No American sports league cooks up a dish quite like the NBA.
With NBA training camps opening and preseason games beginning later this week, controversies already are simmering, tensions boiling and expectations and anticipation appear to be preparing us for another season of a classic main course.
OK, I just had to get my tortured metaphor out of the way early for my Edward Bulwer-Lytton contest entry before considering LeBron in LA, ‘Melo in—where the heck is he now?, Kawhi having been kicked out of the country, the Warriors trying to make it nine straight titles to pass Bill Russell (what, it’s just two?), Jimmy really, really mad this time and wanting to win with perennial powers the Clippers or Nets, Boogie in the Bay, Boston now using three balls, nobody capable of winning the Central Division, or the Southeast, actually, Dirk on the way out, the West being wild again and the top of the East pretty darned good, and, hey, did anyone mention LeBron is in LA?
Oh, right, the Bulls, who have media day Monday and officially open camp Tuesday with most of the NBA, appear on the NBA schedule for 82 games, too.
The way things are it may be a few more games even if no one really thinks so.
There’s been a lot to see and hear in Chicago basketball for the last decade with D-Rose and Thibs, D-Wade, Jimmy and Rondo, C-Booz and his hair paint, Jo and Nate, fighting off the court and on, captain Kirk, Vinny, almost topping out with the conference finals and nearly bottoming out in the lottery.
It should be a very interesting and intriguing Bulls 2018-19 season, the second season of the current reboot, with five young, lottery selected players trying to become a team. But it should be a lot quieter than here previously and than in most places around the NBA — are those Timberwolves fans putting up that Hire GarPax billboard in the West Loop? — but the Bulls still will have plenty of questions.
We always were told in journalism class you discovered what was happening by answering the five Ws and the H, Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. So let’s apply those to the new Bulls:
Who’s the Man?
This may be the most difficult and the key to unlocking the season’s vault. Ouch, there I go again. A developing, good or great team doesn’t need just one great player, though it helps. Rebuilding teams by definition have no great players, but are trying to find some. The Bulls are holding auditions this season. You want to be a star? OK, this is the place. The job remains open. That “man” thing often is defined by who takes the last shot, makes the clutch play, scores the most points, has the most rips in his jeans.
The Bulls have a bunch of candidates. You can see Zach LaVine would like the job based on what he says and even just those 24 games last season; dunk you very much. Jabari Parker thought he’d have the job in Milwaukee, but he was thwarted by freak and Greek Freak occurrences. He says he’s ready. Kris Dunn made the most end game plays last season, however few there were, Lauri Markkanen looks most ready and Wendell Carter Jr. deferred last season; he may be done with that. The essential element in team success is playing well with others. Can they? Will they?
What’s the Point?
It’s a Dunn deal, as we know, with Cameron Payne apparently the secured backup for now. Though Dunn’s further development may be the most important factor in the team’s ultimate fate. The point guard is like my favorite Casey Stengel story when he took over the expansion Mets and selected mediocre catcher Hobie Landrith with the first expansion draft pick. Casey explained if you don’t have a catcher, the ball rolls to the backstop every time. Well, if you don’t have a point guard, that’s a lot of eight-second violations and turnovers. And if you don’t have one who can make plays for others, especially in this point guard driven NBA, the other guys are mostly standing around waving for a taxi.
Dunn recovered mentally last season from Thibs’ boot camp, but missed about 30 games with various freak injuries. That’s a lot of games. Health remains everyone’s greatest skill. Dunn seems to be a fine defender, and we’ve heard plenty about the need to improve his shot. That can be done. But you don’t teach point guard instincts. Either you have those or not. Coach Fred Hoiberg will emphasize speed and running. But opponents pretty much know that and don’t let you do so often. Dunn’s ability to run a team while reducing turnovers and keeping teammates happy with passing may define the team’s destiny.
Who’s the Center?
Not necessarily the center of attention, though the job will get a lot of scrutiny now with the drafting of Carter, who opened as many eyes in Vegas as the slot machine jackpot. The Bulls may have hit the jackpot with the No. 7 draft pick, who showed remarkable versatility, talent and maturity. It’s just that the Bulls have a starting center, great guy in Robin Lopez. Wearing No. 42, from Disneyland… Really, who doesn’t love that guy? The speculation has been the Bulls would trade Lopez sometime this season to open a spot for Carter, though Carter will play plenty.
But given the lesser role of centers in the NBA these days and Lopez unable to shoot long range or guard on the perimeter, his value is limited. So start him to keep his value up? Sure, that’s the usual justification. Plus, teams generally are loath to bench a veteran out of respect — Lopez ended up not playing most of the last two months last season rather than having a bench role — and often are uncomfortable with the image of a healthy veteran being demoted like that. Though the Lakers did it comfortably with Luol Deng. Carter for this NBA may be the better player even now and even if he’s just 19. So start him? Or let him watch a year like most rookie NFL quarterbacks? Or until the team loses the third game in a row?
Is that Markkanen wearing a red and white horizontal striped shirt and stocking cap? Getting him to stand out in the crowd may be one of the Bulls’ biggest challenges this season. Markkanen in a phenomenal rookie season looked the most like a star on the roster with his three-point shooting, toughness and varied game. LaVine is more athletic with his two dunk contest wins and Parker was drafted higher than Michael Jordan.
Markkanen looks closest to star billing. But it’s the perimeter guys who mostly control the ball in the NBA these days. And if Lopez is starting, Markkanen will be relied upon for a lot of rebounding. Markkanen will run the break well, but will teammates be able to pick him out of the crowd in the half court and often enough. You want to find his talent.
