Happy Thanksgiving, Bulls fans! Here's hoping that as you read this, your bellies are satisfactorily stuffed with your holiday favorites. If not, go back to the serving table and drown your second or third helping in gravy while you read this. I've always found that ingesting sports content and overeating is one of the best ways to multitask. Humblebrag, I'm very good at it. *loosens belt by a notch*
I know times are tough for us as we enter the holidays. The Bulls are underwhelming or downright maddening across the board so far in a season that began with hopes of returning to playoffs and relevancy. There is plenty for us to be thankful for, but I'm not crazy. Of course, I know there's lots that we as a fanbase wish were different or better. So, here's what I decided. This week, I'll be listing some Bulls-related things that I'm thankful for but following each item with a wish for improvement.
It's the Thanksgiving Pecking Order.
1a) I'm thankful for Big Dave, John, and everybody on our NBC Sports Chicago team covering our beloved Bulls.
Let's be real. I still can't believe that Bulls Outsiders is a thing they let us do. I mean, I get it. It's a brilliant concept for a postgame show. Give a voice to the fans, by putting some fans on TV and social media platforms so they can share their opinions and those of their fellow fans. But the fact that I get to do this, and do it with Big Dave and John, still feels one hundred percent too good to be true.
We have so much fun. Even when the team is struggling, as they are now. We get asked by lots of fans, "Aren't you sick of this? I'm so sorry you have to do this every other night." When we hear this, our answer is always the same: "Are you nuts?? How could we possibly be sick of this? How could we possibly not have fun doing this?"
I get to watch NBA basketball games, in a comfy lazy boy, with vending machines a short walk away. Some nights we get pizza! I get to do this with John and Dave, who are two of the most fun people I know. Time flies with these guys, during the games and our shows after. The show feels like thirty seconds, not thirty minutes. Then there's the other ridiculous perk of sharing this space and time with Kendall Gill and Will Perdue.
I still pinch myself sometimes. Kendall was one of my favorite non-Bulls players when I was growing up. I collected so many of his basketball cards, and he can confirm that because I made him sign all of them. (Fun fact: he signed all but one, in which he was getting dunked on. Why would they make a card of someone getting dunked on?) He's a legend for his defense, and never got enough credit for his offense. His stories from his playing days are incredible, and he never tires of our questions. Kendall is the nicest guy; I don't know where he draws his aggression from when he steps into the boxing ring.
And Will? Come on. This guy has four NBA championship rings. Three of them came as a crucial piece of the Bulls' first threepeat team! And I get to ask this guy questions about the NBA of past and present. His gigantic stature was intimidating when we first met, but the guy's really just a big kid. He laughs with us, cracks jokes with us, and tells us stories of the old days. You know, the ones involving Michael Freaking Jordan? I can't believe I'm watching Bulls games with Will. If I told my 8-year-old self that, I wouldn't believe me for a second.
Then there's the rest of our team. Mark Schanowski last season and Jason Goff this season? I've worshipped these guys my entire life of Chicago sports fandom. Now they're my colleagues. Our producer Kevin "Bulldog" Anderson is the coolest "boss" I've ever had. Our entire production crew, digital and social media team is unmatched by any other media outlet covering the Bulls. And I'm so unbelievably lucky to work with them.
1b) Alright, enough of the mushy lovey-dovey compliments. Here's what I wish was better when it comes to some of my co-workers at NBC.
Big Dave needs to not be so darn positive all the time, because he makes me look like Oscar the Grouch. I swear, I'm not an overtly negative person. I actually consider myself an optimist on the grand scale of life. But it's been hard to be an optimistic Bulls fan – or Chicago sports fan, for that matter – in recent years. But Dave's always so freaking positive about everything. It makes me sick. How can someone be that happy? There's something wrong with him. I blame his longstanding friendship with See Red Fred. It's not your fault, Dave.
John needs to shut the hell up about Luka Dončić. Yes, John. We know he's awesome. Bulls fans are crying themselves to sleep wishing he played for our team instead of your stupid Dallas Mavericks. It must be nice to go from the Dirk Era straight into the Luka Era. This kid is putting up historic numbers in just his second season at twenty years of age. And John won't shut up about it. Ugh.
Similarly, Kendall needs to stop asking me if I saw Derrick Rose's numbers from his current or most recent game. No, Kendall. I didn't. And I don't care. Happy for him, sure. But is he wearing a Bulls jersey? No? Don't care.
Will needs to scoot around in a chair with wheels or something. I feel like a shrimp next to him. At 6'4, I've gotten used to being the tallest guy in most rooms. Most rooms don't have retired NBA centers in them.
I blame Bulldog's addiction to Subway sandwiches for my recently acquired addiction to Subway sandwiches. They have a store right around the corner from our building, and now I find myself getting a sub on my way into the studio almost every night. I guess it's healthier than stopping at the Taco Bell for "4th Meal" on my way home last season before I moved to a new neighborhood. Here's a tip, folks: never live a block away from a Taco Bell.
Okay, now onto some more Bulls-centric items.
2a) I'm thankful I remember some of the Jordan years.
I know, I know. A large amount of this fanbase is sick of the team resting on the laurels of the past. And I get it. But you know what? At least us older Bulls got to experience it. I was pretty young for the first threepeat and remember glimpses of it. The second threepeat I remember vividly. Specific games, playoff series, off-court storylines, Jordan and Scottie Pippen's ridiculous performances, Dennis Rodman's entertaining antics, Ron Harper's defense, Toni Kukoč or Steve Kerr catching fire, Bill Wennington baseline jumpers. It was a soap opera with a beautiful basketball at its core. And it was awesome.
