A look back at the Bulls 2018-19 season
"To take over midstream, the support I received was awesome. Obviously, we had some difficult moments and we also had some good moments." - Coach Boylen
Walt Lemon Jr. was speaking after the Bulls Wednesday finished their ill-fated 2018-19 NBA season with a 125-109 loss to a legion of Philadelphia 76ers backups, the Bulls closing with a 22-60 record. Lemon in his sixth game with the Bulls out of the G-league led the team with 20 points, though his view on the NBA could be a template for the Bulls.
They're farther away than they'd like to be, but have the chance to be much closer than the record suggests.
"The pace is different," Lemon said about his first regular play in the NBA. "These guys are more athletic, their timing is better. So you have to learn to be a little more decisive and deceptive. I want to get better. These games helped me understand what I am up against and what I have to work on. In the G-league, I'm mostly more athletic than any of the guards I am going against. So it's easier finishing at the cup. Up here it's a different ball game. It's like when you graduate high school and go to college; it's the next level. You have to adjust to the physicality and strength.
"When you go to another level," Lemon acknowledged, "you have to get better because it's harder. I've got to keep working. I'm not there yet, but I have to keep working and I will get better."
It's the hope of the slick guard from Julian High School and Bradley U., who had a strong finish and averaged 14.5 points, five assists and 4.5 rebounds in his six-game audition for the Bulls and the NBA. But his comments were perhaps also an unintended message to this young Bulls team. It's more difficult than they perhaps expected it to be, but they've got talent and now they need to use it more favorably, more forcefully and more fully.
"It was a season of change and different lineups," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen after the game. "We got a trade, injuries, picked guys up, a couple of trades, actually. But it was a great learning thing for me and my staff and I feel we did the best we could.
"I'm excited," Boylen insisted. "We picked up Wendell [Carter Jr.] last summer and we got a hell of a player in Wendell. We picked up Otto [Porter Jr.]; we got a hell of a player in Otto. Zach LaVine, there were stretches of the season he played as good of basketball as anybody in the league. Lauri Markkanen had an unbelievable February, kind of showed a glimpse of who he could be and we established a style of play, got a multiple ball handler system and also ball movement, playing together as a unit. So I'm encouraged, I'm excited. I think we're in a great place to build from. If I had a criticism, I think we have to get tougher. We have to get more physical. We have to play better at home and we have to honor the defensive end of the floor better as a group."
Better than that October day when the Bulls opened the 2018-19 season with a starting lineup of Bobby Portis, Justin Holiday, Carter, LaVine and Cameron Payne?
After a record setting first quarter in which the Bulls left the powerful 76ers 41-38, the 76ers ran away to a 127-108 victory despite 30 points from LaVine.
Yes, Cameron Payne started. And Tyler Ulis finished.
"It does seem like a couple of seasons ago in some ways," quipped Robin Lopez.
That's right; Omer Asik played then as well
"I do (think we're better than on Oct 18)," said Boylen.
Not necessarily the way the Bulls finished the season with Ryan Arcidiacono, Cristiano Felicio, Antonio Blakeney, Rawle Alkins and Brandon Sampson on the floor watching the clock run down while Jimmy Butler was making paper airplanes sitting on the 76ers bench with the rest of the Philadelphia regulars resting for the playoffs.
"When you go to another level. You have to get better because it's harder. I've got to keep working. I'm not there yet, but I have to keep working and I will get better." - Walt Lemon Jr.
The Bulls would like to think that's just a year away for them, and perhaps it's not inconceivable with the core of players and expected addition of a high lottery draft pick and one or two veteran free agents. But it was the second consecutive season and third in the last four the Bulls failed to qualify for the playoffs with an average of barely 25 wins per season the last two years. The 22-win season was the fourth fewest in franchise history, though perhaps not as far away with LaVine, Markkanen, Porter, Carter, Kris Dunn, Chandler Hutchison and Denzel Valentine all sitting out the last weeks with injuries and health concerns.
So the work and training begins again as Carter Wednesday said he'll play in some Summer League games, presumably with Hutchison, and most indicated they're prepared to throw themselves into serious routines.
"We've had some bumps in the road, but I think we did a great job of forging ahead and we had a great February, had some injuries but we had a good spirit in the locker room to finish out the season," said Lopez, who never let his sense of joy escape as he exchanged greetings with the 76ers mascot after the game ended. "I think we have a better idea of who we are as a team.
