Bulls trying to show progress despite number of problems

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Zach LaVine scores uncontested in the first half of the Bulls' win Wednesday at Atlanta.

    Zach LaVine scores uncontested in the first half of the Bulls' win Wednesday at Atlanta. Associated Press

  • The Lakers' LeBron James and the Bulls' Otto Porter Jr. battle for a loose ball in Tuesday's game at the United Center. The Bulls played well for three quarters before Los Angeles took over en route to victory.

    The Lakers' LeBron James and the Bulls' Otto Porter Jr. battle for a loose ball in Tuesday's game at the United Center. The Bulls played well for three quarters before Los Angeles took over en route to victory. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/7/2019 2:32 PM

The start of Bulls season hasn't been pleasant, and the team's direction remains open to debate.

Maybe the first three quarters Tuesday against the Lakers were a glimpse of how good the Bulls can be. Or maybe it was a sign of how helpless they are when a good opponent decides to get serious in the fourth quarter.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Wednesday's win in Atlanta might be progress, but it could also be a case of catching a team on the right night. Hawks star Trae Young came back early from an ankle injury and wasn't himself on the second leg of back-to-back games.

The Bulls have played nine games in 15 days and finally get a break. When the Houston Rockets visit the United Center Saturday, it will be the Bulls' only game in a five-day stretch. So here are some thoughts on what's happened so far:

Give Boylen some time: It's easy to pile on the coach when things go poorly. But consider what happened last year after he took over the job in December.

First, Boylen turned the Bulls into a competent defensive squad. Then a few months later, they literally became one of the most potent offensive teams in the league. It would have been nice if they could have been both at the same time, but rebuilds tend to move slowly.

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Under Boylen's watch, Lauri Markkanen had his 15-game stretch where he played like Eastern Conference royalty. Otto Porter produced a career-high in his fourth game with the Bulls.

Boylen has made some good things happen and can probably do it again, despite roster flaws. Sure, it's a little weird that he didn't call a timeout during the Lakers' run, then called too many timeouts in the Atlanta game, drawing the ire of Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. But that's small-picture stuff. Calling a timeout or sending the starters back in wasn't going to stop the Lakers train.

Otto investment a risk: The Atlanta game perfectly summarized Otto Porter's basketball existence. He scored 10 points in the first quarter and was the catalyst of the Bulls' fast start. Then he sat out the second half with a left foot contusion.

When he plays well, Porter is a nice fit for the lineup. The problem is, how often has he played well? Less than half the time since he arrived, whether it's due to injury or poor performance. That's sort of who he was in Washington, a guy who would show flashes of brilliance, but no consistency.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

As the Bulls' highest-paid player, this is not ideal. The Bulls' payroll is essentially capped through 2021 and it will be tough to make changes because of the huge investments they made in Porter and Cristiano Felicio. So even though Porter does play well when the planets align, it would be nice to have the $27 million back as flexibility to fine-tune the roster.

Good news, bad news: Based on the eye test, center Wendell Carter Jr. has been the Bulls' best player this season. His development has been a plus, but the rebuild really needed Zach LaVine and Markkanen to be the best players and that hasn't happened.

The Bulls' worst two-man lineup this season has been when LaVine and Markkanen play together. The reasons are tough to resolve. LaVine tries to do too much sometimes, hasn't improved much on defense and is still prone to silly mistakes. But he is the team's most talented scorer.

Markkanen seems like a guy who could dominate his position inside and out, but so far he's only scored near the basket against smaller opponents.

Maybe it's time to split them up. Should Boylen move veteran Thad Young into the starting lineup? Maybe rookie Daniel Gafford at power forward would prevent the Bulls from getting crushed on the boards. This is another reason why it's going to take time for the coaching staff to sort all this out.

Inconsistency is the enemy: The Bulls imagined stat lines like the one Wednesday when they brought in Tomas Satoransky to play point guard. He finished with a career-high 27 points, 8 assists and 7 seven rebounds against the Hawks.

Why did it take until Game 9 to see these results? His previous high game this season was 9 points. Will this performance get him going or will it be another nine games before he does it again?

Consistency is what separates improving teams from stagnant rebuilds. Since piling up 35 points and 17 rebounds on opening night, Markkanen has averaged 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. Rookie Coby White has shot a combined 52.3 percent in three games and 24.2 percent in the other six.

The roster is flawed: The Bulls actually rank better in defensive rating (15) than offensive rating (23). But it's hard to ignore how the starting lineup features four guys who have a hard time staying in front of the man they're guarding. It feels like Carter is already starting to shy away from challenging shots because his teammates put him in so many bad spots defensively and he's trying to stay out of foul trouble.

Since the season began, I've talked about the lack of great athletes on the roster (outside of LaVine, of course), especially on the front line, and how it's causing problems. Chandler Hutchison showed some promise in his first two games back from a hamstring injury. That should help, but the Bulls could use a couple more athletic wings and, as mentioned above, it will be tough to tweak the roster with some glaringly bad contracts plugging up the payroll.

Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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