The Bulls began this season with playoff expectations and arrived at its midway point as one of the league’s biggest underachieving stories.
After Monday’s loss in Boston, their seventh in eight games, they sit 5 1/2 games out of the playoff picture in a there-for-the-taking Eastern Conference. Starters Wendell Carter Jr. and Otto Porter Jr. remain out for extended periods. Their defense, something coach Jim Boylen has pointed to as a positive, is trending downward.
Depending on who you talk to, it’s a mess or reflective of a young team, trying to figure things out.
That wasn’t the message back on the team’s media day in September. Then, Boylen and executive vice president John Paxson talked confidently about buy-in during voluntary September workouts and nightly competitiveness that would lead to possible playoff positioning.
Whether this season is viewed by fans as the third season of the rebuild or by Boylen and his staff as the first because they had a training camp to install their preferred philosophies and systems, it has fallen short to this point.
Their midseason record matches what it was in 2017-18, the first season of the rebuild, and is four games better than last season’s mark that came largely without Lauri Markkanen.
Here’s a midseason look at some of the storylines:
He quieted some speculation about his aptitude for the job with a strong offseason in which he visited players to strengthen relationships, had say in acquiring personnel that was widely praised by pundits and pleased his bosses by placing emphasis on defense while modernizing the offense.
Still, the stylistic changes resulted in systems that have come across as extreme. The Bulls employ an aggressive, trapping defense that is predicated on forcing turnovers. It works in that they lead the league, by a wide margin, with causing 17.2 per game.
But it exposes them to allowing drives to the rim and corner 3-pointers, particularly by opponents adept at making multiple reads. They sit 18th in opponents’ field-goal percentage. The current top-10 defensive rating of ninth is a positive.
Offensively, the Bulls have languished in the bottom five all season. Their current offensive rating ranks 28th. The equal opportunity system places an emphasis on 3-pointers and shots at the rim, largely eliminating the midrange and post-up game.
Thad Young, who has fashioned a 12-year career out of scoring in the lane after starting on the right block, said this week that the Bulls didn’t mention this system during his free agency recruiting period, which Boylen essentially confirmed by saying he installed it in September and October.
A 7-7 record in December against an easier schedule brought good vibes and more public acceptance of Boylen’s systems. However, more often than not, players have used some variation of the line “it’s what’s being asked of me” when asked if the systems are putting them in the best position to succeed.
Even in light of Carter’s injury, which places rookie Daniel Gafford and journeyman Luke Kornet in the daunting defensive task of trying to emulate Carter’s mobility and intelligence, Boylen has doubled down. He has pointed to establishing a style of play at both ends as one of his main accomplishments to this season.
This unwavering belief is reflective of Boylen’s coaching philosophy. He waited two decades for his first chance, and he’s committing to doing what he thinks is right to build a foundation, even if it leads to short-term pain.
But it also underscores an oft-repeated criticism of Boylen, that he’s slow to make adjustments. Opponents have routinely run away and hid in the second halves against the Bulls. Just this week, Young talked about the need to finish games better.
Lauri Markkanen’s ceiling
The Bulls painted this season as the third-year forward’s breakout campaign. Instead, a mystifying start in which he too often faded into the background and consistently missed open shots raised legitimate questions on what player he can become.
Markkanen’s December righted the ship. He cut more forcefully in halfcourt sets, ran hard in transition and shot well from 3-point range. His current production is tough to gauge since he’s playing through a sore left ankle.
Nevertheless, Markkanen’s scoring average of 15.1 points and playing time of just over 30 minutes sit near those from his rookie season. That’s not progression.
Markkanen admitted to taking a while to figure out and feel comfortable in Boylen’s offense. His team-first mentality often precludes him from playing selfishly. Combine that personality trait with the equal opportunity system and that’s recipe for failure.
Markkanen’s low playing time and usage rate of 21 — below even his rookie season — haven’t helped his situation. He needs more minutes and more shots.
Markkanen isn’t the Bulls’ only problem, but he is the biggest one. Other warning signs include Porter’s inability to stay healthy and rookie Coby White’s inconsistencies.
White has been a ton of fun and clearly possesses NBA talent. His NBA-record seven 3-pointers in the fourth quarter of a home victory over the Knicks marked one of the first half’s highlights. But he needs to become more than just an inconsistent shotmaker for the rebuild to progress.
Zach LaVine’s polarizing production
The team’s leading scorer by a whopping 9.4 points, LaVine’s 24.5 points-per-game gets viewed by some as All-Star worthy and by others as empty calories.
Boylen has cited LaVine’s growth as a decision-maker and finisher. His defense, while still prone to off-the-ball lapses, also has improved.
LaVine may not be the lead player on a championship-caliber team, but few players possess the athleticism and natural scoring ability to do what he does. His 13 3-pointers and 49 points in the miraculous comeback victory in Charlotte offered another example.
The Bulls’ offensive rating plummets when LaVine sits. And while the defensive rating improves when he does the same, this is an offensive league. And ask yourself this: Where would the Bulls’ 28th-ranked offense be without him?
Answer: You don’t want to know.
LaVine is shooting 39.5 percent from 3-point range, is averaging 1.4 steals and has been the main bright spot from an otherwise forgettable first half.
Other bright spots include the development of Carter, which makes his injury all the crueler, and Kris Dunn’s role acceptance and elite defense.
Carter posted 17 double-doubles while serving as the team’s defensive anchor. Just before his injury, he displayed a willingness to shoot open 3-pointers, reflective of his offensive potential. His rebounding is essential for a team lacking in that department, and his communication and IQ at the defensive end are irreplaceable.
What does it all mean?
With the season headed to lost cause status, the Bulls should look to trade Young to a playoff team. This not only would place him with a contending team that could better utilize his skills but also force Boylen to play Markkanen more.
Young has done what the coaches and system has asked of him and has shot near his career 3-point percentage of 32 percent, taking the second-highest attempts of his career. But if the Bulls can get a wing or a draft pick for him, it’s time to move on.
Same goes for Denzel Valentine, who remains moored to the bench following a brief respite despite being one of the team’s better perimeter shooters. Valentine will be a restricted free agent. Find a playoff team that seeks shooting and get what you can for him.
Dunn, too, will be a restricted free agent. But his buy-in for any role — starting or reserve — and ball-hawking defensive toughness make him an easy match for any offer sheet that isn’t ridiculous. Credit to Dunn for reclaiming his career trajectory.
Speculation exists that the Bulls will make offseason changes. According to sources, nothing has been definitively decided but everything is on the table — except one thing. Paxson is still held in high regard by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and will be counted on to figure prominently in basketball operations.
The most likely scenario is the Bulls adding to the front office. This person would be from outside the organization, with fresh eyes and insights.
Gar Forman, whose general manager title is more ceremonial with each passing season, has largely moved almost exclusively to scouting, a skill for which he is valued. However, his days as the face of the franchise and powerbroker have faded.
Boylen signed an extension last summer. He enjoys a strong relationship with ownership and management. His salary makes him among the league’s lowest-paid coaches, so it wouldn’t preclude the Bulls from moving off it if the rest of the season leads them to that decision.
Who said there’s nothing to play for over the final 41 games?
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