Which of the Bulls young core will blossom into All Stars?
Sam Smith looks at potential breakout stars Markkanen, LaVine, Dunn, Parker and Carter
Obviously, we're going out there to win. That's what we do. That's the only way you can get better and that's how you compete; that's how you progress as a team. As players, we're going out there to win and compete every game. I'm not putting expectations on this season. Obviously we want to make the playoffs, we want to compete for championships. So that's what we're going to start with, starting tomorrow. Build those championship habits. - Zach LaVine
The NBA season often is likened more to a marathon than a sprint, but it's still a race. The Bulls Monday opened their 2018-19 season—the second day of the next part of their lives in the second season of their rebuild—with their own race.
It's the one to find a star.
No one actually mentioned it that way, and Bulls executives were anxious to maintain limited expectations.
"I said earlier this summer after we went to the draft and through free agency that we were pleased in terms of where we are in the rebuild," said Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson. "With that said, we also understand that we have a lot of work to do. There is an excitement with the group. (But) you're not going to hear us talk about wins or anything like that; the expectations for us are to see this team come together. Our goal is to be the best basketball team we can be, and that's through this group coming together. We have talent, I believe that, and how it comes together, how we play, will determine what kind of win total we end up with, but we're not going to focus on that.'
The players generally tried to offer the right balance between competitive nature and company narrative.
"I think expectations for us is just going to be taking it day by day and being competitive," said Zach LaVine. "I think we'll be fine because we're going to be so excited. We're really hungry. We hear the outside expectations (about another 27-win season). But I think we use that as fuel. We're going to get off to a hot start with training camp coming. We've all been here and it's going to be fun. That's why I think we're all able to get a jump on the season because we're all healthy now. Obviously, we're going out there to win. That's what we do. That's the only way you can get better and that's how you compete; that's how you progress as a team. As players, we're going out there to win and compete every game. I'm not putting expectations on this season. Obviously we want to make the playoffs, we want to compete for championships. So that's what we're going to start with, starting tomorrow. Build those championship habits."
"Hopefully," added Lauri Markkanen with a smile, "get more wins than 27 like last year."
Betting the over, which probably is OK now that the NBA has an official betting partner in Las Vegas, sounds right for the Bulls.
This is no 27-win team.
Hey, no 22-win team jokes.
It's a team that could/might/should compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It's not a promise, though also not an unreasonable expectation.
"We're going to have to have a lot of sacrifice with this team because of the talent and the many weapons that we're going to have. It may be a different guy every night. And that will have to be accepted. We want growth. We want to continue to get better. If you get guys to compete and buy in, you're going to have a chance every night." - Coach Fred Hoiberg
Consider that a year ago with the preseason starting, Kris Dunn was behind Jerian Grant on the depth chart, LaVine was three months away from playing 18 minutes, Jabari Parker was in Milwaukee trying to return from a second ACL surgery, Markkanen was being eased into the season after playing much of the summer for native Finland and Wendell Carter Jr. was wondering where the heck Marvin Bagley Jr. came from and where his shots were going.
That's probably the finishing five with veteran Robin Lopez likely the starting center based on seniority more than his new goatee. But it's also a group of five, young, talented lottery picks, most of whom have had uncertain NBA debuts. Which also is why most are in Chicago. The second time around often works as well.
But it's also a race for these five potential thoroughbreds to becoming a star or stars.
Rebuilding with young players isn't guaranteed. The Bulls will probably be the youngest team in the NBA. That's not necessarily a great thing, at least for the coming season. Raw fruit isn't that appealing; nor really is steak tartare. There aren't many rookies in the Finals. So you need to grow and grow together. But a team, you also need a star before the growth matters much.
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this Bulls season is that they have five players who could become stars based on their talent and draft status. Most of the NBA believed all were potential stars at some point given their draft lottery placement. But all won't be or can't be. The hope of the team is someone—or three—are. Partly because most successful teams develop or acquire a star and fit a team around that talent.
Of course, everyone will say it's great to have multiple top players who can all take and make those last shots and the big plays; though the fact is a team needs that mega talent or two not so much for that last shot, but so that everyone else can get their shots and find their place. Make the defense watch someone else and it opens things for everyone else.
"Great teams seem to have a pecking order," agreed Paxson. "In terms of our leadership, that's something that will play itself out. We didn't have this group play together very much last year. It's a young group. They do have some experience in the league now, which is a good thing. I know we're going to try to play quickly, throw the ball ahead a lot, movement."
Which is the responsibility of coach Fred Hoiberg to enforce.
"There aren't a ton of teams in the league who have only one guy that take the last shot," Hoiberg noted. "We had multiple occasions when we were going through our really good stretch last year where Lauri would take the last shot. Or Kris Dunn really developed into a closer in a lot of those wins that we had. Zach had a couple games where we put the ball in his hands late in games. Obviously, Jabari is capable of making a big play, especially at the three when you can put him on the block and you can take advantage of the mismatch. That will develop as we go along. We'll understand who has the makeup to be that guy that we put the ball in their hands late in games."
But can they accept that? Will they?
"We're going to have to have a lot of sacrifice with this team because of the talent and the many weapons that we're going to have," Hoiberg acknowledged. "It may be a different guy every night. And that will have to be accepted. We want growth. We want to continue to get better. If you get guys to compete and buy in, you're going to have a chance every night."