I feel so sorry for younger Bulls fans who didn't get to see it, breath it, live it. YouTube clips only teach you so much. And they certainly don't capture the same feelings as being there. It's why I still get chills when I'm at the United Center and hear "Sirius" start to play. Plenty of diehard sports fans live their entire lives without experiencing that much joy. We were so lucky. And I'm thankful.
2b) The dynasty ended more than 20 years ago, and I wish we were closer to another one.
One conference finals appearance since the dynasty ended in 1998. That's it. And we lost that series in five games. Sure, there's been some bad luck with injuries. And it's hard to win in the NBA. But one conference finals appearance in 20 years isn't good enough. It's just not. Not for a team in this market with this rich history.
3a) I'm thankful for Wendell Carter Jr.
This young man is doing and saying all the right things. He's always there in the locker room to offer his thoughts. It seems like the more devastating the loss, the more mature and enlightened his comments are. He isn't a leader in the making. He already is a leader. The Bulls players voted newcomers Thad Young and Otto Porter Jr. to be co-captains this season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Wendell take one of those spots next season.
On the floor, we're seeing the potential. He's improved his field goal percentage (a staggering leap from 48.5% to 59.5%), scoring and rebounding from his 44 games as a rookie. He's piling up double-doubles almost every night. Through 19 games, his net rating of +0.7 is the highest among the current starting unit. (Eek.) But it could be better.
3b) I wish Wendell got more respect from the refs and more freedom from his coach.
Accruing early fouls was a problem for Wendell last season, and it's continued into this season. Some of it, I think, is that NBA refs don't respect him as a defensive star yet. He's still young, and he rarely catches a break when the call could go either way. He also finds himself picking up more fouls because he's the one who gets stuck bailing out his teammates when their poor rotations, individual defense or the defensive system as a whole breaks down. It's not fair.
Wendell's block numbers are down from last year, and it's because Jim Boylen's blitzing defense is bringing him away from the basket. How many times have we seen the Bulls' bigs getting caught out in no man's land while an undersized guard is forced to rotate into the paint to try to stop an oncoming freight train? Not only is this stealing Wendell's potential as an elite shot-blocker, but it's also a leading cause for this team's egregious (wink) struggles on the boards.
Wendell's misuse on offense might be even more frustrating than the defensive stuff. Boylen is stubbornly insisting upon this new system that emphasizes three-point attempts and good looks at the rim while doing away with all midrange attempts. So far, the numbers back up the fact that Boylen's players are following those instructions.
Unfortunately, while the Bulls are getting plenty of shot attempts on threes and layups, their percentages on those shots are terrible. The poor three-point shooting you could probably just blame on players in shooting slumps, but the ghastly field goal percentage at the rim is different. Opposing defenses are packing the paint against the Bulls, because they are aware of the team's offensive philosophy. That would explain Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and others missing contested looks in a congested paint area.
If Boylen were to ease up a bit on the "no midrange" rule, Wendell could draw defenses – and most importantly, opposing bigs – away from the basket. Wendell can shoot. We saw it at Duke. But right now, he's not even looking at the basket if he gets the ball more than 6 feet away from it. If he were to get a green light and display a midrange game that opponents had to respect, it could open so many other lanes for this offense to operate.
4a) I'm thankful for Zach LaVine.
Count me among those on #TeamLaVine after the drama that unfolded last week between LaVine and Boylen. The defensive mistakes for which LaVine was pulled were not all that "egregious" in my opinion. And Zach made a good point after the game, citing that there were four other teammates on the floor when the Heat opened that game on a 13-0 run.
Then came the 49-point outburst on a historic shooting night, including the game-winner as time expired. What a rush! What an unfamiliar feeling for Bulls fans recently. I was ready to do an episode of Outsiders dissecting another bad loss in a winnable game. But then Zach happened.
I don't know if Zach has what it takes to be the best player on a contending team or even an above-average team. I have my doubts. But it's unquestionable that right now, he's the most talented guy on this roster. And he gave us a show that I'll never forget. And we needed it. We needed all 49 of it.
4b) I wish Zach would improve his defense and decision-making.
These are my two biggest issues with Zach. The defense we all know about. We all heard his comments leading up to this season. And while Boylen may have been too harsh with his benching on that particular night, it's also true that Zach has largely failed to live up to that talk of improving his defense. His defensive rating of 110.6 is the worst on the roster. Some of that is due to Boylen's rotations, but some of it is on Zach. Please, get better.
The late-game turnovers and shot selection is still an issue, too. I had no problem with Zach launching all those threes against Charlotte. When you're hot, you're hot. But too often we have seen the wheels fall off the Bulls' offense late in winnable games. Zach is usually being asked to carry the load as a primary ballhandler, and he often tries to do too much. Again, some of this is the system. Zach might not be best suited for that role. In fact, on a contending team, I don't see him in that role. But for right now, given what this roster has, Zach will continue to be the guy late in games. If he could cut down on the turnovers, he might be bailing out Boylen's failures more nights than not. But his current assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.14 leaves a lot to be desired.
5a) I'm thankful for you, my fellow diehard Bulls fans.
Truly thankful. I couldn't do what I do without you.
5b) I wish you all have a safe and wonderful Thanksgiving holiday,
…surrounded by loved ones and the unhealthiest, most delicious foods. *heads to the kitchen for his third helping…*
Thanks for reading. Till next time. See red, be good, go eat. - Peck
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