Bulls

Bulls questions: Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

Bulls questions: Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year?

The buzz around the 2019-20 Bulls season crescendoed last offseason. With a promising core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. already in place, the addition of an electric Coby White through the draft and savvy, supplementary vets through free agency appeared to be a winning formula in the third year of the rebuild. 

That calculation was made on paper. In practice… Well, you saw the results. 

But how did those additions for the 2019-20 seasons perform? How should they fit into the team’s long-term plans? Let’s evaluate (all contract figures via Spotrac):

Thad Young — signed to a three-year, $44 million contract last summer (third year partially guaranteed at $6 million)

Young’s season can pretty tidily be divided into three subsections (all per game averages):

  • First 24 games: 21.2 minutes, 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 steals; 40.9/34.2/56.7 shooting splits (8.5 attempts)

  • Next 21 games: 23.7 minutes, 9.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals; 43.3/34.8/64.7 shooting splits (8.9 attempts)

  • Next 19 games: 30.8 minutes (15 starts), 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals; 49.8/37.7/56 (11.1 attempts); 17 double-digit scoring performances

Those segments aren’t arbitrary. The first 24 games represent (approximately) the first third of Young’s 64-game season. At that tentpole, he was averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his 13-year career (to only his rookie campaign) and looked largely uncomfortable navigating the Bulls’ up-tempo, 3-pointer-heavy offensive system.

Segment two begins on Dec. 11, when Young logged a then season-high 33 minutes in a 35-point home victory over the Atlanta Hawks, notching 15 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. The next day, a report surfaced from the Chicago Sun-Times that Young was unhappy with his playing time, which Young addressed at length to the media soon after. From there, trade rumors and rumblings of broken promises festered. Through it all, he remained publicly professional and a keen advisor to many of the team's young players behind the scenes. His play subtly began to improve, especially on the defensive end, with a modest uptick in minutes.

Segment three starts with Markkanen sidelined for a little over a month with an early stress reaction in his pelvis. Young started 15 games in his stead and played his best ball of the season, even as the Bulls floundered. The correlation between increased opportunity and production is one Young never shied away from.

 

The question moving forward is whether his interests and the Bulls’ are at odds. In general, this wasn’t the season he and fans expected from him, but he proved he has enough in the tank to be a contributor to winning basketball. If the Bulls aren’t ready to do that, the question of a long-term fit here is a legitimate one. Juggling Young and Markkanen’s minutes was already a point of friction this season, and if anything, Markkanen should be doing more next year. Plus, what if the Bulls invest their impending top-10 draft pick on a forward? They couldn’t find any takers for Young at the deadline, but finding an outlet for the final two years of his deal (and finding him a winning situation) could be on the team’s radar.

RELATED: Top 10 draft picks in Bulls franchise history

Tomas Satoransky — signed to a three-year, $30 million contract last summer (third year partially guaranteed at $5 million)

The specter of Satoransky was always intriguing. A low-maintenance, pass-first, heady floor general to start alongside LaVine while White developed in the wings. Facilitate, hit open jumpers and defend at a clip reasonable for his 6-foot-7 frame, and Satoransky would be the quintessential complementary piece.

And while he showed flashes — a 27-point, 9-assist outing in Atlanta (oh man, is there a trend here?) and multiple stat-sheet-stuffings against the Wizards — his production largely didn’t pass the sniff test. Among the most alarming figures from Satoransky’s first season in Chicago: From Dec. 1 on, Satoransky shot 26.8% from 3-point range (3.1 attempts per); on the season, he converted 32.9% of his catch-and-shoot 3-point looks — a steep dive from his 42.8% career mark entering the season (a huge part of what made him such an intriguing option in the first place). Moreover, his general assertiveness on the offensive end seemed to wax and wane at times.

A positive: If this rebuild has proved anything, it’s that availability is an ability, and Satoransky was certainly that. He and White were the only two players to appear in all 65 games before play was indefinitely suspended. In the final game before the league shut down, Satoransky gracefully ceded the starting spot — a title he coveted upon signing with the Bulls — to White, admitting that he hadn’t performed up to his own expectations this season. He’s another guy that draws rave reviews from teammates and coaches at every turn.

As of the current roster construction, Satoransky continuing to back up White is probably the team’s best course moving forward, though that’s subject to change depending on how the Bulls use that aforementioned top-10 draft pick. Satoransky running the team’s second unit can still be a winning formula, and $10 million next season with a non-fully guaranteed third year isn’t the end of the world.

