get ready.
"What we have to do is raise our urgency and our physicality against those guys," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "Then we'll have to make a choice: Do we play them one on one and maybe let that (center seven footer) guy have a big night? Or do we rotate, double and make them give the ball up and somebody else beat us? Those are the choices that you make unless you have a guy that can play them one-on-one and dominate that matchup. Davis is a tough cover. McGee is obviously a different player than him and Howard is powerful guy off the bench."
It's not that teams are abandoning the three-point shooting and layup and free throw formula advocated by the game's modern math equations. But without much fanfare lately or getting a cool sobriquet like, ‘the Process," many of the best NBA teams are relying on rebounding and seven footers.
Many of those teams still advocate three-point shooting. But most of the best teams this season with the Warriors injuries are emerging thanks also to their size and dominant rebounding. The best teams in the Eastern Conference, at least for now, are generally regarded to be the 76ers and Bucks, who both feature multiple physical seven footers with the 76ers leading the league in rebounding differential. The Lakers also feature size at the basket, which is helping them rank among the league's best defensive teams and No. 2 in overall field goal defense.
Though Wendell Carter Jr. probably has been the Bulls most reliable player this season, averaging 14.6 points and 9.4 rebounds, the latter 19th in the league, he's undersized for the center position. Lauri Markkanen averages a competitive 8.6 rebounds per game, which is good for 25th in the league. But Markkanen plays mostly on the perimeter. The result has been the Bulls being outrebounded every game except the first when Markkanen had 35 points and 17 rebounds.
Boylen has emphasized back to the preseason for Markkanen to concentrate on rebounding. Though it's also questionable whether he's built for that regularly yet.
So it becomes something of the paradox with this Bulls team and one reason it has see-sawed in its play. Boylen often urges a more physical effort from the team, though the likes of starters Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Otto Porter Jr., all tend to be more skilled offensively. Can a player do both? Sure (Porter after sustaining a twisted ankle Sunday is listed as probable. Chandler Hutchison also is expected to play).
LaVine was one of the league's scoring leaders last season, a two-time slam dunk champion who is regarded for his unique athletic ability. Markkanen has been renowned for his three-point shooting and mismatches for a seven footer. And likewise Porter, especially with the Washington Wizards, succeeded in a transition and shooting role. So the Bulls have emphasized speed and transition play to score.
Though they have faltered with consistency.
"Offensively, we're missing our pace from the preseason," said point guard Tomas Satoransky Monday after practice. "I think sometimes we're not taking open shots and instead we're taking the tough ones. I think that has to change. Those are the details we're working on everyday, but I think our pace has to be different and better."
There's a quote often attributed to President John F. Kennedy about success or victory having many parents while defeat is an orphan. In most endeavors, including sports, we like to take credit for or imitate what has been successful. So came the Warriors with these smaller lineups without the traditional center, moving the ball around like a skilled soccer team, dexterity and deftness negating dimensions. It was a revelation. Everyone wanted to see it. And it didn't look so hard. After all, no one expected Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson, neither a top five draft pick, to be special. Must have been the system of play.
So teams began to stick their toes into the magical waters of shooting three pointers and fast breaking, the Mike D'Antoni Phoenix Suns evolving into the charismatic Warriors. And then came record seasons of wins, championships, Finals upon Finals. It's become a template, though what's often overlooked is the unusual skills of Curry, Thompson and Kevin Durant and how seamlessly they fit.
Systems can be copied; not skills.
The Bulls for now are dedicated to the formula, attempting more three pointers, getting to the basket, playing faster. Not that it's unique. You generally hear about 24 coaches talk about that.
The Bulls are equipped to play like that. But not without speed, which might produce easier shots. It appears to be a Bulls team that needs to — and can — outscore opponents. Though the NBA maxim is that defense wins championships. Play tougher, win your matchup!
Can the Bulls balance that directive with their roster?
Boylen explained to reporters Monday some of the alarming trends that help clarify why the Bulls have started an indecisive 2-5.
"I just think we've missed some shots we can make," said Boylen. "We're No. 1 in the league at getting to the rim, but we're 24th in finishing. It goes back to toughness and competitiveness. That's where we have to grow. We haven't finished at the rim and we haven't made shots like we think we can. We know how we want to play. We haven't played as well as we hoped. And I don't think we've played as well as we're going to play." So how does the team get there?
Boylen indicated it comes down to effort, which some players appeared to have left out of their suitcases for the trip to Indiana Sunday.
"Where we have struggled, I think, is mentally," Boylen said. "At times we've been willing physically, we've been weak mentally. That's also part of our development with this group. And we can make excuses for that. We can say we're young, we can say we're new. A lot of the league is young and a lot of the league is new. We can say we're going to have played nine games in 14 days. We've played the most road games in the league. We'll have played the most road games and the most games in the league after Wednesday night. Is that pulling on our mental and physical toughness? Is that pulling on this group that's never really been through it before together? Maybe it is. That's the growth plate, that's the learning moment. So yeah, I think you can talk about it, coach it, expect it, demand it, but playing more physical is an individual, conscious decision.
"I think they need to take more responsibility for their preparedness," Boylen continued. "I think they need to take more ownership of their readiness to play. The head coaches in this league have never been expected to coach effort. Effort has to come from each guy. You control your effort and competitiveness. We had a good September and October, good training camp. I think we set the course of what we want to do. We had a poor game (Sunday). Let's see if we respond."
For a big shot, a big game and to the bigs in the game. Big stuff.