I had a feeling the Bulls would win last night and salvage a split in Miami. Because in today’s NBA, even the not-very-good teams like the Bulls will win a couple more than you expect, like they did against the Celtics. It’s not so much ‘optimism’ in that this is truly a wtf lol season.
I have to revise my edict that the Bulls were going to the play-in by default, because that did not anticipate Zach LaVine contracting Covid at the worst time (some leader, huh folks) nor the Wizards of Washington going on an 8-game winning streak. I always figured the Wiz were tanking but notice they are DNP’ing Chandler ‘one man’s trash’ Hutchison, so they are more serious than I thought.
And this suddenly urgent race for the final play-in slots in the dogshit-conference-for-2-decades-running (but it’s cyclical!) has brought to mind a kinda depressing long-term problem: even after trading 2 top-four firsts and an average young big on a rookie contract, the Bulls may not have a much better roster than the Wizards or Raptors or Pacers or Hornets.
But this is a play-in race, we need to focus on the immediate. And with LaVine out the Bulls certainly don’t have that good of a roster. But they need to grind out some wins. On Monday night it was leaning into their strengths, their tall dudes:
Nikola Vucevic — 24 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists
Daniel Theis — 23 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists
Thad Young — 10 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists
The Bulls’ bigs absolutely bodied their way to this Bulls win.
A strange, abnormal win, but I’ll take it.
— Mark K (@mkhoops) April 27, 2021
Vucevic has been very good and consistent in his time as a Bull, especially in early parts of games. Theis was known to be ‘better than you think’ and yet still has been a revelation. Young has been nearly as good as he was when he untouchable-2nd-best-player-and-zach’s-pal heading into the trade deadline. With Vucevic playing heavy minutes, the other two get a lot of minutes alongside him instead of at their likely more natural center position.
And then there’s Lauri Markkanen, who didn’t shoot particularly well but was key in playing over fifteen minutes straight in the 2nd half, his team a +8 in that time and took over the lead for good. And, pretty crazily at first glance, he was the small forward in all of these lineups.
Sure, on offense that means standing in the corner, but Lauri can hit this:
The problem is that defensively you’re likely going to get carved up by smaller players when you play so many tall lumbering types. Last night it did not hurt the Bulls though, as Miami is not a very good team offensively and especially when they require Gabe Vincent to play heavy minutes after their own injuries. Lauri handled this:
I hated when Billy Donovan was trying to force in these lineups when the team was at full strength. This is not good roster balance, something the Bulls front office is refusing to acknowledge to a point where it boggles the mind.
And there is nothing to be learned long-term from this over-reliance on big men. Markkanen does not need minutes for his development, he’s done here. Theis is a backup center who will be paid in the offseason to be someone’s starting center, he’s done here too. If you start to think about how the Bulls have refused to address the guards and wings, and their relative value versus big men, then you can start to get sad…
But this, now, is a play-in race! And with LaVine, and key wing (‘key’ in that he can play the position) Troy Brown out, Donovan is being forced by a derelict front office to do things less conventionally to try and get any wins they can.
And so it’s really just about winning the next matchup and buying time for these guys to return. The Knicks play slow and big, but just with two bigs, even Tom Thibodeau isn’t running out a 7 foot slowie at the small forward position. But it’s just, like, Reggie Bullock. If Lauri can contain that the Bulls can get another odd W in this odd season.