"I've always kind of embraced the role of being that stabilizing force, that backbone of a team," said Lopez. "I've always enjoyed that role. It's a bit of a skill (being healthy), something you have to figure out in this league. But I think everyone is eager to get back to work whenever they can."
It will take a lot of work to begin a turnaround from the last two seasons, though this one was derailed almost from the start with Markkanen's serious elbow injury in training camp. Dunn missed the first game because of the birth of a child and soon went out with a knee injury along with Portis. Valentine never could get on the court with his ankle problems that led to surgery.
So it became a 5-19 start under coach Fred Hoiberg, barely held aloft by the All-Star like scoring of LaVine, who was in the league's top 10 for much of the first half of the season until an ankle injury sidelined him during the team's trip to Mexico City in December. Hoiberg was fired just before that and replaced by Boylen, who finished 17-41.
"I've always kind of embraced the role of being that stabilizing force, that backbone of a team. I've always enjoyed that role." - Robin Lopez
But that was after yet another shakeup with the trade of Portis and free agent frustration Jabari Parker to the Washington Wizards for Porter. Porter's mature presence along with exceptional play from Markkanen produced the best stretch of play of the season. The Bulls won five of six games and seven of 12 over a month long stretch that generated at least a sense of hope and faith that the seas had finally calmed for the Bulls listing ship.
Carter had gone out for the season before then in January with the most freakish of injuries, merely trying to break a fall. Hutchison soon joined him and then as the season wound down medical concerns grew around LaVine, Porter and Dunn to put them out along with a heart scare for Markkanen that appears resolved and apparently not a major concern moving forward.
But all that left the team limping toward the finish with only Lopez among rotation players.
Even with the 76ers digging into their bench to rest their regulars for the time of the season that was recently a Bulls ritual, the Bulls irregulars quickly fell behind a dozen points in the first quarter. Fellow G-league player JaKarr Sampson, who averaged 20 points and eight rebounds in four games for the Bulls, had to be let go Tuesday when his 10-day contract expired. He was added under a special league injury exception, so he could not be renewed.
The Bulls fell behind by 20 points at halftime and 33 after three quarters, which actually was similar to the third quarter deficit back in October on the same floor. Arcidiacono, who received a spirited welcome back in Philadelphia, and former 76er Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot each had 14 points. Lopez, Brandon Sampson and Wayne Selden Jr. had 12.
And so into the past went the 2018-19 Bulls season with almost 300 games missed from injury, 22 different players and 27 different starting lineups.
There were some notable moments, like the four overtime victory over Atlanta when LaVine scored 47 points, his third game of at least 40 points. There was Mr. February, Markkanen, averaging 26.5 points and 12 rebounds, equalling Michael Jordan's mark for the most 20/10 games in a month in franchise history. Until requiring thumb surgery in January, Carter was among the rookie leaders in scoring and rebounding and headed to the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend. Markkanen made his second appearance in the game. Porter within weeks of joining the Bulls had career high games in scoring, three pointers made and blocks with an expanded role with the Bulls. It suggested perhaps the cornerstone of a structure with a solid foundation.
Though it isn't close to being completed and there's plenty of work to be done. These next several months will again be challenging with the hope and perhaps faith that the core pieces are in place to move significantly upward.
"I want to thank John (Paxson) and Jerry and Michael (Reinsdorfs)," Boylen said to open his post game remarks outside the Bulls locker room. "To take over midstream, the support I received was awesome. Obviously, we had some difficult moments and we also had some good moments. I also want to thank Dr. Wendy Borlabi (Bulls sports psychologist) and Doug Collins for their counsel and their support. Dr. B helping me just to grow as a coach and Doug helping me grow as a leader. I want to thanks my coaching staff. Taking over something mid stream without a training camp is very difficult, but we fought, worked hard and worked well together
"I'm disappointed we lost (Wednesday)," said Boylen. "But I'm really thankful some guys got some minutes and got a chance to play."
Guys like Lemon, who embodied the spirit of the team to move forward.
"The way the NBA is, you want to be efficient every game," observed Lemon for both himself and by extension the Bulls. "I had bad shooting nights, but I didn't get down on myself. I was confident I could knock those shots down. You work on them countless hours. Get your rhythm, your confidence."
And bring that next season with a little more of everything.
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