When is somebody going to make a shot?
It often seemed like that last season with the Bulls ranking last in shooting and basically in the lower third in the other shooting categories. Not a great plan for this NBA. LaVine should be better—and has looked impressive in preseason workouts — in his first full season after ACL surgery. Yes, it takes well over a year. Markkanen is a natural, Dunn has been practicing, Carter’s pretty darned good, Parker was good from three last season.
Sounds like a plan, but thus far it’s been more like a good day at the driving range. It hasn’t often carried over to the course. A lot of this has to do with spacing the court, movement and creating good opportunities. You know, the way the game is played and what the triangle did. Will some one emerge as that reliable threat? Some two? It has to be more than a shot in the dark.
How are they going to play defense?
This could also be a who and when. This is going to be the question that comes up most frequently, especially after Parker’s initial day of media appearances when he told a radio station interviewer they don’t really pay you to play defense. Dennis Rodman and Draymond Green may disagree. It wasn’t Parker’s best moment, and he pretty much condemned himself for misquoting himself. Defense is want more than can. Hardly anyone in the NBA plays great defense. The players are too good. A good defender is a player who tries. That may be what it comes down to for the two Bulls players most will be watching, LaVine and Parker. LaVine, especially, certainly can play defense with his excellent athletic ability. Will he want to? Same with Parker. They are both potential 20 point per game scorers this season. And Parker is right in that when teams pay you, they ask you how much you scored and not how many you stopped. Are they inclined to be teammates or mercenaries? It’s one of the larger questions all NBA teams face.
Why is Parker going to play small forward?
Haven’t we been told it’s now position less basketball? Robin at point? OK, not completely. It’s not like Parker is replacing LeBron, Kawhi or Antetokounmpo. Though he apparently wanted to prod the latter a bit previously. The Bulls aren’t exactly deep at small forward with Justin Holiday and Denzel Valentine, who both tested positively for reserve roles. Is JaKarr Sampson still around? Oh, right, Chandler Hutchison. Carter is ready; Hutchison likely is not. Rookie Hutchison seems willing, and may be able eventually, but not unlike starting at Boise State, it’s going to take some development. I’d expect Hutchison to learn the physicality of pro play more in the G-league this season than in the NBA. He’s got some moves and looks wonderful in the open court, but likely needs to physical up quite a bit.
I’ve always been an advocate of putting your five best players on the court, mostly to start, but also when you need that. Parker looks like one of the five best. He may not be quick enough, and paired with LaVine on the wing comes the fear of defensive breakdowns. Though both seem smart enough and talented enough to be competent defenders. Parker looks and plays like an NBA starter. Plus, he’s in a prove it season. Of course, that also could lead to an emphasis on pay check offense. It’s another position to watch. Yes, there’s plenty to watch with this team.
Who’s on first (bench call)?
The Bulls appear to have a pretty good reserve unit led by Bobby Portis, who doesn’t appear to be fighting for a job this fall. No, he’s not getting that one behind him for awhile. But Portis dealt humbly and professionally with his training camp mixup with Nikola Mirotic and emerged to have his best season. He’s turned into a legitimate league Sixth Man candidate with an improved three-point shot while embracing his role. Portis is eligible for a contract extension before the regular season begins. He’ll probably back up both center and power forward and could be part of the Bulls best front court if Carter is a reserve with him. Then there’s Denzel Valentine, who’s become a reliable shooter.
Justin Holiday will have to fight off volume scorer Antonio Blakeney at shooting guard with Payne likely the point backup. The Bulls are taking a look at a couple of backup guards with NBA experience, Antonius Cleveland and Derrick Walton, and an intriguingly tough undrafted guard, fellow Brooklynite Rawle Alkins. He, Reinsdorf and me could be talking the ’55 series and Johnny Podres endlessly. Reliable Ryan Arcidianco gets another shot, and his shot is good enough he should take it more. The reserves could be surprising in reserve.
Why keep asking about the coach?
Because it’s what everyone does. So far Scott Brooks, Billy Donovan, Dave Joerger, Terry Stotts, Tom Thibodeau, Luke Walton, Mike Malone and Tyrone Lue could be in trouble. And they’re all undefeated. And we’re still not sure if James Borrego, Lloyd Pierce, Nick Nurse and Igor Kokoskov are new cast members in the NCIS season opener. It’s Fred Hoiberg’s fourth season, which makes him the 12th most senior coach in the NBA now. Actually, other than his first season when he was expected to win 70 games, Hoiberg’s teams have outpaced preseason expectations.
Even last season’s 27 wins with pretty much giving up the last two months exceeded the predictions. And that’s with basically a different roster every season, the first with Rose-Noah-Jimmy-Pau, then Jimmy-Wade-Rondo, then Lauri-Kris-Zach and now Parker-Carter-Zach, etc. And that first season, by the way, the Bulls were about eight over .500 when Noah got hurt, Dunleavy still thought about coming back eventually came back and Jimmy went into coach-me-harder mode. Though under Hoiberg, Butler had his three best seasons as a pro and wanted badly to stay. After one season in Minnesota, he’s demanded to leave. It’s difficult to go through annual roster changes, and coaching is not a long term commitment. Plus, after being out of the first round just twice in the last six years, people get restless. By December, Hoiberg will be the fifth longest serving coach in Bulls franchise history.
Where will they finish?
If the Bulls don’t make the playoffs, in Philadelphia on April 10, the same place the Bulls start the season October 18th. Though it ought to be a heck of a story in between.