McGraw: Bulls will be better this season, but still lack a key ingredient
Early returns on the new-look Bulls were very positive. Preseason results don't mean much, but this team clearly has more talent, scoring ability and basketball IQ than the teams that soiled the United Center the last four years.
At the same time, this group brought back memories of the early 2000s Minnesota Timberwolves. Yes, that's a random, irrelevant team, but here's the connection:
Those Timberwvolves with Kevin Garnett, Terrell Brandon and Wally Szczerbiak could shoot the lights out. The bad Bulls teams of that era would regularly get smacked inside the Target Center, often in embarrassing fashion.
At the same time -- before adding Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell a few years later -- those Minnesota teams lost in the first round of the playoffs seven years in a row. It was enough to make you wonder, "How could a team so far ahead of the Bulls be so far away from challenging for an NBA title?"
As strange as it looked on the court, the answer was obvious. Those Timberwolves teams lacked any sort of edge in defense or physicality and couldn't compete in the playoffs.
That's also the biggest question with the 2021-22 Bulls. They're small across the front line, don't have a lot of accomplished defensive players and certainly don't have much in the way of rim protection.
This could be a team that looks unbeatable on some nights, but has little hope against the championship contenders. And maybe that's understandable. It's a long way to the top after four years of trying to be bad, and this is just the Bulls' first step.
Coach Billy Donovan, who spent five years coaching in the more competitive Western Conference, talked about this scenario a few times during training camp.
"Coaching against Golden State my first year in the playoffs, everybody talked about they were small, they were small, but Draymond Green plays a lot bigger, (Andre) Iguodala plays a lot bigger than they are," Donovan said. "They were a big physical team. They maybe weren't extremely tall, but they were big. Klay Thompson was big.
"We may get into some situations where we may be undersized at that position. We'll see how we'll have to work it out."
Donovan makes a good point. There are different ways to assert physicality in the NBA. It can be with strong perimeter defense or paint protection.
Maybe a good template for the Bulls is last year's Phoenix team, which went to the Finals with a small front line. Six-foot-6 Mikal Bridges, 6-6 Jae Crowder and 6-8 Cameron Johnson got most of the minutes at the two forward spots.
Now, both Bridges and Crowder are good at doing the dirty work and could also hit some 3-pointers. At center for the Suns, DeAndre Ayton is a work in progress, but a very different player than the offensively fluid Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic has never been regarded as a strong defender. Orlando produced a decent team defense when it put Jonathan Isaac at power forward next to him. Last year, I talked about how the Bulls probably needed to follow that example and put a strong defender at the four spot to help Vucevic. They're heading into the season with Patrick Williams at that spot.
One thing we learned about Williams during his rookie season is that he's not the next Kawhi Leonard. It's not clear exactly what kind of player Williams will be in the NBA, but the Bulls need him to at least try to bring some of those Draymond Green qualities to the defensive end.
The first power forward off the bench in the preseason finale was 6-4 Javonte Green. It's not clear what role Donovan has in mind for 6-7 Alize Johnson, the team's best rebounder in preseason.
Confidence is fairly high that the Bulls will be much better this season. A fast start is very possible thanks to the opening week schedule, which begins Wednesday in Detroit.
When the time comes to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant or Joel Embiid, the Bulls will probably resemble a team that's still a few moves away from being really good.