Way Too In Depth Chicago Bulls Preview
This is part 4 of our NBA preview and the last one of the Eastern Conference Central division. For obvious reasons we are skipping the Pistons. Here come the Bulls.
About Last Year:
All things considered, last season was mostly a success for a rebuilding Bulls team. Lauri Markkanen was a surprise breakout rookie as a effective and high-volume Distance shooter. Even though Zach LaVine didn't play especially well but he showed some of the explosiveness from before, and even if they probably won too many games in the middle of the season they did show that this group can maybe be something real (especially that perhaps Fred Hoidberg could still be worthwhile as a coach) and they still were able to draft a good prospect at a position of need in Wendell Carter Jr. as nice toss-ins, Kris Dunn went from a disaster rookie season to looking like he may be a competent Starter in the future and Bobby Portis is a nice well-rounded power forward when he isn't punching his teammates.
Once again, in the grand scheme of things they probably won a few too many games in the middle of the season, but it was about as successful a season as a rebuilding team can have. Young guys looked promising, their coach may be decent, and there is a theoretical core in place.
Wendell Carter Jr (drafted)
…... nothing of real of significance? They traded Mirotic last season. I may be drawing a blank but I they didn't lose much of note this offseason other than cap-space on LaVine's new contract.
The big moves had to do with restricted free-agents. The Bulls matched a Sacramento offer sheet on Zach LaVine which will pay the young guard $19.5 million per year through the 2021-2022 season... which probably isn't ideal but they did retain him. They also went and added Jabari Parker who made a mutual decision with the Bucks to separate. Parker signed a two-year contract worth $40 million but the second season has a team option. Other than that and their draft picks there wasn't a whole lot of note for the Bulls. Given that LaVine was hurt almost all of last season the team will look very different from last season, but the roster looks similar to the one they finished the year with.
The Good News:
The Bulls had a successful first phase of rebuilding of collecting some sort of “young core” to possibly build around. Admittedly that is not the hard part of building a team, going from a young core with potential to actually being good is a big step that a lot of teams fail to make, but they have some real pieces.
A theoretical core of Dunn/LaVine/Parker/Markkanen/Carter Jr is not terrible. Kris Dunn is the oldest guy there at 24, toss in Denzel Valentine at 24 (who quietly had a nice bounce-back second season after a terrible rookie season) and Bobby Portis who remains just 23 and you've got 7 guys who are 24 and under who are-at least rotation-worthy guys.
The best news is that there is a decent chance that this team is fairly fun to watch, even if they do end up being really bad again. LaVine and Parker (LaVine in particular), for all their flaws, can score in bunches and when Hoidberg goes with some combination of Portis/Markkanen/Carter up front there should be plenty of space for them to do their work. If Markkanen can make a big jump the Bulls could even have a shot at the elusive trio of 20 points per game scorers.
Markkanen will probably continue to struggle with some stuff, especially on the defensive end, just like most young players, ditto for Carter, but both guys have skill-sets that are fun and make them useful even if they do rookie-mistake stuff. Toss in Justin Holliday with the rest of those guys and the Bulls will Regularly have a lot of shooting on the floor which should be a good fit with coach Hoidberg.
Beyond all that, this team still, somehow, has Robin Lopez. How much Lopez plays will say a lot about how the organization views their goals for this season. If the Bulls decide to essentially punt on another season (which admittedly is likely the smart decision long-term) then tossing the front-court pairing of Markkanen and Carter into the fire all season is the way to go. That's the front-court of the future, no point in putting it off. HOWEVA, if they play Lopez major minutes (and to a lesser extent Bobby Portis) they could give themselves a chance at being a decent team. Lopez has a long history of being the sort of defensive rock to anchor solid defenses.
Last season's Bulls were simply too much to ask of Lopez, it likely would've been too much for prime Bill Russell, but if some other guys make improvements on defense then Lopez may be able to drag this Bulls team close to league-average on defense. If they can manage that there is a chance they could actually be a decent team.
The best news for the Bulls this season, if you put aside LaVine's huge contract, is that it is likely another season of watching a young-team grow without much in the way of pressure or expectations. It is a season where you can lose games with regularity but you come away feeling ok about it because of how good guys “looked” and remember to enjoy this period because it doesn't take long for that tide to turn. On top of that, as far as rebuilding teams go, the Bulls have a decent shot to actually be a decent team.
The Bad News:
This team is probably not going to be able to defend even a little bit. Robin Lopez, bless his mascot-hating heart, will try his best. Last year the Bulls ranked 28th in defensive efficiency and they are likely to only get worse this season. When he was last healthy, LaVine was legitimately one of the worst defenders in the entire NBA, Jabari Parker had occasional flashes of competence but was mostly very bad and we still don't know which position he should play. Rookie big men, even ones as promising as Carter, almost always suck on defense as rookies. Once again, unless there is some combination of guys making big improvements and them playing Lopez heavy minutes (at the expense of Carter) they are going to be one of the worst handfuls of defensive teams in the NBA.
Once again, having another season of being really bad isn't the worst thing, get another high pick and let the young guys learn from mistakes. But anyone who seriously thinks this team is going to compete for a playoff spot, even in the weak Eastern Conference, should probably pump the brakes.
