Seeing Chicago Bulls basketball for the first time in well over nine months was certainly different, to say the least. No fans, virtual crowd sounds pumping throughout the broadcast, and stadiums looking somewhat eerie at times made for a weird experience watching the games.
The NBA is back, but it’s certainly not the NBA we are all used to. The Bulls played four games over the last ten days and there are a lot of takeaways to touch on. Aside from that, it’s worth previewing what could be a fun season for the Bulls, which kicks off on Wednesday when they take on the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center.
Starting with the opening game against the Rockets at home, the Bulls looked sluggish, as did most teams that haven’t played competitive basketball in nine months. They struggled to get into their sets and the defense looked troublesome at times, getting burned by a fresh John Wall and a healthy DeMarcus Cousins. The Bulls were blown out by 20 points, but it was fun to keep an eye on Patrick Williams in his NBA debut.
Williams looked calm and collected, notching 12 points and three rebounds in 25 minutes. Williams continued to impress as the preseason rolled on, finishing fourth among rookies in points per game and showed a wide range of skills on both ends of the floor. Notably, Patrick’s offense was a sight to see, knocking down several fadeaway jumpers and tough contested floaters – there is a little Kawhi Leonard in his game.
As for the front court, we saw a mixed bag from Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. The latter, Carter, was fourth on the team in three-point attempts per game with 4.0. The problem, however, was the 6.2% conversion rate, something that presumably will rise as the season rolls on. The added confidence is encouraging for Wendell, who looked capable as a potential floor spacer with a pretty sweet stroke. There were not a lot of bad misses, and some of the looks went in and out.
We also saw Carter used as a modern-day hub playmaker out on the perimeter and in the post, something we rarely saw out of him under former coach Jim Boylen. Carter averaged an impressive 3.5 assists in about 22 minutes of action, and it was great seeing him make some reads finding cutters and shooters. Don’t be surprised to see more of this in the regular season.
Carter’s frontcourt teammate, Lauri Markkanen, was utilized in a much different way throughout the preseason under Donovan. The makes weren’t there for Markkanen, who shot a mere 38% from the field and 31% from three, but the offensive role is promising. A lot of dribble actions for Markkanen were portrayed, with him being used as the pick-and-roll ball handler on multiple occasions.
Markkanen, who looked a lot more agile throughout the preseason, was given a heap more freedom to shoot from all three levels, something that will help his confidence grow. That confidence was put to work in the final preseason game against the Thunder, where Markkanen looked his best with a team-high 22 points on 9-17 shooting.
The percentages will rise for Markkanen once the regular reason rolls around, no question. However, the next step for Lauri is maintaining consistency, while being able to be a go-to option offensively for the Bulls. At the time of writing, it seems unlikely Markkanen and the Bulls will come to a contract agreement, which will make him a restricted free agent following this season. With a chip on his shoulder, a big year could be in the works for Markkanen. With no excuses, his job is simple – be active and be a viable source of offense.
Coby White and Zach LaVine both looked impressive throughout the majority of the preseason. LaVine, however, looked on point. LaVine averaged 19.8 points on 55.7% shooting and it looks like he’s taken his offensive ability to another level. The best part about it was LaVine’s ability to get good looks while being within the flow of Donovan’s offense. Being able to play both on and off the ball with the addition of Coby White as the primary ball-handler allows LaVine to take more shots. For someone who shot 44.6% on wide-open catch and shoots threes last season, putting LaVine in a spot-up role is something that should be implemented throughout points of a game.
To briefly touch on some other guys, Chandler Hutchison looked great. He put in a lot of work over the offseason and it looks like it’s going to pay off. The next step for him is being available. For a career rigged with so many injuries, Hutchison has had little chance to develop during the season. I look forward to seeing what he can do assuming he can stay on the floor. The other wing, Otto Porter Jr., who was demoted to the bench for rookie Patrick Williams, showed strong shooting as he usually does. However, he looked a bit out of sorts at times. Porter lacked speed and was getting burned off the dribble a lot by opposing players. We’ll see if it was a preseason effort thing, or if Porter has lost a step once the season begins.
With the lack of additional standouts or key talking points from the Bulls after four preseason games, it’s worth noting we didn’t get to see Thaddeus Young or Denzel Valentine, who are both recovering from injuries. Tomas Satoransky has also been out for almost the entirety of the preseason.
This team looks like it can be dangerous offensively, with a lot of weapons and different combinations Billy Donovan can play around with. My bet is the Bulls hold a top-10 offense, but a bottom-10 defense this season. They’ll be a fun team to watch, with a lot of shooting and ball movement, the latter being something we didn’t see a lot of the last few seasons.
In terms of expectations, this year’s goal should be as much player development as possible. Playoffs aren’t promised for this team, and improvement is important for a team with a lot of young, undeveloped pieces. Putting guys in positions to succeed is necessary, something that needs to be done for guys like Markkanen, White, and Carter Jr.
The season opens against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, where the Bulls will get the first glimpse of Trae Young and the new additions the Hawks made throughout their busy offseason. One of those names being former Bull Kris Dunn, who has been ruled out as he recovers from his MCL sprain in February.