For the Chicago Bulls, it wasn’t supposed to be this way this season. This was going to be the season the rebuild officially ended. So what’s going on?
The 2019-20 season was supposed to be about progress, All-Star appearances and maybe even a playoff run. Hey, maybe we were even starting to think Jim Boylen was the right guy to lead the Chicago Bulls toward the promised land.
Perhaps we got just a tad ahead of ourselves. Maybe we all need to calm down a bit. After all, there are 75 games remaining – there’s still time.
The early results, however, aren’t very impressive. In fact, it’s been embarrassing, reminiscent of the past two seasons that had built-in excuses. They were young, rebuilding and really the goal was for NBA Lottery success, not postseason accolades.
Here in the present reality, the Bulls find themselves strapped with a 2-5 record, despite owning the league’s second easiest schedule so far. They’ve lost to the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and an Indiana Pacers squad missing Victor Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
They allowed a Hornets-record 23 made 3-pointers in their opener, were blown out in their home opener against the defending champs and couldn’t survive former Bull Bobby Portis‘ revenge game in New York.
So now what? The sample size is small and it’s still early November. There’s plenty of time and a lot of basketball still to be played. The Bulls have plenty of time to recover from their slow start.
However, there have been some glaring concerns.
What’s going on with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen?
For all the talk about possible All-Star selections for Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen before the season tipped off, that chatter has been reduced to a whimper after seven games. LaVine hasn’t taken any sort of leap while Markkanen has fallen off and has been benched late in games. LaVine complained about fans discussing his defensive deficiencies yet has failed to shut his critics up.
Zach LaVine falls asleep & Collin Sexton dunks on Wendell Carter jr pic.twitter.com/bOnWXZOklH
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) October 31, 2019
Zach LaVine, now in his sixth NBA season, has regressed in nearly all offensive categories from last season. He’s scoring less (21.1 points per game to 23.7 last season), shooting worse (42.3 percent this season vs. 46.7), averaging fewer assists (3.6 to 4.5) and grabbing fewer rebounds (41. to 4.7) while not getting to the free-throw line as often. He is taking and making more 3-pointers this season, so there’s that, though he’s making fewer shots overall. Besides his 3-point percentage (39.6 vs. 37.4), his shooting numbers have declined across the board.
What gives? Part of it could be schematic, as the Chicago Bulls have moved from mostly iso-ball to uptempo approach with more ballhandlers and LaVine may be struggling to fit in. Or, it could simply be that he’s just not making shots and it’s just a slump. Again, it’s early and Zach has time to figure things out, even if he doesn’t have the ball in his hands as often.
Markkanen hasn’t taken the leap either
Markkanen hasn’t looked great this season either. He’s missed some good looks at the basket, but it seems that head coach Jim Boylen has lost confidence in the third-year forward. Markkanen has even ridden the bench in the fourth quarter in two games as Boylen leaned on Thaddeus Young in crunch time.
Asked if he sees a benefit in having a veteran like Thad Young in for #Bulls in crunch time, Jim Boylen said “of course” and cited moments like Lauri Markkanen sitting in crunch time the last two games is part of a bigger picture. pic.twitter.com/aRPtnwgpmq
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) November 2, 2019
Markkanen’s slow start is somewhat puzzling. He’s shooting a paltry 25 percent on 3-pointers and 38.7 percent overall. He’s hoisting fewer shots, 13.3 per game vs 15.3 last season so far and his scoring has dropped from 18.7 last season to 16.0 points per game in 2019-20.
Despite his struggles, he can’t be an afterthought in the offense. He’s still a core piece of this offense and needs to be treated as such. Benching him late games seems antithetical to his development, though that runs contrary to Boylen’s beliefs.
Is Jim Boylen as much of the problem and less a source for solutions?
To be completely transparent, I’ve struggled with Jim Boylen since his hiring. It was even worse when the Chicago Bulls didn’t do a proper coaching search and slapped the permanent head job on him and gave him an extension after going 17-41 replacing Fred Hoiberg.
He almost had me won over this summer, and it seemed like maybe his style was winning over his club. After all, he’s a coaching lifer and really, how cool is it that he went to Finland to go swimming with Markkanen, visited Tomas Satoransky in Germany and went to the Bahamas (who wouldn’t?) to see LaVine on vacation. Pretty cool stuff right?
Yes, it’s nice to see a coach traveling the world to develop chemistry with his players. But it doesn’t mean that that chemistry automatically translates to the court. Update: it hasn’t.
Boylen needs to take more responsibility for the start
Boylen might actually be as much a part of the problem as he is the solution in Chicago. So much for chemistry.
The coach might want the Bulls to bring a lunch pail mentality to each game, but it’s less about talking a good game and more about actually being tough on the court.
He’s been stubborn with his rotation, continuing to play Luke Kornet and Ryan Arcidiacono while resisting any calls to see what rookie Daniel Gafford and veteran Denzel Valentine could provide. The Bulls have been manhandled on the boards and it would seem that Gafford could help. Even Valentine might be able to mix it up for a rebound here and there.
Boylen: "I think (the players) need to take more responsibility for their preparedness. I think they need to take more ownership of their readiness to play. The head coaches in this league have never been expected to coach effort. Effort has to come from each guy."
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 4, 2019
Boylen wants to place emphasis on preparation and readiness solely on the players, but that’s part of his job too. Of course, players shouldn’t have to be motivated to play with effort. But a coach with 46 losses out of 65 games shouldn’t be looking outward in the blame game either. It’s not just X’s and O’s during the game, but getting the most out of his team – even during shootarounds, which the coaching staff has canceled more than once – and less on punching into an actual time clock.
At this point in the season, the Boylen has a leash long enough to try and make this work but is he really part of the solution?
All isn’t lost – yet – but the Chicago Bulls need to get some wins
I can’t stress this enough, it’s early. We don’t have to panic in early November about the Chicago Bulls. Concerned, absolutely. The team still has talent, Lauri Markkanen isn’t going to shoot 25% on 3-pointers all season and Coby White should get out of his slump eventually. Speaking of White, the kid can play but the team shouldn’t be in rush to make him a star.
Wendell Carter Jr. has been the team’s best player so far and an anchor defensively. I can’t even imagine what this squad would look like without the big man in the lineup.
What this team does need though, are wins – and soon. The next three games on the schedule are against the Lakers and Rockets at home sandwiched by a road contest against Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. That’s just this week. Realistically, the Bulls can hope to survive the week with a 3-7 record. That’s not good enough.
All isn’t lost quite yet. However, can the team turn it around without making some changes? Can Boylen consistently throw out the same lineups and rotations and expect different results? If they can’t defend Devonte’ Graham and the Hornets, how in the world will they slow down Trae Young, LeBron James, James Harden and Anthony Davis?
We’ll find out this week!