We’re nearly through the first week in February, and Chicago—one of my preseason picks to surprise the rest of the NBA—is tied for first in the East. But it remains to be seen how much longer the Bulls can hang in that pole position, and Thursday night illustrated why.
Many of Chicago’s biggest challenges were laid bare during the club’s overtime loss in Toronto, one in which the hobbled roster struggled with its defensive rotations in key moments. Specifically, the nail in the coffin during the loss came in the closing moments, with the Raptors up two.
Newly named All-Star Fred VanVleet held the ball at half court with 20 seconds left as coach Nick Nurse orchestrated a call to bring OG Anunoby from one corner to the other. Toronto then used a Spain pick-and-roll—meaning one where VanVleet would get a screen in the middle of the floor from his big man and the screen-setting big man would receive a pick from a guard. The play call, run to perfection with stretch big Chris Boucher popping out to the arc and flamethrower Gary Trent Jr. standing all alone on the wing, left the Bulls out of position, with Nikola Vučević not guarding anyone at all near the free throw line.
Trent, who’d notched 31 points or more in each of his last five contests, had been arguably the league’s hottest shooter over the past 10 days. But he’d seen multiple open looks earlier in the contest, when the Bulls inexcusably went under a handful of screens set for him.
The game-sealing shot likely serves as a preview of how certain teams will try to attack Vučević, a big who’s most comfortable sagging as opposed to coming up near the arc. But through a more short-term lens, there’s the issue of the team’s diminished depth without its best perimeter stoppers, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. With those two healthy and in the mix, the Bulls were comfortably a top-10 defense; even posting a defensive efficiency of 102.2 points per 100 possessions—which would rank as the league’s best—with them both on the floor.
Yet without either of them, the Bulls’ games have often turned into shootouts. Over the past three weeks, Chicago has surrendered 110 points or more eight times without Caruso and Ball, dropping five of those contests.
The Bulls are certainly talented offensively, as evidenced by Zach LaVine’s and DeMar DeRozan’s All-Star selections, and the team’s No. 4 ranking in offensive efficiency. (Though they did get a strong whiff of how teams like Toronto will pressure the ball out of their stars’ hands come playoff time.) But as coach Billy Donovan said before the season, the team’s ceiling to do something special rests in its ability to get stops—particularly when it generates transition offense.
With both Ball and Caruso out several more weeks, it will be fascinating to see whether the Bulls will make moves at the deadline, and where Chicago will end up standings-wise in the Eastern Conference’s crowded top six. The Bulls likely never pictured having this much success this soon. But now that they’re here, what comes next?
The Suns might be even scarier than people realize
The red-hot Suns dropped their first game in nearly a month Thursday, and even after the defeat—a 124–115 road loss to a surging Atlanta club—it’s hard to critique all that much.
“It’s a make-or-miss league” might be one of the most cliché phrases in the NBA. But considering the nature of Phoenix’s last two losses, it seems like the only thing that fits here.
Specifically, the Suns fell by nine against the Hawks, who drained 20 triples. And in Phoenix’s loss before that, back on Jan. 8, the Heat knocked home 22 of their 44 shots from three—a sign of just how much it’s taken opposing clubs to beat this unit on any given night.
Aside from those two showings, you have to delve into the previous calendar year to find the Suns’ last defeats … to the streaking Celtics, Grizzlies and Warriors. And don’t forget that the reigning Western Conference champs won 17 straight earlier in the season.
It goes without saying that Phoenix hasn’t even been at full strength through all this. Center Deandre Ayton missed seven contests during the team’s 11-game winning streak. (Although we did write some weeks back about how impressive Phoenix’s center rotation has been this year.) Injured backup point guard Cameron Payne, one of the club’s biggest boosts in 2021, also sat out five of those contests.
It’s understandable that Golden State’s resurgence has been a massive story line this year; particularly now that Klay Thompson is back in the mix, with Draymond Green (and James Wiseman) on the mend. The intrigue around the weirdness in Brooklyn and in Lakerland make sense, too. Ben Simmons has become a seemingly permanent headline-grabber, even as Joel Embiid looks like an MVP and has Philly sniffing first place.
The Knicks badly need a starting point guard
Shifting totally away from talk of first-place teams, we have the Knicks, who’ve lost seven of their last nine.
Back in August, on the day the Knicks introduced Kemba Walker to the local media, New York Post reporter Marc Berman asked the point guard whether he felt he could play back-to-backs this season.
“You’ll have to ask them,” Walker said, pointing to team executives and coach Tom Thibodeau. “Ask Thibs.”
“He’s playing,” Thibodeau said, prompting the room to break into laughter.
It was a lighthearted enough sequence in the moment, given Thibodeau’s reputation for squeezing long minutes out of his best players. But since then—as Walker had to play long stretches of games—we’ve learned that the 31-year-old simply doesn’t have what it takes physically to endure the day-in, day-out grind of a season. His knees don’t allow that anymore; partly evidenced by the Knicks’ last two games, in which Walker’s gone scoreless.
Over the course of the campaign, which saw him pulled from the rotation at one point as the starting lineup was flagging, the Bronx native has played in three cycles of games this season. In each case, his scoring output has fallen drastically by the end of each run, perhaps a clear sign that he needs time to recover from the strain of playing so frequently.
To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that Thibodeau is going out of his way to push Walker to his limits. The Knicks have been shorthanded for quite some time now, particularly with Derrick Rose sidelined following an ankle surgery that comes with an eight-week recovery timeline. Beyond that, Thibodeau has sought to use shooting guard Alec Burks with the starters for long stretches, while also giving second-year point guard Immanuel Quickley some extended run.
But the challenge there is twofold. One, Quickley hasn’t shot particularly well in Year 2, despite the expanded role, perhaps because he’s playing without Rose. And secondly, without a true point guard—or with a diminished Walker—it’s put even more pressure on forward Julius Randle, who’s already dealing with his own efficiency struggles after a stellar 2020–21.
Keeping an eye on what the Knicks do a week from now—whether it’s landing a stretch five, a starting-caliber floor general, neither, or both—will be interesting. It could tell us how committed they are to unlocking the best version of Randle just months after signing him to a four-year, $117 million extension. And how committed they are to making a run at the playoffs.
More NBA Coverage: