“SPIN MOR CHIKN!”
There’s a first time for everything, I reckon. Yet I’m going to try getting through this game preview of the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL) without tearing to shreds one of my favorite NBA management punching bags. That’s right, Garpax… you can call it a “rip-prieve”!
The bad news for fans of the Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves is, when the ever-scrutinized managers of those clubs trade with each other, somebody has to come out on top with a “win”. Ask any bitter ex-NBA commissioner -- it’s rarely easy to glean a fair return when your young All-Star talent wants out. Especially, in this case, one who had already worn out his welcome in the locker room, just two seasons into what would certainly wind up as a four-year, $72.5 million extension deal.
But the monster known as John Paxson and Gar Forman, attached at the hip, put their two heads together. They realized their old friend Tom Thibodeau was willing to make a devilish deal to scooch his unaccomplished roster into perennial playoff contention.
Out went superstar sourpuss Jimmy Butler, on Draft Night 2017. In came beleaguered young lotto-pick guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, plus a seven-foot lotto-pick forward in Lauri Markkanen, the latter swapped for a rookie center with lingering foot problems that can’t seem to get onto an NBA floor.
Butler’s addition helped Minnesota earn a pair of postseason home games, their first since 2004, after barely squeaking into the playoff on their final night of the 2017-18 season. They also got a massive headache, with a discontent Butler, a pair of butt-hurt first-overall draftees, and a tone-deaf Thibodeau leaving the Wolves hustling backwards into this new season.
As for Chicago, the ACL tear LaVine suffered with Minnesota already had last season as a dream deferred. While LaVine rehabbed for a return after the All-Star Break last season, Dunn emerged as a solid defensive guard and ballhandler. Markkanen strung together enough threes, rebounds, and dunks to earn himself an All-Rookie First Team honor.
Despite all the losing, the chemistry problems began to sort themselves out under the watchful eye of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. After punching his way up the depth chart, third-year pro Bobby Portis proved to be a serviceable big man around the glass.
Portis’ growth, the Markkanen acquisition, and a pair of seemingly smart first-rounders from this year’s draft (the pride of Pace Academy, Wendell Carter, and Chandler Hutchison) are giving Bulls fans hope that there is, indeed, somebody competent at the wheel in the Windy City.
Now, if only Hoiberg could get all his Bulls in the pen together.
Coach Fred announced during training camp that Garpax’s big offseason get, Milwaukee restricted free agent and Chi-town native Jabari Parker, would be coming off the bench in hopes of an offensive spark. The bad juju seemed to follow that decision. Markkanen suffered a severe elbow sprain, in camp, that will likely continue to keep him shelved well into next month. After missing the first pair of games for personal reasons, Dunn returned just in time to suffer an MCL sprain that has him out of action for a similar span.
Not to be outdone, Portis suffered a similar sprain during the first win of the season for the Bulls (1-4), a 112-110 home thriller against the Hornets, and he will likely be sitting for some time as well. 2016’s low-lottery pick, swingman Denzel Valentine, has been out all season with an ankle sprain.
I’d be tempted to note that the Bulls could have upgraded their depth during the offseason by doing something with the contracts of Robin Lopez, the grungy mascot bully relegated to third-string behind Cristiano Felicio, and Omer Asik, the apparition whose contract got waived just this past week. But, again, this is a “rip-prieve”!
RoLo’s deal, signed with the nyuk-nyuk-Knicks back in the summer of 2015, mercifully expires after this season, but his play thus far makes it hard to see a contending team willing to take the $14.5 million contract off Chicago’s hooves before the trade deadline (Milwaukee says they have enough Lopezes, thank you).
Adding Parker to a club that already hoped to rely upon LaVine and Markkanen for major minutes, this was bound to be an uphill climb for the Bulls’ defense. That was even before Dunn and now Portis bowed out with injuries.
Bulls opponents are already lofting nearly 40 three-point attempts per game, a league-high. Only the Hawks’ most-recent vanquished foes, the Cavs and Mavs, have seen more of those threes go through the hoop than Chicago (13.8 opponent 3FGs per game). Now, on the second night of a back-to-back, after watching Kemba Walker (5-for-10 3FGs, 30 points in Charlotte’s 135-106 payback win) have another field day, the Bulls (120.5 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) face a team whose head coach thinks 40 perimeter shots per game is miniscule.
Thus far, only Coach Bud’s Bucks are sinking more threes per contest (16.0 3FGs/game) than his former team. Of the top-20 NBA teams in three-point attempts, only Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (37.8 3FGAs/game) have been hitting above a 40 percent clip.
LL Cool P, demanding a breakneck tempo (NBA-high 109.0 pace), wants Atlanta’s attempts to get closer to 50 than 40. He’ll be leaning on Trae Young (NBA rookie-high 21.5 PPG & 7.5 APG) and his vet backup Jeremy Lin to push the pace, wear down the Bulls early, and set up quality perimeter chances for all their teammates.
Healthy for the first time all season, Daniel Hamilton (shoulder) may have a role in the second half if he is activated. Lin (12.8 MPG, lowest among the Hawks’ active non-two-way players), whose early struggles compelled Pierce to rely on his wings to key the monumental comeback against the Mavs on Wednesday, will try to mimic the vintage night the Hornets’ Tony Parker enjoyed versus the bare-bones Bulls (7-for-11 FGs, 8 assists, one TO in 19 bench minutes) last night.
The vastly-improved Cam Payne, pressed into starter’s minutes, and ex-Hawk Justin Holiday will try to fill in the offensive gaps alongside LaVine (29.8 PPG, 5th in NBA; 3rd in NBA Usage%), the off-guard is high-scoring but may want to trade off some of his high-flying paint plays for more perimeter chances (42.4 3FG%). Parker (19 points @CHA) still dutifully comes off the bench, although Hoiberg may be tempted to change that soon if the losing continues.
Try all they might, there are simply not enough high-percentage, high-scoring opportunities for LaVine, Parker, and the Bulls to overcome their many defensive lapses. Even if they do force errors from Atlanta (16.1 TO%, 5th-highest in NBA) into quick points at the other end, it feels as though that just plays into Pierce and the Hawks’ hands by leaving Atlanta ample time on the game clock.
Chicago will need to produce transition points from their wings in the three-point corners, much like the treys Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (combined 8-for-20 3FGs, 5 corner threes) used to feast on Dallas during the Hawks’ 111-104 comeback victory. The question, with Payne, Parker and LaVine focused on scoring, is whether their bigs can haul it down the court and effectively dish the rock, too.
“We are live from Allstate Arena!” Ugghh. ESPN’s Mark Jones got Wednesday’s remodeled arena unveiling off to a bad start for the Hawks (2-2), but the team and their fans eventually made themselves feel right at home, at just the right time. Coming into this game with a rest advantage and momentum, there is no reason Atlanta can’t get off on the good talon against the Bulls. Chicago’s managers get a reprieve today. But that doesn’t mean the Bulls on the court should. Rip and Run!
Let’s Go Hawks!