The other issue is actually a bigger one. The defensive woes will be a problem this season, but as young guys get older and they start to sign some veterans that will improve. The bigger long-term problem is on offense. LaVine and Parker can score, so can Markkanen, and there should be good spacing on the floor more often than not, but they may have a fatal lack of playmaking on the roster. The Timberwolves tried to make LaVine a point guard and gave up because he is so lacking in passing vision and instincts, Parker has never been even remotely useful as a playmaker with any consistency. Once again, Markkanen is good and fun, but he certainly isn't an offensive hub. Kris Dunn could make another step forward and be good enough to fill this gap, but you have to remember that he isn't as young as most third-year players. There is a decent chance that this team ends up having the dreaded “My turn, your turn” offensive style where LaVine and Parker take turns trying to score with other players sprinkled throughout. That style of offense can be fairly effective with all-world scorers, but even then it fails in big moments. LaVine and Parker are both likely to crack 20 points per game, but it wouldn't be a shock to see others on the roster see their production decrease next to the ball-dominant and trigger-happy scorers. Once again, LaVine and Parker both have the potential to be so good as scorers that this style actually works out, and it is possible that a combination of Kris Dunn improving and Fred Hoidberg creativity is enough to balance it out. Just looking at the roster as it is, games where 50 points are poured in by LaVine and Parker but the Bulls still lose by 20 because neither player has more than two assists, seem likely to happen with regularity.
Tying into this, is the biggest worry long-term with the roster. For this group to really pop they are requiring a pair of injured players to get healthy and into full form. The problem is that neither LaVine or Parker were actually that good even when they were healthy. LaVine could shoot and score but he doesn't facilitate and is comically bad on defense. Parker can also score, but we don't know what position he plays, he doesn't pass well, doesn't try on defense, hasn't ever really been in shape, and isn't a great shooter. So even if both guys are all the way healthy and stay that way, they will need further improvements from there.
What's the biggest wild-card this season?
Has to be Jabari. His potential as a prospect coming out of college was huge enough to keep hope alive that he could still reach that potential even if he hadn't had the injury issues. But the combination of injuries and the fact that he clearly never found a comfort-zone next to Giannis and Middleton and there is real hope he could finally break out. For all my talk of that Parker wasn't that good before, remember that a couple of years ago, Parker scored 20 points per game on a tidy true shooting percentage of 56.3% as a 21 year old. I'd be surprised, just because it doesn't happen that often, but there is a chance he pulls something similar to Victor Oladipo. Combination of being somewhere familiar and the greenest of green lights gets him to finally realize all the potential.
If Parker can truly realize his potential as a star, then this Bulls team has something real. They probably still won't be that good this year, this Bulls team doesn't have nearly the quality veteran depth that the Pacers had last year, but they'd have something real to go forward with. If it turns out that he wasn't actually just uncomfortable and out of place with the Bucks but actually just not as good as his potential, then this Bulls team is likely to face the awful problem of having a nice young core without a true centerpiece.
Best Case Scenario: 41-41
Jabari is the real deal, blossoming into a mid 20s per game scorer and even finds himself on defense a bit. Zach LaVine becomes normal bad at defense instead of all-time bad and returns to pre-injury form of a 20 point per game gunner. Lauri Markkanen takes a big step and also scores 20 per game. Robin Lopez anchors a league average defense and smart coaching overcomes some lack of playmaking to get an above average offense behind the scoring trio of Parker, LaVine, and Markkanen.
Wendell Carter Jr. gets a 6th man role and thrives as he isn't put under too much pressure and focus on his strengths while clearly cementing himself as the center of the future after Lopez leaves. The Bulls fight for a playoff spot down to the end of the season and sneak into the playoffs to give some of the youngsters playoff experience. The Bulls are officially sp00ky.
Worst Case Scenario: 20-62
Jabari is hurt and when he plays he isn't that good, Zach LaVine is the same player as before but not as bouncy and quick. The Bulls toss Carter into the fire from the get go, essentially banishing Lopez from the rotation for most of the year in the process, and while it isn't a total disaster he doesn't look even close to ready. With a continued lack of playmaking Markkanen struggles to add onto a strong rookie performance as he watches LaVine and Parker brick shots. Kris Dunn regresses. The Bulls are one of the worst teams in the NBA again, and their young guys didn't make the steps they hopped for. The offseason at least brings another high draft pick and hope for the future remains, but it isn't all that pretty.
You made the Oladipo comparison for Parker, why can't this Bulls team be as good as the Pacers last year?
Even though the Pacers utterly tanked whenever Oladipo wasn't on the floor, they had a bunch more veterans who are good players. After Oladipo, their leaders in minutes per game were: Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Myles Turner, and Cory Joseph. Other than Turner, those are all veteran players who help you win games, and the Bulls just don't have that other than Lopez. Young players are usually bad, that doesn't mean this Bulls team doesn't have potential, it just means that teams with multiple 21 and unders in their rotation almost always suck.
What do you think of the contracts for Parker and LaVine?
I'm fully behind the Parker contract. He remains a intriguing piece who has shown flashes and if he bombs out then the Bulls can let him go after this year. An additional benefit of him is that if he becomes a star, I should think the Bulls will have the upper-hand in retaining him since he is from Chicago and clearly loves being close to home. Several reports suggested that he wanted to go to the Bucks in the draft so that he could be fairly close to home.
LaVine is obviously tougher. I am not ready to condemn it as much as many are. There is a chance that LaVine builds on his off-dribble shooting from distance to become a offensive dynamo, like a worse passing Damian Lillard, and even if he doesn't get there I think he likely will become something akin to a guard version of Tobias Harris. And if he gets there, $19.5million is probably more than ideal, but it isn't the worst thing in the world. If he is much worse than that though, it could be very ugly. But I'm going to mostly hold off a bit on that to see how he looks this season.
So What's the verdict? Line is 27.5.
I'm taking the over. I strongly disagree with the small amount of hype they've gotten as a potential playoff team but I think that they will win 30 games. Obviously if injuries and/or tank-a-thon come into play they could easily end up going under, but I just think there is enough here to be a 30 win team. Like, the Bulls won 27 games last year, and they are almost certainly better than last year, especially if they actually play Robin Lopez all season. That line just seems low to me.