Chicago is still reeling from the repercussions of the brawl between Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis as the Spanish big man has reportedly presented the Bulls with an ultimatum: trade either him or Portis. It’d be one thing if the Bulls were winning as victories serve as a cure-all, but being that Portis and Mirotic are two of the more skilled players on a team devoid of much talent, the incident and their absences have hung over the team like a gray storm cloud. This team may very well be the worst in the league this season, though there has been some semblance of direction thanks to the play of their young pieces.
Rookie Lauri Markkanen has pleasantly surprised through four games, averaging 15.8 points and 10 rebounds on 54.9 percent true shooting, providing a glimmer of hope for the once proud franchise. His front court mate, Robin Lopez, long a defensive-minded center, has taken on a more offensive responsibility this season, putting up 15.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and three assists per game. Third-year guard Jerian Grant and journeyman Justin Holiday have both provided some bright spots in the backcourt.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City, struggling to find continuity with their Big Three, is coming off its second loss to the Timberwolves in less than a week, dropping to 2-3 on the young season. The Thunder faltered during crunch time in last night’s loss, settling for isolation basketball and failing to fully maximize the talent on the roster. Through five games, the Thunder have largely underwhelmed, comfortably beating the teams they should (the Pacers and Knicks) while losing to both playoff contenders they’ve faced (the Timberwolves and Jazz).
Westbrook has been dynamic as ever, averaging 22.6 points, 12 assists — which leads the league — and 9.2 rebounds. What’s been even more encouraging though, is the improved efficiency as the 2016-17 MVP is shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep, both of which would be career-bests. Yet, much like last season, the Brodie has been plagued by turnovers, averaging 6.2 per game. Westbrook’s breakneck, full throttle style of play will almost always yield a high turnover rate; it’s just inherent in his game. He should feast against Grant as the Notre Dame product is not heralded for his defensive capabilities.
The biggest issue with the team thus far has been his supporting cast. Carmelo Anthony, while displaying his prowess as a skilled scorer, averaging 24.4 points on 47.4 percent shooting (his best mark since the 2007-08 season), has rendered Paul George as a third option. Yet Melo hasn’t provided much aside from scoring as second fiddle to Westbrook. He’s averaging just 3.6 rebounds and 1.6 assists while providing hardly a sliver of defensive contributions. George is this team’s second best player and in order for the Thunder to reach their potential, his usage and role must reflect that. PG13 is not without fault though as the All-Star swingman is shooting just 40.7 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three. As the season continues to progress, it’s important to monitor whether or not George can work out the kinks and return to his ways of old as a proficient scorer and shooter.
Westbrook’s been Westbrook-ish through five games, but even then has struggled with careless turnovers and a surprising amount of missed free throws. For the Thunder to right the ship, his supporting cast must play their brand of basketball. A game against the hapless Bulls may be just what this team needs to find its footing.