One down, 81 to go. The Bulls’ performance Thursday night was a microcosm for how most people anticipate the season will play out. There will be nights where all the shots fall and they simply out-bucket their opponents. But on most nights, the lack of depth, defense, and playmaking will ensure the Bulls have another high lottery pick come late June.
The Bulls got off to a blistering start in Philadelphia, scoring 41 points in a frantically paced first quarter. For a fleeting moment I began to believe that maybe this was sustainable, and the 2018-19 season would be, at a minimum, fun. But when that first quarter clock struck zero, the Bulls turned back into pumpkins, and the real season began.
Lack of point guard play and the death of Hoiball
The Bulls opening possessions had the feel of a Fred Hoiberg offense. Players were cutting, the ball was swinging side to side, and guys were finding themselves with open looks. Unfortunately, without any sort of true point guard in uniform, the intelligent actions abruptly stopped after the first couple of scripted plays.
Kris Dunn missed the season opener to celebrate the birth of his son. In his absence, the Bulls handed the keys to the offense to Cameron Payne, the fourth year guard who the Bulls once gave up Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, and the pick that became Mitchell Robinson (who looks kind of good!) to acquire. Whatever GarPax saw in Payne to swing that deal was missing in this game as the former dance partner to Russell Westbrook scored zero points on 0/4 shooting in 21 minutes.
It’s not so much that Payne was a blatant negative in his time on the court. He only turned the ball over once and was not overly abused on the defensive end. No, the issue with Payne’s performance was that it felt like for all his time on the court the Bulls were playing four on five. Seriously, for a guy who many hoped would assert himself as a leader on a young bench unit, Payne’s vanishing act raised questions about whether he deserves a spot in the rotation at all.
With Payne basically vacating the standard duties of a floor general, the Bulls offense descended into anarchy. Zach Lavine, Bobby Portis, Jabari Parker, and, uh, Antonio Blakeney, each took turns jacking up contested, difficult shots. The system that Fred Hoiberg was hired to install four years ago was discarded three minutes into the game and never returned.
If somebody skipped the broadcast and only judged this game by the box score, it would appear Lavine had an effective, efficient night. He made 11 of his 19 field goals and got to the line seven times. But most of Lavine’s offense came in isolation. Lavine is going to get his, but getting his will not equate to winning unless he’s able to improve as a distributor and take advantage of the attention the defense pays him. With Dunn absent, this would have been a great game to flash some skills as a point guard.
Cam Payne has neither the skills nor gravitas to reel in the chuckers he shared the floor with in this game. I pray Kris Dunn can restore some order when he rejoins the team.
Three point defense optional
Philadelphia shot just 33% from beyond the arc, but they managed to get up 36 three point attempts, and by my recollection a very high percentage of those looks were wide open.
On several occasions the Bulls appeared very confused in transition defense. It’s not so much that they weren’t getting back, it’s that there was genuine confusion about who was responsible for defending whom.
Look at this one, off of jump-ball at mid-court:
Or then this play early in the third quarter, with the game still within reasonable striking distance, the Bulls seemingly again forgot that Robert Covington was out there.
Covington was able to get off 11 three point shots in this game and was rarely bothered on any of his attempts.
Philadelphia is not a great three point shooting team. The Bulls need to make their three point and transition defense a high priority going forward, or else this type of performance from their opponents will become a regular occurrence.
Another are of defensive issues, from Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic:
Chicago yielded 20 fast-break points and 17 second-chance points. That right there is the game in a nutshell. The Bulls mustered only three transition points and got 10 second-chance points. That 37-13 discrepancy in the combined categories left the Bulls with no chance.
Wendell Carter’s debut
Wendell Carter’s first career game and start could not have come against a more challenging matchup than Joel Embiid. Embiid overpowered Carter in the post, forcing Carter into foul trouble and scoring easily after establishing deep position. Embiid is a giant, even by NBA standards, and is going to do this to a lot of opposing centers for a very, very long time. Carter did his best to compete, but this was not a fair fight.
Carter finished the game with eight points, three rebounds, and an impressive blocked shot in 20 minutes of game time. He looked comfortable taking shots from mid range and on a couple occasions found open shooters after receiving the ball in the paint.
Carter is going to grow and improve with every game this season, and I look forward to watching him develop into a player who will eventually be able to stand up to a bully in the post.