What can we expect from the Bulls young backcourt of Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine?
Sam Smith tells us about the Bulls duo and what the team needs to do on this 10-day West Coast trip
So how good are Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn? Pretty good for now, though the Bulls are hoping for omnipotence. You know, "Oh my, guard!"
Shooting guard LaVine is among the leading scorers in the NBA at 23.6 points per game and Dunn is averaging 13.9 points and 6.9 assists, but 15.3 points and 9.3 assists this month, trying to make his case as an elite two-way point guard.
But can they measure up against the best?
That's why this five-game road trip starting Wednesday in Portland may be a valuable gauge of the Bulls young backcourt. The Bulls know they have unusual and reliable players in seven-foot shooting forward Lauri Markkanan and rugged center Wendell Carter Jr. Perhaps the largest question for the team's future, especially in this theoretically higher scoring and faster paced era of play, is the quality of the Bulls' backcourt. How do LaVine and Dunn measure up with the best? And will they take the challenge?
With Kris Dunn's toughness and penetrating abilities and Zach LaVine's all-around offensive game, they hope to make a case to be considered among the best backcourts in the NBA.
"We're going to the West and it's a total different pace, especially with the first game," LaVine noted after the Bulls loss to Brooklyn Sunday. "They've got the two-headed monster with C.J. (McCollum) and Dame (Lillard) and they're going to be attacking. You talk about shooting threes? They're going to be going at you. We've got to be prepared for that and, like I said, I think we've got to be a lot tougher and we have to start that from the tip-off."
Toughness was a theme for the team coming out of the Brooklyn loss and in practice this week. The Bulls have emphasized a slower pace of play under coach Jim Boylen, in part, to enhance their defensive play and slow down the faster teams. It is sometimes what teams do in order to make up for a talent deficiency. Which the Bulls have had much of the season with a bizarre succession of injuries to the best players.
But with the Bulls finally healthy for the first time this season—Bobby Portis returned Sunday and Denzel Valentine is out for the season—it's probably time to test the Bulls talent resolve in the second half of the season.
"(The injuries) were a difficult thing on (former coach) Fred (Hoiberg) and it's a difficult thing on the guys and it's a difficult thing on everybody," said Boylen. "We're in a season of development, we're in a season of discovery. But we also want to be in a season where we're healthy and we see our guys grow."
Perhaps that starts now as the Bulls play Game 41 Wednesday, the halfway mark of the season.
Much of the measure of that growth could come for LaVine and Dunn during this road trip. A few years back, the Bulls had a buy in on having the best backcourt in the NBA with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. That changed with Rose's injuries and eventually the trade of Butler. Both LaVine and Dunn were part of that trade, and they are crucial to the Bulls' future.
LaVine has the potential to be a top shooting guard. He is a two-time All-Star slam dunk champion who appears to have regained his excellent athleticism after recovering from ACL surgery. He carried the team offensively early in the season with Dunn and Markkanen injured, ranking then in the top five in scoring. He's now 15th. He's been among the best to get to the free throw line until recently and improving his three-point shooting.
Though Boylen lately said he has been encouraging LaVine to drive more.
Dunn has been back about a month from his knee injury and is finally starting to establish himself as the team's point guard. He's been known primarily for his defense, though lately has taken a step back trying to fight through screens. He's been more adept defensively playing the lanes for steals. He's an uncertain three-point shooter, but has become an excellent mid range shooter and finisher at the basket on drives.
With his toughness and penetrating abilities and LaVine's all around offensive game, they hope to make a case to be considered among the best backcourts in the NBA.
They'll be able to start measuring and testing themselves over the next week.
—— Portland Trailblazers, Wednesday: Damien Lillard and C.J. McCollum average combined about 47 points per game. They play a lot of isolation, but both are elite scorers with Lillard 10th in the league and among the most prolific three-three-point shooters in the NBA, averaging about eight attempts per game. "You've got to deal with those two guards, first of all," said Boylen. "We've got to take away their easy buckets. We kind of calculated just watching their film and studying their stats that they get 12 to 20 points a game on layups. So we've got to do our best to keep them in front of us, which is something we talk about all the time."
—- Golden State Warriors, Friday: Some bad memories. Last time the Bulls played the Warriors, they scored 92 first half points and Klay Thompson had a record 14 three pointers. The Warriors benched their regulars late and still scored 149 points. Though they are not in another record season likely due to championship fatigue, they remain the class and show of the NBA, especially their backcourt averaging about 50 points per game behind the indomitable Stephen Curry. Curry is second in the league in scoring to James Harden. If not the best backcourt ever, they probably are the best shooting backcourt ever. If you want to make your mark as a top backcourt, this is where you start.
— Utah Jazz, Saturday: Donovan Mitchell is no longer the next greatest thing after a fabulous rookie season. But he's still a dynamic shooting guard averaging 20 points. Point guard Ricky Rubio's statistics are similar to Dunn's, though Rubio is more of a playmaker. He had been a reluctant shooter who has an improved set shot. It's a high altitude city and difficult place to play with a raucous home crowd, especially for the Bulls on the second of a back to back. But it's a chance to win the backcourt matchup.
—- Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 15: It's the weak backcourt spot with Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. Except, of course, if LeBron James returns from injury. That remains uncertain. James will play point guard (and just about every other position) if he plays. Ball and Hart tend to be erratic with Ball mostly looking to push the ball and the Lakers among the fastest and highest scoring teams. Neither is scoring in double figures. Again, and especially after two off days, it's a chance for LaVine and Dunn to excel.
—- Denver Nuggets, Jan. 17: They don't exactly have a point guard since Jamal Murray plays the position alongside Gary Harris and Murray would be a shooting guard on many teams. They average about 36 points combined among an excellent ensemble of scorers who have been the surprising leaders in the Western Conference. They often play through point center Nikola Jokic, who is in the top 10 in the league in assists.
The Bulls have a healthy backcourt for the first time this season. It's time to begin seeing where and how they measure up among the best.
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