Which is the play it out part that the coaches and management talked about.
But it's also a race to develop that All-Star, which is the goal of every rebuilding team, and the Bulls get in the starting blocks with the first practice Tuesday.
In lane one, Kris Dunn:
"We have multiple playmakers, so I don't have to create all the plays for everyone. At the same time, I'm a point guard and whoever's got it rolling I have to make sure they get the ball. We have a bunch of scorers on the team, so make sure everyone gets their fair share. I have great chemistry with Lauri; Zach, he's easy to play with because he is a knock down shooter, Jabari he's an unselfish player, a slasher and Wendell is another unselfish player who doesn't need the ball or Rolo, who is another one. Now, I'm even more comfortable. I think I've built a foundation and put in the hard work last year to get that starting position and I put in that same work to keep my position. I'm just going to keep working hard, keep learning about the game and my teammates and go out there with a positive state of mind. I feel like I am the best defender we have; people say Wendell now, but I'm going to hold my ground and keep on competing. I worked on (shooting) all summer, just like any area of my game. Everybody has their flaw and you have to understand I just work hard. Fred Hoiberg does an unbelievable job with me with body position and making sure I have the right form and right mechanics and I'm not going to be scared to shoot, simple as that. They were freak injuries (last season). I can't do anything about it. I just go out and play hard; hopefully God understands I play so hard He won't allow me to get any more injuries this year."
In lane two, Zach LaVine:
"I think everybody's role is going to be different. It starts in training camp, but with mine I think it's going to be the same expectations as last year, come in, be a leader of the team, lead by example, show the hard work and be one of the go-to guys. There's going to be some dudes' nights here, some dudes' nights there, but obviously we all know our talents and we all know what we can do. We all can play defense, everybody in the NBA can play defense. We're some of the most athletic people in the game. It's just that determination and that learning curve. I know personally I've always been really good on the ball. I don't know if you guys can tell me that I'm not good on the ball. I've always had a problem off the weak side and stuff like that. That's the main thing you hammer and you try to focus. People are going to talk regardless. It's a story to talk about defense, bad this and bad that. I think we're always looking for the positives and showing how we can grow. We all know how explosive we can be on the other end. If we get that down, we're going to be scary. Last year, I was obviously coming off an ACL injury, about 60-70 percent. Now I think I'm back to 100. I lost a little bit of weight, I'm about 200 pounds. I think I was like 212 last year, but that's just not my playing weight. I feel a lot lighter, athletic, still strong and I'm ready to go at it."
In lane three, Jabari Parker:
"I'm just happy starting a new chapter, especially being home. It's just going to take time like anything else. Once we figure out each other and start to gel then we'll see the results. As far as the results go, then we'll know if we're jelling or not. It's easier now because [before] I was more centered on myself, my rehab. I was isolated a lot of times. But now it's been better building chemistry with the team. And I'll be able to implement myself a little bit faster rather than in the past where I couldn't play before with teammates. So it's been pretty good. I don't set expectations on myself. I just hope that I get better each and every day. Everybody wants to make the playoffs. Just doing the best we can. For me, it's more short term thinking in the future. I just want to focus on the steps rather than the finish line."
In lane four, Lauri Markkanen:
"I tried to stay in the weight room as much as I can. I think I've gained a little bit. I'm around 240 right now. I think it will help my game overall, driving down the lane I'm going to have more strength. I think I played at 223. So 17 pounds (more). Of course, posting up guys and when they're posting up me, I can be more aggressive. Overall, in every situation, I'm not going to back down as easily. And I might be able to back them down some. Last year I wasn't able to do that. I've been able to work on my body and be healthy, so I feel good. That's eventually my goal, to be an All Star. But I don't know when that is gong to happen. I definitely set that a goal for me on the personal side, but I am not worried about All Star break now."
Added LaVine: "Lauri looks great. He got a little bit stronger, jumper still looks pretty as all get out. Still the funniest dude in the world. I just want him to build on what he did. He had such a great rookie year with the opportunity he had. The sky's the limit for him. He's one of those players that he can do a lot of big things. Lauri's off the charts."
In lane five, Wendell Carter Jr. (eventually)
"Going into training camp, I just want to improve myself each day, after each workout be able to look at myself and say I got better today; that's what I am going to focus on. I feel like I'm in a position now where I am on a great team and will do what I have to do to help the team win. It's not so much as sharing the wealth or sacrificing where I am not getting the amount of shots that I want; it's more so I'm on a great team with other great players and I'm excited to get on the court with them and win some games. First thing I realized is knocking down open shots; that's something that an NBA player needs to be able to do. Ever since I got here, that's something I worked on and even before I got here I was working on being a better jump shooter. I'm a competitor no matter if I'm coming off the bench, sixth man, starting, or getting three minutes in the game I feel like whenever I am in the game I'm going to compete and do whatever I have to do. I just like to win and will do everything in my power to do that."
So who's your pick?
"Obviously we all want those accolades," LaVine added. "All-NBA, All-Star, MVP, championships, stuff like that. But it doesn't start until you build those habits. None of us have really proven anything as a group and I think it all comes with winning. So I don't want to make it a me thing or anybody else. I think collectively, if we win and we're great together, it's going to build us all up and we're going to have those accolades. Because we're all good enough to have it. We all have that potential."
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