Moving Forwards

Preseason games 2 and 3 are in the books, and the Chicago Bulls gave us a couple comeback victories to ponder this weekend. Wins over the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors hinted that the Front Office’s faith in continuity may not be as half-baked as some would have us believe. Also, these comeback victories might be building the Bulls an identity as a second half team, one that gets off to a slow start, but puts the clamps on after halftime and wins. We’ll have to see if this trend continues in the regular season.

Line Change

I think most of us were expecting the Bulls starting lineup to be flexible this preseason. With Lonzo Ball on the shelf for who knows how long, it seemed prudent for Coach Billy Donovan to experiment with the starting point guard position, especially with four viable options (Ayo Dosunmu, Alex Caruso, Goran Dragic, and Coby White) available to experiment with. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been the starting point guard position that has been up for grabs this preseason.

Patrick Williams was moved to the second unit this weekend, with forwards Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr each getting a start against the Nuggets and Raptors respectively. While both are a bit undersized, they seem to bring more energy and off-ball movement to the starting lineup, things that are not really part of Williams’ game. It is worth noting that Javonte Green flourished in his minutes. He helped get the Bulls off to a strong start against Denver, and his effort in the second half of the Raptors game led Chicago to the W.

Meanwhile, Williams continues to play with more aggression, even after the move to the second unit. While his shot hasn’t fallen this preseason, he has been more willing to pull the trigger on it, and he has attacked the basket more frequently than in his last two seasons. It might not be the end of the world if Williams comes off the bench this season, it’s a roll he seems familiar and comfortable with.

Other Observations from the Weekend

Dalen Terry continued to impress with his energy and play, he did get some run with some of the starters, and spent a lot of time on the floor with Ayo Dosunmu in the closing minutes of the game with Toronto. I will say it again, Terry has a looooooong way to go before he reaches his full potential, but he is an exciting prospect and hard to dislike.

Ayo bounced back from a “meh” game 1 and showed why there hasn’t been a competition for the point guard position. He played very well along side his All-Star teammates, another sign that betting on continuity might have been the right play by the Front Office.

All the guard play from the Bulls was strong this weekend. Goran Dragic had a great game against the Nuggets, tossing dimes and hitting shots with impunity. He did a lot to alleviate my fears that he is “washed”, as the kids say. Coby White had a couple of nice games, flashing his versatility by playing both on the ball and off, scoring both inside and from the perimeter. Alex Caruso did Alex Caruso things, playing his own brand of high energy, hustle basketball. It was a solid showing from the guards.

Nikola Vucevic continued the strong play we saw in game 1 of the preseason. At this point, we just need to see him do it consistently during the regular season, and the Bulls will be in a good spot. Someone I haven’t mentioned this preseason is Vooch’s backup, Andre Drummond. He has been a beast on the boards, collecting rebounds like they were prized baseball cards. He is definitely a better option as the second string Center than what the Bulls tried last season. He has played adequate defense, and provided a different look on offense. I’m looking forward to seeing improvement from the Bulls second unit now that they won’t always be undersized in the front court.

One last observation from the weekend, Zach LaVine is playing at full speed and seems to have worked on his defense. I don’t have any scientific evidence to corroborate this observation, but LaVine seems to be moving faster than he did last season, making moves on defenders at full speed, exploding into every action at break neck speed. His reactions seem faster, his decision making seems faster, everything about the speed at which he is playing seems to be faster than I’ve ever seen him play. He’s fast but not out of control. Maybe it’s just a product of having watched him hobbled by knee pain the entire second half of last season, or maybe he has once again reinvigorated his game while rehabbing an injury, but LaVine seems to be playing in a higher gear than everyone else on the floor.

And his defense seems to have improved over last season. Zach’s lateral footwork seems to have improved. He is taking better angles on closeouts, and he’s more engaged than ever on the defensive end of the court. No, he’s not a lock-down defender, but he is a serviceable one, and that’s all he really needs to be.

Two plays in particular stood out to me from the weekend. In the first, Zach was defending the weakside wing as he normally does. The offense had a player on the wing and another in the corner as outlets if the ball needed to be kicked out of the paint, which was exactly what happened. The ball made it’s way into the paint, whoever was guarding the corner for the Bulls had to collapse to the basket and provide help at the rim, leaving LaVine to guard both the wing and the corner by himself. The ball was kicked out to the wing, but LaVine had positioned himself in the exact right spot, forcing the player with the ball to either drive back into the teeth of the collapsed defense, or test Zach’s length and athleticism by trying to pass to the corner. The ball handler hesitated, he couldn’t shoot without the shot being contested, he couldn’t drive without running back into the congested lane, and he couldn’t kick to the corner without risking a turnover. That moment of hesitation, forced by the superior positioning by LaVine, was just enough time for the Bulls to rotate and reset the defense. It was one of the best defensive plays I’ve ever seen from Zach.

The second play that stood out to me was LaVine stopping a simple two-on-one break with good positioning and contesting the shot without fouling. It happened in the Raptors game, the Bulls turned the ball over and Zach found himself backpedaling with two Toronto players sprinting toward him on a fast-break. Fortunately, LaVine didn’t have to do much because the Raptors players remained bunched together. Aware of the poor spacing, Zach kept the ball handler in front of himself and cut off the passing lane to the other runner. When the inevitable shot went up from the ballhandler, LaVine kept his arms straight up and down, didn’t initiate contact, and forced his opponent to shoot over him. It was just enough of a disruption to cause the shot to rim out, and by the time the ball was coming off the rim more of Zach’s teammates had made it back on defense.

These are plays we never saw from LaVine in the past. His growth on defense over the last couple seasons has been just as dramatic and impressive as his growth on offense. While he may never become a defensive dynamo, I’m not going to rule it out, his offseason growth is consistent. He is the poster child for hard work paying off.

Preseason Game 4

The Bulls play their final game of the preseason tonight against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. It should be another strong warmup for the regular season. Things I’m looking for in this game:

  • Who will start at Power Forward tonight? Will we see Patrick Williams, or will it be Javonte Green, or perhaps Derrick Jones Jr, or maybe even Dalen Terry?
  • How long will the starters play? Will Donovan treat this like a regular season game with regular season rotations, or will the starters get some extended rest in the second half of the game?
  • Will anyone drop a little revenge on Certified Ass, Grayson Allen, or have we moved past him injuring Alex Caruso (clearly I haven’t)?

That’s all I’m looking for in tonight’s game. It should be an exciting season of basketball for the Bulls. The Eastern Conference, on paper, has gotten better. While other teams in the conference tried to improve their rosters with splashy trades and free agent signings, the Bulls are betting on continuity and internal improvement. It’s a big gamble, and next week, for better or for worse, we get to witness the beginning of the payout. I can’t wait to see how it all unfolds. Until then, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!