Behind Enemy Lines: Getting to know the Spurs' opponent with a Bulls Expert

Chicago Bulls v San Antonio Spurs
Chicago Bulls v San Antonio Spurs / Ronald Cortes/GettyImages

The San Antonio Spurs are on an eight-game losing streak and dropping in the Western Conference standings as they meet the Chicago Bulls for the first pitstop on their annual Rodeo Road Trip. Though their opponent has underachieved this season, Gregg Popovich still has a tricky task on the docket if his shorthanded youngsters hope to pull off an upset.

Silver and Black alum DeMar DeRozan is playing some of the best hoops of his career, and Zach Lavine, his fellow All-Star counterpart, is starting to round into form after shedding an injury-riddled slump. I went behind enemy lines and chatted with Pippen Ain't Easy Site Expert Austin Carroll to get the lowdown on the Bulls before tonight's matchup.

1. DeMar DeRozan has averaged career-best scoring numbers since joining the Bulls, what has driven his improvement since departing from San Antonio?

One of the biggest criticisms of DeRozan throughout his career has been his inability to be a number one option, and he received much of the blame for Toronto and San Antonio failing to advance in the playoffs. In Chicago, he has had the opportunity to play alongside the most talented offensive weapon he’s ever had in his career ⁠— Zach LaVine. Having another elite offensive player has alleviated the pressure off DeMar’s shoulders and allowed him to conserve his energy for more efficient looks that are less likely to wear him out as the game progresses. Without playing for San Antonio under Pop in the first place, however, I doubt DeMar’s playmaking would have progressed far enough to make this possible.

2. Zach LaVine missed the first matchup against the Spurs earlier this season, how does his presence impact round two between these teams?

Still recovering from a knee operation over the summer, Zach LaVine wasn’t really himself to start the season. He averaged 20.9 points on 40.7% shooting from the field in October and November, but those numbers have improved to 25.1 points on a 49.4% clip since December. Armed with two top-20 scorers, the Bulls will look to overwhelm a shorthanded Spurs team and bury them before they can make it a close game.

3. Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams were selected in the lottery in 2020, but the latter has seemingly stagnated. Did Chicago made the right choice?

Unlike most rookies, Williams was thrust into an environment where his team was trying to compete and win now. As such, he’s been rather timid with his shot selection. There’s been clear improvement each year, as he’s grown into the second-best defender on the Bulls roster and the team’s best spot-up shooter, drilling 40.9% from deep on a healthy sample size. A few players from later in the first round have stood out, namely Devin Vassell, Tyrese Haliburton, and Desmond Bane; But revisiting the 2020 Draft, the six picks after Williams were Isaac Okoro, Onyeka Okongwu, Killian Hayes, Deni Avdija, and Jalen Smith to round out the top 10. I’m not losing sleep over that.

4. San Antonio is 4-1 versus the Bulls over the last two seasons, how do you see this contest playing out on Monday night?

Seeing as the Spurs will be down a whole host of key contributors tonight, I don’t see any reason on paper this game should be a close one. Given that San Antonio sits tied for 3rd and only one game behind the top spot in the NBA Lottery standings, I think the Spurs will be happy to take a loss and continue their march toward Victor Wembanyama. With that said, Chicago has gone 9-10 in games against teams with losing records, the worst mark of anyone in the NBA in play-in tournament position or higher. If any team was going to play down to their competition and throw a wrench in the Spurs’ plans for more ping-pong balls, it’s the Bulls.

5. Everyone knows about the three All-Stars on the Bulls roster, but which players will be the x-factors for Chicago if they walk away victorious?

While eyes will undoubtedly be on the Bulls’ trio of stars, I would like to throw Alex Caruso’s name in the ring as Chicago’s biggest x-factor. Caruso has a staggering team-high +125 plus/minus, with DeRozan and LaVine tied for second-highest all the way down at +55. Caruso excels in several defensive metrics, leading the NBA in DRAPTOR and holding the second-highest DBPM in the league. Keep an eye on him tonight, and you’ll see that he is the engine that propels this Bulls team forward, even if it doesn’t show up on the box score by the final buzzer.

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