2018-19 Chicago Bulls
Projected Record: 27-55 (12th in East)
2016: 27-55 (13th in East)
- Wendell Carter Jr. (Pick #7)
- Chandler Hutchison (Pick #22)
- Jabari Parker (Free Agency)
- Antonius Cleveland (Wavier Claim)
- Jerian Grant
- Paul Zipser
- Noah Vonleh
- Sean Kilpatrick
- Julyan Stone
- Carter and Markkanen will be incredibly fun
- Offensive upside
- LaVine/Parker duo is a defensive nightmare
- Front office is impossible to trust
The Chicago Bulls are — dare I say it — kinda fun?
Really, I mean it, they kinda are.
There’s actually some substance here!
What a strange feeling.
Like many others, I pegged the Bulls as the worst team in basketball last season, at what I thought would be an almost unprecedented level. While they were certainly terrible, with the sixth-worst record in the league and the third-worst net rating, they certainly exceeded all of our miserable expectations on their way to a blistering 27 wins. How did they do it?
For starters, they somehow won the Jimmy Butler trade. Much like we saw with Paul George and the Pacers, the initial return for Butler seemed light — a first-round pick swap, underwhelming former lotto pick Kris Dunn and one-way combo guard Zach LaVine coming off an ACL tear. Nothing to get terribly excited about at the time, in other words.
While the Bulls certainly could have done better — a pick swap in a trade for a superstar? — their end of the bargain is looking pretty good these days. They turned Minnesota’s seventh overall pick into Lauri Markkanen, Dunn rebounded from a miserable rookie season to show two-way potential and LaVine, despite his flaws, has some interesting upside as a scorer. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, got only 59 games and a short-lived playoff berth out of Butler (to say nothing of the currently proceeding drama), along with center Justin Patton, whose career could be in some jeopardy due to repeated foot injuries.
The Bulls absolutely weren’t good, but with the last vestiges of the Tom Thibodeau finally off their backs, they looked rejuvenated. Markkanen already looks like a historical outlier as a shooter over seven feet tall, and coach Fred Hoiberg — who himself looks like a new man now that he’s not essentially managing Thibodeau’s old team — used him judiciously. The guard rotation of Dunn, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant brought tenacity in spades. In December, they walloped a 23-5 Celtics team (sans-Kyrie Irving) by 23 points. The frontcourt quartet of Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Bobby Portis and Robin Lopez (for however long he sticks around) will be particularly dynamic.
The Bulls looked more or less as good as you could reasonably expect from a team that won only 27 games, and you can likely expect to see more of the same from them in 2018. The overall talent level still isn’t quite high enough to generate some darkhorse buzz like a Brooklyn or a Dallas, particularly due to their almost complete lack of competent wing players. Lauri Markkanen missing six to eight weeks with a sprained elbow certainly won’t help.
Similar to the Atlanta Hawks, though, there’s enough here to have some fun, and for a franchise that has been mired in frustration for the better part of the decade, “fun” is valuable in an of itself.
Most Valuable Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Apologies to Markkanen, who is an incredibly unique and exciting frontcourt talent in his own right, but Wendell Carter Jr. is the most valuable player on the Bulls’ roster.
Carter was overshadowed by freshman teammate Marvin Bagley III, the second overall pick, at Duke, but I believe there’s a strong case to be made that he’s the better prospect of the two. There’s a little bit of Al Horford to Carter, in that he can do basically anything you ask of him on a basketball court. It’s kind of ludicrous just how much he can do — he’s an efficient scorer in the paint (58.6% inside the arc at Duke), an effective passer (3.0 assists per 40 minutes), a physical presence on both ends of the glass (9.1 total rebounds, 2.9 offensive), an effective rim protector (2.1 blocks), and even a developing shooter from range (19-of-46 from three).
Taking Carter at seventh overall gets dubbed a “safe” selection — likely just because he wasn’t Michael Porter Jr. — but his upside is quietly substantial, even if he’s not a “take over the game” type of offensive player. There’s a polish to Carter’s game that is rare for an NBA rookie, especially one in the frontcourt; he makes the plays of a 10-year vet, and always seems to be in the right place. He won’t always be terribly exciting — Horford usually isn’t either — but once he gets his sea legs under him, you’re going to have to remind yourself he’s a rookie when you watch him play.
X Factor: Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker
The Bulls wouldn’t be the Bulls if they didn’t throw some head-scratchers at us this offseason. It’s as if they’re contractually obligated to reach some quota of poor decisions. In isolation, matching Sacramento’s four-year, $78 million offer sheet on LaVine was predictable, and not entirely indefensible. The same can be said for signing Jabari Parker to a two-year, $40 million deal of his own. Signing them both together, though? That doesn’t make much sense from a basketball perspective.
I quite like Zach LaVine. He plays a high-flying and aggressive brand of basketball that is legitimately fun to watch. Prior to his knee injury, he had improved his scoring efficiency in every season as a pro despite a rapidly expanding workload. Though he is certainly a headache on defense, there’s merit to being a 6’6″ combo guard who can shoot close to 40% from behind the arc on very high volume. With a clean bill of health and a full offseason to prepare for Hoiberg’s offensive schemes, I think it’s fair to be optimistic about his upcoming season.
