The Bulls were, as they promised, off and running with Sunday's 128-116 preseason opening win. It's still not about victories, though it will be instructive Wednesday when the Bulls are in Milwaukee—and it's new arena—to get a look at a team many project as top four in the Eastern Conference with an MVP contender in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
"It's a team we need to prepare ourself for, division rival, somebody we're going to see pretty much often and a team that's returning from the playoffs," noted former Buck Jabari Parker. "So it's going to be a good little test for us being in the Eastern Conference."
It's Parker's first return to Milwaukee since the Bucks rescinded his qualifying offer and Parker signs with the Bulls as a free agent. It was a fitful four years in Milwaukee for the Chicago product after being the No. 2 overall selection in the 2014 NBA draft between Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Parker sustained an ACL tear, but then appeared on the way to becoming a potential championship pair with Antetokounmpo, averaging 20.1 points in 2016-17 before another ACL tear. By the time, Parker returned last season, coach Jason Kidd was fired, the team was in transition to a new coach, Parker was benched to start the playoffs, complained about his role and clearly he and the staff weren't a mutual admiration society.
"It's going to be fun just to see all the people I grew with and guys that I haven't seen in a while," Parker insisted. "Some great memories being there, some great experiences, met some great people. Pretty much bitter how it all ended, but most importantly, I had a sweeter moment being here. So I forgot all the bad memories I had with them. I wasn't planning on leaving so soon. I love that group and all the training staff, medical staff. But they went in a different direction, which I understand. Things happen. It's the business."
Parker was competent in the Bulls opener Sunday, if not exceptional. He had 15 points on five of 14 shooting with eight rebounds and four assists. His plus/minus was team best 13. He clearly seemed like he will be in the middle of everything the Bulls do this season.
"I was really impressed with Jabari the way he adjusted as quickly as he did," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "We had to shift positions after Lauri (Markkanen) got hurt. We came (to practice) and got game speed reps and Jabari was the catalyst as far as hearing his voice and getting on guys and making sure we were going hard even though it wasn't a contact practice. I've been really impressed with Jabari. He's picking things up and he's learning two positions, which isn't easy to do when you're in a new system."
Though the larger question for the Bulls, which should play out in the weeks and months to come, is whether their skills agree with the system. The term system in sports, and especially basketball, is much overused. It's often a vague expedient for when things do not work. It's essentially skill, sacrifice and trust. The Bulls appear like they'll need work on the latter two. Which actually is a good thing. Because until this season, they didn't have enough of the former. And without skill, it doesn't matter how much trust and sacrifice a team has.
What was most impressive in the Bulls debut was that several players are capable of making plays, scoring, perhaps even being that Big Dawg every successful team needs. Zach LaVine looked especially prepared for the role.
But others showed that capability of getting a shot and making a play, like Parker, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis, Antonio Blakeney and Wendell Carter Jr. We know Lauri Markkanen can and will when he returns from his elbow injury.
What the Bulls didn't show was the second part, which is the part of the system that elevates a team from good to great.
First, you need players with enough talent to make plays and score, create for themselves. Then you need those players to keep moving without the ball, trust that it will return to them when they get open, players who will pass on a good shot to create a better shot for a teammate, a teammate who continued to move into that position.
The Bulls were good, but they played a lot of isolation basketball, or a ball screen and a shot. They were good enough to get the shot and often make them, but often not much interested in making the defense work a little more. Since it's preseason and since in preseason teams are reluctant to show that many of their plays even though everyone knows them, there's more free lance in preseason. And we don't know yet if Hoiberg prefers a version of the Mike D'Antoni seven seconds and first shot offense. So it's too soon to make any judgments.
One glaring positive for the Bulls was the way the players weren't bending over for rest during those free throws. LaVine mentioned how he didn't feel tired and felt the players were in excellent shape. That seemed like a positive for the way Hoiberg has conducted training camp and the few weeks of workouts before camp began.
"We've been doing a lot of running," Hoiberg confirmed. "We've had very demanding practices. Every time we turn the ball over we're running sprints for that. We had 30 of them the first day. So we're running, trying to be a team that's as good conditioned as any team in the NBA. Right now I like the commitment to it. But there's always room to grow."
That's going to be an advantage if Hoiberg can maintain that ethos. It's easier with young players. It wasn't the kind of thing you could do with players like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah and later Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade, the latter pair who mostly sat out the training camp running drills and scrimmages their season together.
When Red Auerbach built the Boston Celtics dynasty in the 1960s, a team that relied on fast break and quick shooting before it was discovered by the Phoenix Suns and then Golden State Warriors, the first week of camp was played without a basketball. Just speed drills so that no one was in better condition. It worked.
It could work for the Bulls. But it works best when everyone is willing to share. Consider that when the Celtics were winning eight straight titles, they only had a top five scorer one season. And then when they added two more after that they didn't have a top 10 scorer. Obviously, teams like the current champion Warriors succeed with league leading scorers. So it's hardly anathema. But they have done so with constant ball movement and passing.
The championship Bulls had a pretty good scorer in Michael Jordan. But that's also why Phil Jackson blended Jordan's excellence with the triangle offense. Because the triangle exhorts players to pass and move and continue to find open spaces for better shots. The Bulls appear to have several players capable of the job. Which requires everyone to be scorers, movers and receivers. It perhaps creates some unforeseen possibilities for this season. They can, but will they?
"We want to play fast," Hoiberg acknowledged. "That's what we've talked a lot about, and I thought our guys bought into that. I think they've done a good job thus far in camp of trying to get the ball up quickly and not hang heads and move on to the next possession. And when we get that thing off the glass, making sure we're running and spacing the floor and trying to get something accomplished before the defense gets set. For the first opportunity out there against an opponent, I thought we did a very good job with it. We still got a lot of work to do. There's a lot of things that we need to grow on. But I did think our guys went out and competed, and I did like the way we played."