So what and who are the big surprises in these first two weeks of the 2017-18 NBA season?
Probably the Orlando Magic, tied for the Eastern Conference’s best record going into Monday’s games and second in the NBA in scoring as someone may finally have told Frank Vogel he isn’t coaching Roy Hibbert and David West anymore. The Bulls are in Orlando Friday after starting this short road trip in Miami Wednesday in a difficult—yes, they all are this season—three games in four nights concluding at home against New Orleans Saturday. That will be against two of the top five scorers in the NBA in DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a surprise as league scoring leader, though at 34.7 before Tuesday is more than anyone could have anticipated along with MVP talk. Though the bigger surprise may be Kristaps Porzingis averaging barely under 30 points despite having missed his post season meeting with management and, apparently, the instructions on how to improve. Porzingis has five games of at least 30 points for the .500 Knicks, another bit of a surprise. Perhaps some for Indiana’s Victor Oladipo as well, though what helps is playing much more and not having to buy a ticket to games, which he did last season watching Russell Westbrook. But 25-plus per game is impressive. Clint Capela has five double/doubles and leads the league in shooting and the last anyone heard the Rockets were trying to trade for him to improve their versatility. Yes, he plays for them. But, really, who knew?
Also the Detroit Pistons, who cleaned up on the unbeatable Western Conference with a home blowout win over the Timberwolves, though much of Detroit doesn’t seem to know they moved downtown. And then, remarkably, winning in Los Angeles (against the good L.A. team) and Golden State. You’d say the Warriors’ 5-3 start is a surprise except they’ll probably be in first by next week. The Cavs’ 3-4 isn’t that much worse, but they have looked much, much worse. The roster is proving a poor fit. They do look like they’re going to have problems as they’re in the bottom third in almost every important defensive category. Isaiah Thomas’ eventual return is not likely to help that.
And if the Bulls’ 1-4 record isn’t a surprise, the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen has to be one of the league’s biggest of the early season. The seventh overall pick was targeted as a 20-year-old with one year in the U.S. as a 20-minute player off the bench. The altercation between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic changed that, and Markkanen has responded. He’s second among rookies in scoring and first in rebounding in one of the most highly regarded rookies classes of recent years. He’s the only player keeping Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons from leading freshmen in scoring, rebounding and assists.
Markkanen is second on the Bulls in scoring by two-tenths of a point behind Justin Holiday and leads in rebounding. He is averaging just 11 shots per game. Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg this week in practice emphasized he wants Markkanen to get more shots.
“We have to have better recognition,” said Hoiberg. “We missed him standing by himself. He’s been so good.”
For his part, Markkanen said he has to be more aggressive, which he has learned is the go to shooters’ cliché.
“Demand the ball more,” said Markkanen, who added, “I don’t want to make stupid plays like turnovers or things like that.”
The Bulls will take their chances.
It’s been, understandably, a difficult offensive start for the Bulls with the Portis/Mirotic contretemps, Kris Dunn just returning from injury Saturday in the painful Thunder loss and Zach LaVine yet to play.
Hoiberg said Tuesday Mirotic finally was able to return to the Advocate Center for a start to workouts after the team left for Miami. Jerian Grant said he’s spoken with Mirotic regularly.
“I’ve talked to him,” Grant said. “He’s in good spirits. It has been tough not having him around. To get him back would be good.”
Mirotic apparently will not have facial surgery, but his return still seems weeks to months away.
“The important thing is Niko’s going to get back in here and get back to work,” said Hoiberg. “Obviously, the workouts will start very basic. Just starting on a bike. Get a bit of a sweat going. But I’m sure for Niko it’ll be great to get back in here and start some activity again. It’s an important first step for him to get back in here with recovery still probably a good six weeks away.”
Portis’ suspension ends following Saturday’s game against the Pelicans. Portis will be eligible to play Tuesday in Toronto. He has been practicing with the team.
Grant after that woeful team effort against the Thunder Saturday will remain the starting point guard, Hoiberg confirmed, even as the offense has slowed.
The Bulls are last in the NBA in scoring and shooting and in the bottom third in assists and three-point shooting. What began as a promising offensive start with movement and unselfish play has ground down to more isolation and deliberate play.
The defense, actually, has been adequate, 11th overall in scoring and 13th in opponent shooting and 22th in overall efficiency. But the Bulls, by a lot, are last in the league in overall offensive efficiency.
“Jerian will continue to start,” Hoiberg confirmed. “We did have a good, hard, competitive practice. I like what both of those guys (with Dunn) brought to practice. Kay Felder had a good practice as well. We played a combination where a couple of the point guards were out there together playing on the same unit. With us struggling to get into the paint, to add a couple of ballhandlers out there is something we may look at.”
Grant is averaging nine points and a team best 6.6 assists, but shooting just 33 percent and just over six percent on threes. Only Markkanen, Holiday and Robin Lopez are averaging in double figures per game. Miami has six players averaging in double figures while Orlando has three players averaging more than 20 per game.
“Just not making shots,” agreed Grant. “Other than making shots, I think I’ve been all right. Getting guys involved and making plays but, at the end of the day, it’s a shot making league and that’s what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to play better; I’m not playing the way I need to play. At the same time, I want to show these guys I am the guy that can hold down this spot.”