The Bulls, as a decidedly-not-good team that looked outright awful at the start of their season, were not giving off positive vibes before heading into a difficult road trip on the west coast.
They then improbably won the first game and were competitive in close losses for the following three. So even though their overall record stands at a bleh 4-7 the discourse around them is mostly positive. Full disclosure I wasn’t able to see too much of the games themselves but I do see all discourse! So here are some notes.
Zach LaVine turned it up a notch
LaVine capped off a very impressive scoring run during this roadtrip with a 45-point effort against the Clippers.
Zach LaVine's 4-game trip avgs:— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 11, 2021
53.3 percent FG%
45.5 percent 3PT%
Looking overall for his season, Zach isn’t too much different than before. As a catch-all his PER is 20.9 versus 19.4 last season. But who cares about rebounding? he has seen some marked improvement when looking over past 3 seasons:
- 2pt make percentage: 50.4 / 49.7 / 58.7
- Free-throw attempt rate: .330 / .279 / .284
- 3pt attempt rate: .283 / .404 / .445
His assist metrics are pretty steady, yet turnovers are up.
It’s notable that he still chucks too much to end games, and the Bulls lone win was when he had his lowest usage. So while I won’t say LaVine is on another level yet this season, he’s incrementally improving which is cool.
Veterans are cementing themselves in rotation
A trend that started prior to the roadtrip and continued is Billy Donovan relying more and more on the Bulls veterans and them performing well.
(and the coach not being an arrogant dipshit is apparently very positive!)
With the various Covid-related absences, we’ve now seen games started by Otto Porter and Garrett Temple, plus a finishing lineup with them and Thaddeus Young at center. Fellow old person Denzel Valentine is also receiving rotation minutes and shooting well.
This is encouraging in that for this developmental season we’ve had imposed on us, it’s better to have competitive basketball than garbage time. So these guys playing well helps that. I don’t think it offers much for their trade value increasing - they’re more-or-less known quantities, and Denzel has a no-trade lol - but it does affirm a level that they may help a better team. Unless Otto Porter’s fat spasms over the weekend is a long-term issue, then whoops!
It’ll be a major question when Lauri Markkanen returns to see how much that pushes down and out some other guys, and if the team performance suffers as a result. Lauri had a good start to the season but the team was not so good. We can’t call that causal yet, lets give it...two games?
Wendell CONFIDENCE Carter
Forgive me for having the Stacey King soundboard (little known fact: to save costs in the pandemic the Bulls broadcast has forgone using a real Stacey King and instead just pushes a button that says ‘awwwwwhhhggg, he makes it look so easy’ after a LaVine make) metaphorically embedded in my skull but it is law that whenever Wendell Carter is mentioned his mental makeup has to be addressed.
And to that end, Wendell says he’s doing great. So, good. I am sure next week we’ll get a “Wendell self-flaggelates after loss” again but for now let’s take the small victory.
Skills-wise, it has not been the great offensive awakening for the-next-Al-Horford-he-made-threes-at-Duke-and-can-pass-I-swear, but Carter has rebounded - metaphorically AND literally - from a dismal stretch with a productive road trip.
And importantly he’s doing great work on defense.
Carter was credited with 0 steals and 0 blocks last night. Still had a good defensive game. His low man rotations are by far the best out of all the Bulls' bigs. That is extremely important for functional team defense.— Stephen Noh (@StephNoh) January 9, 2021
The defense is the key more than him making 3-pointers. It’s not accurate to say Wendell is regressing, but we should see some more development this season if we want to get excited over the center of the future.
So to that point, there was never a real debate over benching Carter for Daniel Gafford (I think it only existed on Bulls Twitter and you should never engage with that lot). But Wendell’s minutes will be worth monitoring in Markkanen’s return coupled with Donovan’s reliance on Young as a closing center. Also worth monitoring is his percentage of time on the court with resting stank face.
Team defense is still pretty terrible
Have to follow mostly unencumbered praise with reality: the Bulls are now 29th in defense this season after their road trip produced a 121 defensive rating over 4 games.
And we can’t even blame Markkanen anymore! It’s pretty squarely on the point of attack, as Zach LaVine is still terrible and Coby White is even worse.
I’m not sure what can be done about it. It will likely tank this season. Maybe cut White’s minutes when Tomas Satoransky returns, but this is the problem when the front office offers no direction on what this season is actually for. I guess we should just hope that this defense isn’t so bad to begin games that it renders the rest of the game pointless. That seems to be limited to just the first few games this year.
Patrick Williams turning heads
Finally, the Bulls one-man core is still looking good. Patrick Williams received the “Guarded LeBron James and Lived to Tell About It Honorary Write-Up” and followed it up with a similar one regarding Kawhi Leonard. With Otto Porter out for most of those two games, Williams had his minutes upped to 35 for both.
And on Friday he received another honor: mentioned in a Zach Lowe ‘10 things I like’ column. Specifically his jumper, described as “ silky, old-school midrange pull-up — which Williams releases either with his normal jumper form or as a modified push shot.”
Williams deserves even more coverage of his actual game so far in his rookie season, but I won’t be getting into it now.