Many expected the Chicago Bulls to start the 2019-20 season off with a bang. Reality kicked in, and to the disbelief of many, the complete opposite occurred. As of now, the Bulls find themselves trapped in a 1-2 start. The season started with a heartbreaking one-point loss to the Hornets, a win against the Grizzlies thanks to heroic plays by Coby White and Zach LaVine, and most recently a blowout loss in the home opener to the Toronto Raptors. Throughout this article, we will break down the good, the bad, and the ugly from the Bulls opening three games and what to look for going forward.
With a healthy young core in place, many thought the Bulls were set to open the 2019-20 season with a bang against the rebuilding Charlotte Hornets. Optimism was high among a large portion of Bulls fans, and many expected a comfortable win against a Hornets team that is led by Terry Rozier.
However, reality kicked in. The Bulls found themselves in a deep hole after just one quarter of play. Hornets rookie P.J. Washington was scorching hot from three in his NBA debut (he ended with seven) and the rest of the Hornets followed that trend. They shot 52% from three on 44 attempts and set a franchise-high 23 made threes.
Even with additions to help revamp the defense, such as Thaddeus Young and assistant coach Roy Rogers, not even the bad boy Pistons could save this team on opening night. It started with the Hornets consistently breaking down the Bulls defense. They seemingly gave away free drives to the basket on numerous occasions. Hornets players would drive, kick, swing, and shoot, which resulted in an almost guaranteed open three.
It wasn't just the perimeter defense, though. Transition defense also proved to be an area of weakness in this game. The Bulls lost 126-125, which is disappointing, but we did see Lauri Markkanen enjoy a career-high that night, as he had 35 points and 17 rebounds. Fellow star Zach LaVine couldn’t find his shot, as he struggled with just 17 points on subpar shooting splits. A trend from the 2018-19 season was these two producing inconsistent stat lines, and this remained a problem in game two against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Sure, the Bulls won this game 110-102, but it took a 63-42 second half in order to do so. We saw the breakout of rookie guard Coby White, who plays so poised and confident despite being only 19-years-old. He relished the opportunity to go against number two pick, Ja Morant, and played arguably his best game as a Bull. He had a monster stat line of 26 points, six rebounds, and two assists on a red hot 62% from the field in addition to shooting four for eight from three.
Despite struggling in the first game, Zach LaVine was feeling it against Memphis. He added 37 points and looked a lot more composed on the defensive end, adding three steals and a block. He was red hot, but Lauri Markkanen was not. Markkanen had just nine points and 11 rebounds after his stellar career night. He shot four for 15 from the field and a chilling one for ten from three. For someone known as a long-range sniper, Lauri looks like the complete opposite. The Bulls eventually persevered to earn their first win of the season, but after taking a step forward, they took two steps back in Chicago against the defending champs.
A roaring United Center crowd was in attendance for the home opener against the Raptors. The whole roster was healthy and ready to play aside from Chandler Hutchison, and everyone seemed confident this would be at least a competitive game. Before the game, head coach Jim Boylen stressed the importance of the Bulls performing better at home after going 9-32 a season ago.
This was the hardest of the three games to watch as a Bulls fan. The structure on both ends of the floor was awful, specifically in the second half. None of the offensive threats, such as Zach LaVine or Lauri Markkanen, could get it going. The Bulls managed just 84 points and were having an extremely difficult time guarding Raptors young star Pascal Siakam. The Bulls shot 29% as a team compared to the Raptors 47%. LaVine went 4/13 from the field and Markkanen went 3/10. The Bulls lost this game 84-108.
Some things to note after these three games:
The rotation which Jim Boylen is using needs to be fixed — and fast. It starts with the three-guard lineups Boylen implements throughout random stages of the game consisting of Kris Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Coby White. This lineup goes through stretches of inability to get points on the board, leading to the Bulls either losing a lead or falling behind even further. One thing Boylen fails to recognize about the three opponents the Bulls have played, especially the Raptors, is that they have big lineups.