Luke Kornet — signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract last summer (fully guaranteed)

To say Kornet didn’t meet expectations doesn’t feel fair. He was always a low-risk flyer, and the emergence of Daniel Gafford softened the blow of his tumultuous campaign.

What’s more, he overcame a debilitating nasal ailment that marred his first three months in Chicago to flash spurts of productivity in January and February. After Carter badly sprained his right ankle on Jan. 6, Kornet re-entered the rotation for 19 games and averaged 8.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly a block per game while shooting 47.4% from the field and making 14 starts. A severe right ankle sprain sustained in practice ended his season in late February.

But the 3-point shooting never came around. Kornet converted a career-low 28.7% of his long-range attempts and only 30.4% in that aforementioned 19-game stretch. The Bulls’ blitzing defensive system that draws bigs up and away from the basket is not suited to his strengths. He’s not on the short-list of the Bulls’ biggest problems, but isn’t a part of the long-term solution either.

Non-Coby rookies

Bonus section for the non-Coby White rookies, because they warrant mention (and White’s going to get his own column soon enough):

  • Daniel Gafford: A gem if the Bulls have ever found one. Scooped up with the No. 38 pick of the 2019 draft, Gafford led all rookies in total blocks (56) and players with more than 20 games played in blocks per 36 minutes (3.3) while clawing his way into the Bulls’ rotation after starting the season off the map. His energy, high-flying capacity and rim-protecting potential make him an incredibly viable — if not ideal — cost-controlled backup center option. First on his to-do list for year two is working on limiting his fouls. But he exceeded expectations this season (something not many Bulls can say) and should figure into the team’s plans for at least the immediate future. 

  • Adam Mokoka: He signed a to a two-way deal for this season and appeared in 11 games as the Bulls balanced his NBA days down the stretch. It would have been nice to see more of him. Two times Mokoka caught eyes over the course of this season — once with a record-setting 15-point outburst against the Pelicans in February, then with lockdown defense on Luka Doncic to key one of the Bulls’ few quality wins of the season. If the team decides to let Kris Dunn walk this offseason, Mokoka (along with Shaq Harrison) is a young and potentially inexpensive option to replace some percentage of Dunn’s production and defensive energy. And not for nothing, Mokoka has a solid stroke and shot 40% from 3-point range (15 total attempts) in those 11 games. A heftier 31-game sample size in the G League saw him convert 32.7% of his long-range looks on 5.4 attempts per game, but there’s cause to believe that can be built upon.

  • Max Strus: Another two-way guy, and a local product. He tore his ACL in December after appearing in just two NBA games. It’s hard to discern what Strus’ future with the Bulls might be, but he has been a consistent presence around the United and Advocate Centers throughout his rehab process.

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Arturas Karnisovas pledges to make bounceback plan with Lauri Markkanen

Arturas Karnisovas pledges to make bounceback plan with Lauri Markkanen

The case of Lauri Markkanen’s third-year regression is multi-pronged.

Across the board, the one-time wunderkin’s production sank, his minutes and opportunity in the offense fluctuated, and his general assertiveness seemed to wane. What’s to blame for the disappointing campaign? Some combination of Markkanen, the Bulls’ coaching staff, teamwide tumult, and, perhaps, too-lofty expectations to begin with. Injuries — respective oblique (soreness) and ankle (sprain) ailments he played through, and a stress reaction in his pelvis that sidelined him 15 games — undoubtedly played a role, as well.

Regardless of the culprit of Markkanen’s woes, if the Bulls’ rebuild is to get back on track, their second cornerstone must rebound in Year 4 and beyond. New general manager Marc Eversley has pledged to “learn more about” the reasons behind Markkanen’s struggles in pursuit of that mission.

Arturas Karnisovas did the same in an end-of-season conference call with reporters Saturday, adding that he’s personally spoken to Markkanen, who remained in the Chicago area throughout the NBA’s hiatus, on multiple occasions. The fruits of those conversations appear to be positive thus far, with hunger to improve a theme.

“We’ve spoken to Lauri numerous times. He’s been very patient, stayed in the market. His family is now with him,” Karnisovas said. “I spoke to him about last year. He’s eager to get back to the gym and improve. He was disappointed by the overall result (last season). Every player wants to win. He’s about winning, as well. Our objective is to get the best version of Lauri next year. We agreed in conversations that this is our objective, and we’re going to try to do it.”

Also worth adding to the to-do list could be hammering out a long-term extension with Markkanen, who is eligible for one when the offseason officially strikes. Karnisovas didn’t address that dynamic with reporters, instead impressing the importance of getting under the same roof and laying the foundation for a strong personal relationship with Markkanen before jumping to any conclusions.

