Sam Smith's Mid-season Report
A new year welcomes a new coach and a new starting lineup
Is it only halfway?
It seems like it's been so much longer for the Bulls, who reach the 41-game midpoint of the 2018-19 season Wednesday in Portland to open a five-game Western Conference road trip.
It comes with a new coach, a new starting lineup that is probably as young as any in franchise history, the healthiest team they've had this season and halfway to another 20-something wins season.
It wasn't supposed to be anything like this back in late September when the team assembled for the first time encouraged and excited about, even if no one was saying it out loud, at least being a team in the vicinity of playoff contention while in development throughout the season.
Sept 24. Executive Vice-President John Paxson opens the annual media day by saying he's not talking about wins and playoffs and goals, just that there's excitement and, "What's exciting is we are healthy."
Sept 28. The team announces Lauri Markkanen will miss six to eight weeks with an elbow sprain. Markkanen would not return until Dec. 1. Markkanen had muscled up over the summer to about 240 pounds, almost 20 more than last season and with enough definition in his body that GNC stores could have been considering him as a male model. All of which was gone by December. Denzel Valentine, meanwhile, sustained an ankle injury and is expected back within a week to two.
Oct 18. Cameron Payne opens the season as starting point guard with Kris Dunn out for the birth of his first child. Payne is scoreless in 22 minutes and eventually is released Jan. 3 to open a roster spot with the trade of Justin Holiday to Memphis. Payne signs with the Cavaliers. The Bulls score 41 points in the first quarter of the opener in Philadelphia and lead by six points before scoring 35 in the next two quarters and lose by 19.
Oct 22. Dunn returns for Game 3 in Dallas to team with the hot Zach LaVine in the backcourt Dunn finishes the game despite hurting his knee, but then is declared out after the game for four to six weeks with a sprained knee. Payne returns to the starting lineup, eventually to be outplayed by Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison before his release.
Oct 24. In Game 4 against Charlotte the Bulls win for the first time, but Bobby Portis goes down in the fourth quarter, like Dunn with an MCL sprain, and is also out an estimated four to six weeks.
Oct 29. Coming in after winning two of three with LaVine among the league scoring leaders and eventually being the team's scoring leader in 13 of the first 14 games with a career high 41 points in New York, the Bulls give up 92 first half points and 10 threes to what was a slumping Klay Thompson on the way to a record 14 threes. The Bulls would lose just 149-124. Matchups during the game included Payne against MVP Steph Curry and Chandler Hutchison against MVP Kevin Durant. Jabari Parker the next game moves in as a starter to replace Hutchison.
Nov 2. The Bulls lose in the last seconds for the third time in nine games, three losses by a combined five points. At 2-7, they were perhaps two or three plays away from being 5-4 and the story of the league. They lost on an Ish Smith driving layup with five seconds left, a Paul Millsap putback with a tenth of a second left and a Darren Collison jumper with 18 seconds left. The Bulls after the Collison shot got two offensive rebounds from Wendell Carter Jr. and three shots at a winner with Antonio Blakeney blocked at the buzzer to end the game. The Bulls would also go on to lose by one point to the Spurs when LaVine and Arcidiacono missed in the last five seconds and by a basket to the Bucks when Khris Middleton made a three with five seconds left and Holiday missed at the buzzer as the Bulls go on to lead the league in games decided by three points or fewer.
Nov 9. The Bulls lose one of their two players on two-way G-league contracts. Tyler Ulis following his 25-point debut for the Windy City Bulls is diagnosed with a hip injury. He will eventually have a hip procedure and be waived in December.
Nov 19. Valentine is scheduled for ankle surgery and will miss the rest of the season.
Dec 1. Markkanen returns and scores 10 points in a 16-point loss in Houston. Dunn, Portis and Valentine remain out. It marks the sixth loss in the last 10 games by at least 15 points.
Dec 3. Coach Fred Hoiberg in his fourth season is fired and replaced by associate head coach Jim Boylen.
Dec 4. The Bulls lose their first game under Boylen in Indiana with Markkanen in his second game getting 21 points and 10 rebounds. The Bulls then Dec. 7 back home against Oklahoma City even their record at 1-1 under Boylen with LaVine scoring 25 points and outplaying Russell Westbrook. Markkanen adds 24 points. Is that the future?
Dec 8. Boylen makes five-player substitutions in the first and third quarters in an eventual 56-point loss to Boston that leads to multiple team meetings the following day after an aborted practice and the creation of a leadership committee to handle potential player/team disputes. The Bulls are featured on many NBA newscasts.
Dec 10. Dunn and Portis return from their knee injuries and both come off the bench in a 19-point loss to the Sacramento Kings during which the Bulls led by 14 and then trailed by 22.
Dec 13. The Bulls travel to Mexico City and lose to Orlando while perhaps 15 members of the traveling party are taken ill. LaVine sustains a sprained ankle late in the game and goes on to miss five games. Big summer free agent Parker is taken out of the playing rotation for unspecified reasons and doesn't play the next nine games. Then the following game after Mexico City back in the United States, the Bulls come back from a 21-point deficit in San Antonio to defeat the Spurs.
Dec 19. Portis sprains his ankle and is sidelined again, this time for about two weeks.
Dec 23. With his second consecutive game scoring more than 30 points, Markkanen leads the Bulls to a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers as the Bulls begin a run of three wins in four games and four wins in their last eight under Boylen. Is that the future?
Jan 4. In their fifth game starting together this season, LaVine scores 31 points, Markkanen scores 27 and Dunn has 16 points and 17 assists as the Bulls lose in the last seconds in overtime to the Indiana Pacers in the vision John Paxson had for the team half a season ago when the Bulls had media day in September. Now that has to be the future, right?
Jan 6. Portis returns in Game 40 as the Bulls are healthy for the first time this season with the exception of reserve Denzel Valentine out for the season, but lose badly to the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls are 10-30. Only half way.
But will it be a happy new year?
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