While these three-guard lineups are fun, positional size is a key component in today's league (something I can’t stress enough), and when teams like Toronto have powerhouse bigs in Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol in the game, stretch fives like Luke Kornet should not be on the floor with three other point guards. While it limits your offense with too many perimeter-based players, it also limits your defense with the inability to guard the paint and collect any defensive rebounds.
He may be a rookie, but Daniel Gafford should be utilized more by this Bulls team. Specifically, he could be a solution to droughts on the defensive end while also providing some energy to help the team get some points on the board. We get that Boylen doesn’t like players who don’t value defense, such as Jabari Parker or Denzel Valentine, but playing Gafford is not going to hurt you. He is a solid rebounder, he can protect the paint, and he brings valuable energy that can help this team fight back into a game when down.
We will get to the offense shortly, but the defense needs to be addressed further because it simply looks awful right now. We will start with the stars. The Bulls' inability to stay with their man creates too many problems, especially when they can’t put up points on the other end of the floor. The man-to-man defense is lackluster, starting with LaVine and Markkanen, who look like one-way players as much as ever to open this season. The perimeter defense is also lacking. What teams who want to play fast on offense fail to recognize is that you still have to play just as hard and fast on the other end of the floor. The Bulls rank 19th in defensive rating, which isn’t terrible, but when you rank 23rd on offense, it’s a concern.
Let's keep it real here. In stretches, the offense looks really nice. The second half against the Grizzlies was a prime example of this. The backcourt of the future featuring Coby White and Zach LaVine was incredible, hitting most (if not all) of their shots while creating looks for teammates. But the problem remains that the offensive urgency hasn't carried over to the rest of the roster. Otto Porter Jr. has looked dismal. For a player who can opt out of his player option at the end of this season and gain a max contract (or close to it), Otto looks nothing like that guy. Posting just seven points on 26% from the field and 23% from three, he simply cannot score.
The Bulls have done a nice job at generating open shots for him but he has struggled to knock them down, which makes you wonder if Otto is dealing with either an injury or something personal, considering he is over 40% career average. The same goes for Lauri Markkanen, whom I addressed earlier in this article.
What to expect going forward:
The Bulls will hit the road for their next two games against the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. While it would be nice to book these two as guaranteed wins, the Bulls have a lot of homework to do in order to attain a winning record. We should expect improved defense from the starters specifically, which will begin with staying with their man and getting back in transition to stop opposing teams' fast breaks.
Another thing we should expect from the team going forward is higher field goal and three-point percentages as a team. This starts with Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, who take the majority of shot attempts. They need to remain consistent, and it needs to start now if the Bulls want to even consider making the playoffs. Otto Porter Jr. also needs to get going, considering he is one of the Bulls' most important pieces. His value as a three-point shooting wing is important, and if he can get it going early, the team will likely follow that trend.
Hopefully (hopefully), Jim Boylen can begin to solidify and sort out his rotation. With wing Chandler Hutchison beginning an assignment with the Windy City Bulls, we can only hope to see more of Denzel Valentine and less of Shaquille Harrison and Ryan Arcidiacono for the time being. Another player to keep an eye on is rookie Daniel Gafford. With the lack of performance from Luke Kornet and the Bulls poor paint defense when Wendell Carter Jr. (who has looked nice) is off the floor, expect Gafford to get an opportunity and prove his worth to this rising Bulls team.
While we are still in the early (very early) stages of this young season, these young Bulls have surprised many with their lack of performance as a team in the opening three games. It starts on the defensive end with poor man-to-man and transition defense and culminates on the offensive end with poor shooting as a team. Hopefully a turnaround is in store in the coming days. We should expect this once young stars Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen develop consistency, and glue-guy Otto Porter Jr. gets back on track. With health not being a concern at the moment, only time will tell how good this Bulls team this season. Let me know your thoughts on the opening three games on Twitter @joshjbullshoops, or send me an email at email@example.com
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