By Will Dancer
When the Bulls traded away Jimmy Butler in June 2017 in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a pick that ended up becoming Lauri Markkanen from the Minnesota Timberwolves, it looked like Chicago was hoping to use this young talent to avoid the tanking process that often comes after losing an All-Star such as Butler.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, their 2017 first-round exit was followed up with a 27-55 season where LaVine only played 24 games, recovering from an ACL tear, while Dunn only played 52, dealing with an aggravated finger injury of his own. While it was a breakout rookie season for Markkanen, the Bulls could not outplay their unstable lineup.
Therefore, at the start of this season, Chicago’s expected improvement was not necessarily high, but they have since managed to move further away from obtaining a .500 record.
This current season saw much of the same as the year before for the Bulls. Limping through the regular season to a 22-60 record, a plague of injuries to Markkanen, Dunn and Valentine ended whatever theoretical playoff chances this very young team had, even with the addition of Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. LaVine is clearly a scoring threat for coach Jim Boylen’s lineup, but him missing the All-Star team was reflective of the Bull’s overall terrible season.
Chicago does have the option to switch things up and make a run next year. However, staying stagnant over the off-season threatens to lead to another bout of losing. Below are some considerations the Bulls need to make in order to start winning games.
To get it out of the way, there is some credibility to the idea that Chicago should hit the reset button and trade away players like Markkanen, LaVine and Porter while their trade value is high to add to Chicago’s already high level of cap space in order to maybe sign some more max contracts. That is considering if high-level free agents would even want to come here in the first place, but that’s another argument for another day. However, the Bulls would need to wait and see if other teams start throwing offers their way before they start dumping their pieces. I believe the organization sees Markkanen as a key part for their future, so the likelihood of them being offered something good enough to give up on his development is unlikely. But if the 2019-2020 season sees another losing record, moving on may be the best option.
Depending on where they fall in the this year’s draft lottery, Chicago could look to add a highly skilled forward or center to help out on the defensive end. Many others, however, feel they could also afford to pick up a more dynamic point guard. Either way, most mock drafts have the Bulls slated to have the fourth pick, projecting them to pick either Jarrett Culver from Texas Tech or Darius Garland from Vanderbilt, both of whom are guards. Conversely, that pick could become a tempting offer for another team if it falls high enough and Chicago will be receiving offers by the time draft day comes around.
General areas of focus during the off-season would be to restructure their defensive strategy and start being more consistent on that side of the ball. They currently have the 27th worst defensive rating in the league, but it’s hard to say where they would be if their lineup wasn’t in flux due to injury Center Robin Lopez is aging and could very well be gone by next year and the current personnel is simply too offensively oriented. The off-season should look to bring new defenders on the bench to come in after a timeout to help stop scoring runs by the opponent.
Coach Boylen took over the role of head coach in December, so his first-year impact on the team’s success is questionable, but he should be working to reorient the healthy roster to adapt new defensive schemes and develop the young players to exert more pressure on the ball.
From there it only gets worse, because even with all the scorers they have, they are not scoring nearly as much as they should. They sit at 27th for most points per game and 27th in assists per game. While injuries obviously play a huge role in their lack of success, next season demands that Boylen gives the young guys like Markkanen and Dunn as much time on the court with LaVine as possible to strengthen the chemistry that lineup changes have been limiting.
The lack of ball movement stems from LaVine typically being the only available shot creator on the court and filtering the entire offense through him means other player aren’t getting their touches. This is passable (no pun intended) for a team that is tanking, but if the playoffs are a priority by this time next year, Chicago needs to look to what Denver has done recently and what the Warriors have been doing for the past three years with their constant passing.
With a full roster, Chicago has plenty of capability to put the ball through the net and they would seemingly be able to use the pick and roll to spread the floor and find their open shooters as well as any other non-playoff team in the league.
The story of the Chicago Bulls this year has been overall underwhelming, but LaVine’s clear all-star potential and Markkanen’s steady improvement gives some fans hope for the future. Bulls fans will look for their young guys to take that next step in their game and to do so while staying healthy. If not, the organization will have to start making some tough decisions regarding their pieces and a full-blown rebuild process.