“I’ll look forward to meeting him face-to-face. Before accountability, I have to have a personal relationship with him,” Karnisovas said.

That quality of Karnisovas’ thoughtful leadership style has permeated the decision-making process on head coach Jim Boylen’s future, as well. Karnisovas reiterated what has been widely reported in the call: A decision on Boylen is not imminent, and will wait until Karnisovas (who is “on the way” to Chicago) is able to meet Boylen in person and establish a relationship with him.

As for Markkanen, expectations remain high, even after a down year. And fulfilling that expectation will be a collaborative process, to hear Karnisovas tell it. That and management clearly viewing Markkanen as an asset worth pouring time and resources into are refreshing sentiments.

“We’ll set expectations, which are pretty high,” Karnisovas said. “And it’s about improvement. Each player, from talking to them, they were disappointed with last year’s result.

“We’re going to strive to get better. Same thing with Lauri. We have a lot of time this offseason. We’re going to put a plan together for him. We’re going to schedule and do that.”

Indeed, with the Bulls excluded from the NBA’s 22-team resumption plan, a potential nine-month-plus layoff between games looms. For a team as young as these Bulls, that type of dry spell has the potential to be detrimental to development and continuity. In that vein, Karnisovas said he’d favor “some team-oriented activities… practices and possibly scrimmages” as curriculum for the eight teams not assembling in Orlando as a way to stay loose. 

The bright side to all of the above: The fresh-faced front office has nothing but time to address all that riddled the Bulls in 2019-20. Player development, which begins with relationships, will clearly be a tenet of the new regime. And there’s no better place to begin putting their words on that topic to action than with Markkanen.

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Arturas Karnisovas makes clear why Jim Boylen decision will take time

Arturas Karnisovas makes clear why Jim Boylen decision will take time

Arturas Karnisovas knew questions about Jim Boylen’s future were coming.

So the Bulls’ new executive vice president of basketball operations tackled them in his opening statement during a Saturday conference call with reporters.

“We want to spend time internally to assure that we are thorough in our appraisals. Our intention was to return to play at some point and have the opportunity to make informed decisions. There are several unprecedented circumstances beyond our control. We have been limited in certain obvious ways. So our objective is to use this time in innovative ways to create opportunities for our players and coaches to encourage development,” Karnisovas said. “I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation. That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward. I deeply respect and value the role of media, and I look forward to getting to know you all, as I believe we share a passion to see success of Chicago sports franchises.”

Translated: Prepare to wait.

An unprecedented offseason only adds another layer to Karnisovas’ decision on Boylen and Boylen’s staff, especially given Karnisovas’ reputation as one who believes in building genuine relationships.

“Coaching in the league is very difficult. To make a decision about coaching is really hard. It’s probably the hardest thing for executives,” Karnisovas said. “So I look at a lot of aspects. I’ve had numerous conversations. That said, I’d like to be in a building, to be in practices, to be around the coaching staff in meetings. We’re looking forward to getting in the video room together, analyze the games, to watch games together.

“Talking to players and coaches, obviously everyone is disappointed with the results last year. They (the Bulls) definitely underperformed. Watching games, I’m excited to watch because there’s a lot of talent on this team. In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them. That’s what I need to cultivate. That’s my objective this offseason.”

And indeed, it will be a long offseason. There is not yet a definitive start date for the 2020-21 season, though it will almost certainly be in December. That gives time for Karnisovas, who said he’s “on the way” to Chicago soon, to form relationships.

After hiring general manager Marc Eversley, vice president of player personnel Pat Connelly and assistant general manager J.J. Polk, Karnisovas said he plans no further additions or changes to the front-office staff. That means holdovers like associate general manager Brian Hagen, assistant general manager Steve Weinman and director of pro personnel Jim Paxson are safe for now.

“I really take pride in my relationships that I cultivate with coaching staffs and my basketball operations staffs. I haven’t seen them. I’m looking forward to it,” Karnisovas said. “I think after we found out that we were left out of the bubble in Orlando, we’ll have all the time in the world to (get to know everyone). So I’m looking forward to that.

“As much as we talk on the phone, they don't know me. So that is my number one priority when I get in the city, when I get in the building, is to get to know our coaching staff, meet the players and start the process of getting to know each other. And again, before the accountability, I have to know them before we keep each other accountable. So I will cultivate a selfless attitude with the players and there's not going to be any excuses. The youth, the injuries, all that stuff is not going to be an excuse moving forward, because this group is too talented not to perform better.”

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