The same can’t necessarily be said for Parker, who is just as bad a defender, but at an even more crucial defensive position. The NBA is simply brutal towards swing forwards who can’t hold their own on the defensive end — just look at Ryan Anderson’s usage in the regular season last year compared to in the playoffs. What’s more is that Parker has not shown the same level of offensive explosiveness or efficiency that LaVine has; Parker is a slow, plodding forward who takes most of his shots inside the arc, and has yet to sustain a three-point percentage better than league average for a significant amount of time. The Boston Celtics exploited him mercilessly in the first round of the playoffs last April.
It’s hard to see how Chicago could fit both players into their long-term plans. Had they merely retained LaVine and passed on Parker, covering for the defensive weaknesses LaVine introduces would be a fairly straightforward issue. Covering for both LaVine and Parker simultaneously, though? That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Don’t Forget About: Denzel Valentine
There’s a soft spot in my heart for three-point specialists, I think. I have a habit of falling for every single 6-foot-something guard or wing player who isn’t afraid to take over half their shots from behind the arc. I’m the guy who still believes Anthony Morrow could hit his stride somewhere, for example.
Denzel Valentine is one of those guys. As a senior at Michigan State in 2015, Valentine was one of the most prolific scorers in the nation, scoring 19 points per game on a whopping 7.5 three-point attempts per game — and he made 44% of those bombs. After a muddled rookie season in which he struggled with injuries and inconsistent playing time, he hit more consistent stride last year: 4.8 threes per game, hitting 38.6% of them.
Things aren’t going to be easy for Valentine this year — he’s dealing with an injury to his surgically repaired ankle, and he’ll have to compete with first-round rookie Chandler Hutchison for minutes once he returns. But dammit, I love me a good three-point gunner, and I hope we get some sort of Wayne Ellington-style lunacy from Valentine sometime soon.
So far, the predominant narrative surrounding the 2018-19 Chicago Bulls is that they “had a good offseason.” While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they completely detonated their future or ruined anything, I’m very curious as to why people seem to think this. I’m not against the idea of Zach LaVine or Jabari Parker individually, but I don’t see how the combination of those two playing the lion’s share of minutes on the wings can possibly lead to winning basketball in 2018.
Versatility is a more essential attribute for an NBA wing than it is for perhaps any other position in sports. Modern forwards have to be able to shoot, defend, rebound and create to be true two-way contributors, which is why there’s still only 15-20 actual star wings in the league at any one time. The only one of those things I think LaVine or Parker can do is shoot, and even then, they’re both only moderately efficient. They are definitely not two players whose skillsets overlap in desirable or complementary ways, is what I’m saying. The LaVine signing makes a degree more sense to me, since the Bulls love the Sunk Cost Fallacy like nothing else, but I’m pretty sure they never would’ve even looked at Parker if he wasn’t from Chicago. It’s such a craven marketing ploy by this organization to keep its stranglehold on the top of the NBA profitability index (#FinancialChamps), and when it fails, they’ll just fire Hoiberg and find some other ill-prepared schlub to be the next fall-guy.
That being said, things aren’t entirely doom and gloom in Chicago. Despite their record, I found them a much easier team to watch than in years prior. Hoiberg’s spread offense can be quite enjoyable when the right guys are running it; Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn all had career-best seasons last year, and all three return for prominent roles. Robin Lopez is still here, even if he really deserves better, and he’ll still be one of the most dependable screen-setters and rebounders in all of basketball. Guys like Cristiano Felicio, Cameron Payne, Antonio Blakeney and Justin Holiday also return. Felicio might just be bad, while Payne and Blakeney definitely are, but Holiday turned things around once he no longer had to be a primary shot creator, and should at least garner some trade interest from a contender.
The biggest areas of optimism are with the young guys. I’m not a big Chandler Hutchison fan (some of his percentages in college were just bad, and I’m always wary of college seniors who don’t start hitting shots until their senior year), but he’s fine enough, and definitely better than Paul Zipser. The real intrigue in Chicago, though, comes from the frontcourt combination of Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen. Both were relatively un-sexy, obvious picks for the Bulls to make at their respective selections, but both bring polished, advanced floor games to their position. Carter Jr. was the most well-rounded big man in this draft class, and he absolutely dominated Summer League. He can shoot (off-dribble, even), rebound, protect the rim and score with either hand, while also being perhaps the best passer in the entire draft not named Trae Young or Luka Dončić. He’s potentially a foundational big man, which is a phrase I haven’t used since Karl-Anthony Towns Fortnite danced his way into all our hearts. Markkanen is a little less well-rounded, but his shooting is enough of an outlier that his game works with anyone. He and Wendell could hit one another with pinpoint high/low passes and drill step-backs over switching defenders together for the better part of a decade, and even the sheer incompetence of Gar Forman and John Paxson might not be able to stop them.