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Bulls mailbag: Will Williams start? What's Markkanen's future?

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It’s opening day for the Bulls. Over nine months have passed since the last game. Are you ready? That’s my question. Here are yours.

What will be their record after 20 games? --- Frederick H.

I’m going with 6-14. And that’s being optimistic. I originally typed 5-15. This is for many reasons. The schedule is brutal. The Bulls have had a very disjointed preseason and, as a result, don’t even have a set rotation. And, oh yeah: They’re coming off a season in which they went 22-43 and returned 13 of the 15-man roster.

Billy Donovan knows this. He keeps hammering the theme of developing consistent, competitive habits because he knows he has a young team. And he knows what’s coming.

“Do we have the mental fortitude and the toughness to grind out loose balls, offensive rebounds, getting back in transition, getting stops, trying to get easy baskets in transition? We’re going to have to play like that and do a lot of those things to keep ourselves really, really competitive,” Donovan said recently. “And I think as a group that’s the challenge for us.”

 

Were you surprised the Bulls and Lauri Markkanen didn’t reach agreement on a contract extension? --- Paul N., Chicago

Previously in this feature, I predicted the two sides would reach agreement. I based this not only on Markkanen’s strong desire to get a deal done but also Artūras Karnišovas’ uncharacteristic public acknowledgement of the same.

But once it got down to negotiating, it was clear it wasn’t going to happen. Even after proposal exchanges, the two sides were roughly $4 million apart for the starting salary figure in the first year of a multi-year deal, sources said. To put that in perspective: When Jimmy Butler rejected the Bulls’ rookie contract extension offer in 2014 to famously bet on himself, the two sides were only roughly $4 million apart over the life of the deal.

It’s clear the new regime wanted Markkanen back on a take-it-or-leave it price to afford flexibility as it works to reshape the roster in its philosophy. If Markkanen has a huge year, the Bulls own the right to match any offer sheet he might get. The Bulls proactively extended Butler at a near-maximum salary in 2015 after he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

This stance is a small risk in the sense that multiple teams project to own ample salary-cap space next offseason for a stellar free agency class that has dried up considerably. A lucrative and/or funky offer sheet could be tossed at the Bulls if Markkanen plays well this season. But management is comfortable putting Markkanen in a prove-it season as it evaluates the roster and plans future changes.

In the preseason, Daniel Gafford saw his minutes drop each game while Donovan increasingly rolled out a reserve lineup with Lauri at the 5, three wings, and a point guard. Do you see this as more of a preseason experiment or staple of the regular season rotation? Were there any preseason rotation wrinkles, aside from ones adopted due to missing players, that surprised you? --- Nick P.

 

To be honest, I didn’t put much stock in any rotation Donovan tried, although he openly talked about wanting to see Markkanen at center for stretches. And, yes, that impacted Gafford.

With Thad Young, Tomáš Satoranský, Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine out for all but one preseason game between the four of them, it’s clear there’s no set rotation yet. Donovan already had been talking about needing to learn his team even before all their absences. All rotations to me will be a work in progress at the start of the season.

Who starts and finishes at small forward between Patrick Williams, Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison? --- @bullsandbucks22, via Twitter

I say the rookie starts. Just like the rotation, I think the closing lineup will be a work in progress, though you can bet Zach LaVine, Coby White and at least one, if not both, of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. will be in it.

I can see Donovan letting Williams close some games if he has it going. The obvious benefit to starting Williams and bringing Porter off the bench, though, is the veteran leadership and stability he brings to the second unit. I’d probably lean towards Porter closing more games initially.

Hutchison will be in the rotation, but I don’t see him starting or finishing.

Relative to the ease of pronunciation, was Vinny Del Negro's continual use of "Kurt" for Kirk Hinrich the most confusing? After a while, do reporters start to consider asking questions about said player with the mispronunciation so the coach knows whom the question regards? --- Jai S.

It doesn’t matter to me that this question is 11 years too late. It’s awesome. All I know is I coached a youth baseball team with three Charlies on it and consistently and correctly nailed their identities by placing the first letter of their last name at the end of Charlie. And I always asked Vinny questions about Hinrich by addressing him as Kirk.

 

Now that most of the top-tier 2021 free agents have signed extensions, how do you think AK will use this cap space? Based on the fact Lauri was not offered an extension, I get the sense (hopefully) that AK will not offer any Nicolas Batum or Timofey Mozgov type contracts. Do you think he will pivot and decide to build through the draft, perhaps taking on long-term contracts from teams over the luxury tax to acquire draft picks? --- Shannon R.

I’m just as curious as you. Like everybody else, I’m parsing every Karnišovas’ personnel decision to try to see how he and his new regime plan to overhaul this roster. Based on his words, he obviously values the draft. And he alluded to preserving cap space when he discussed Garrett Temple’s one-year deal as his only free-agency foray. Signing a big-name free agent is obviously the best and easiest way to utilize cap space. But I don’t see Karnišovas as the type to burn cap space on a second-tier free agent just because he has it. He seems like a regimented, methodical decision-maker.

I don’t see the Bulls as a playoff team. So that would mean another lottery pick if I’m right. As you stated, you can mine the trade market to utilize cap space and perhaps add future assets. It’s all a guessing game for now. But I’d be surprised to see the Bulls saddled with bad, long-term money after next offseason.

Is there a plan for the G League team? --- @bullsblogger, via Twitter

Surely, you saw Billy Donovan’s comments when asked about that before the last preseason game. If you missed them, and you usually miss nothing, here’s what he said after talking to Karnišovas and Marc Eversley about the team’s plans: “What they had mentioned to me was maybe like 12 games over a couple weeks. So it just seemed like it was not that they didn't want to play, but all the details were still up in the air and still needed to be ironed out.”

 

This jibes with what the great Mark Schanowski, the Windy City Bulls announcer and my former colleague, tweeted: “Bulls G-League team will most likely play in neutral site tournaments instead of home arenas. Fewer games than the normal 48 game G-League season.

The Bulls promoted Damian Cotter, their Windy City Bulls coach, to Donovan’s staff. With the new rules for two-way players, Devon Dotson and Adam Mokoka will be with the NBA club for most practices. The focus for the G League team appears to be less involved.

RELATED: Bulls Roundtable: Predictions for 2020-21 record, awards and superlatives

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