The 2020-21 NBA regular season somehow tips off tonight.
And for the first time in more than nine months, the Bulls play minutes that matter on Wednesday, when they host the Atlanta Hawks.
The NBC Sports Chicago crew of K.C. Johnson, Jason Goff, Rob Schaefer and Tony Gill put their heads together and answered some prediction-based questions about this year’s Bulls — with the omnipresent caveat that, in this season, most anything can happen:
Let’s start out simple: What will the Bulls’ record be this season?
Jason Goff: 29-43.
K.C. Johnson: I’m going with 27-45. That’s the equivalent of 31-51 in a normal schedule, and a three-game improvement over last season’s 28-win pace had they played all 82 games (though I don’t necessarily think the Bulls would have kept the pace they were on last season, given how difficult their final 17 games were.) Either way, with a new coaching staff and improved health, I see improvement.
Tony Gill: 28-44. At the stop of last season, the Bulls win percentage was 0.338. I think that, with a new coach and a lot on the line for the majority of the roster, they can get to about 40 percent. I don’t think they’re a playoff team, but gradual improvement is probably the best bet in a let’s see what this group is type of season for management.
Rob Schaefer: 28-44, but it’ll get off to an uglier start than that with 11 of their first 12 games coming against 2019-20 playoff teams (Pacers, Bucks, Mavericks, Trail Blazers, Lakers, Clippers, Celtics) or teams made drastic additions this offseason (Hawks, Warriors, Wizards). Remember the 2-23 record these Bulls posted against above-.500 clubs last year? Improved coaching should help there, but incremental season-long progress -- e.g. a jump from 0.338 winning percentage to 0.389 -- feels more likely than an earth-shattering leap. Preseason offered a glimpse into the ups and downs a young team adjusting to new systems on a short turnaround can present. Praise the schedule-makers for six combined games against the Cavaliers and Pistons in the second half.
Are the playoffs in the cards? Meaning, will the Bulls make it through the play-in round?
K.C. Johnson: I don’t see it. I certainly think qualifying for the play-in is possible, if not likely. But I think that’s a tough gimmick to prevail in to qualify for the playoffs. I see the Bulls finishing tenth in the East.
Rob Schaefer: I think projecting the Bulls as tenth in the East -- just eeking out the Magic and Hornets -- is totally reasonable (though anyone in that clump could come out ahead). Even stealing one play-in win could happen. But getting all the way to the playoffs isn’t a bet I would stake much on. Need to see it to believe it.
Tony Gill: With the added play-in you might be tempted to say yes, given all the offseason optimism. NOT THIS GUY. I will not fall for the okey doke. I will not fall for the banana in the tailpipe. Right now, I can only say with absolute certainty that the Bulls are better than two teams in the East: the Knicks and the Cavaliers. By that logic: Nope.
Jason Goff: I think they’ll fall short. The East is better this year. It’s going to take 35 wins to get you in the top 10.
Who’s your pick for MIB -- Most Improved Bull?
K.C. Johnson: I’m going with Coby White. I know it’s dangerous to place too much stock in preseason, but Wendell Carter Jr.’s struggles stood out to me. Carter certainly has a chance to be in this discussion, because the opportunity, at least early, will be there. But given the construction of the roster, and the positions it will place White in, I see him taking a jump with his decision-making and ability to run a team.
Tony Gill: I would say Patrick Williams considering how down the fanbase was on him on draft night. But if we’re selecting from the previous team, I’m going with Coby White. He’s shown signs of growth in the playmaking and defensive effort departments. I think he’s taking to this new role well so far, and there’s a lot riding on him. Plus, if he doesn’t play well, the Bulls will be looking to fulfill the playmaking role on this team. So I think he’ll step up and meet the challenge.
Jason Goff: PAT WILL! But I know I can’t pick him. I really think it’s going to be Coby White. Tapping into what he did for several stretches last year proved that he’s going to be a legitimate NBA scorer for as long as he wants to. Other improvements I believe will be forced by his starting position and new responsibilities as the “point guard.” His frame is only going to add strength. Finishing through contact and physical resistance on defense are the next phases.
Rob Schaefer: Coby White landing between 16-18 points per game, four-to-five assists and making a kajillion 3s feels the surest player development bet on the roster among the rookie contract guys. His preseason play was encouraging. He'll have the ball in his hands.
But I spent the offseason foraging for shelter, food and water -- and building a quaint little life -- on the beaches of Wendell Carter Jr. Island. Through the darkest days, Billy Donovan’s stated defensive adjustments and overt offensive coaxing provided sustenance. Supplies are low after a rocky preseason, but you know what…
Carter stays the pick. Please do not follow that metaphor to its conclusion.
In that vein: If any Bull was to finish top 3 in an award ballot this season, who would it be? (Billy Donovan counts)
Tony Gill: As much as I want to say Billy Donovan, I’m going with Patrick Williams for Rookie of the Year. I just don’t think the Bulls are going to do enough winning to get Donovan in the conversation for Coach of the Year. With Patrick, I look at a few things:
- Will he have opportunities to play? The answer there is a resounding yes.
- Can he stay healthy? I’m going to lean yes, he’s built well and solid.
- And lastly: Will he put up decent enough numbers? I’m not expecting a high scoring output, but I only need him to finish in the top three. I think he’ll round out the box score with all the other stuff he can do from rebounding to passing, and, of course, his work on the defensive end.
K.C. Johnson: I think Patrick Williams will finish in the top three for Rookie of the Year.
Jason Goff: Depending on where Patrick Williams finds himself in this offense, and how quickly he does it… I think he’s got the talent and feel to finish top three. But it’s going to be hard to bump Lamelo Ball, who will have the ball in his hands a ton, and Anthony Edwards, with his natural inclination to score. Isaac Okoro and Obi Toppin are going to get their opportunities as well as my guy Tyrese Haliburton.
Rob Schaefer: The team likely won’t be good enough to vault Donovan into the Coach of the Year voting, even if he has a significant impact. I see too many rooks poised for big counting stat lines on so-so to bad teams to wiggle Patrick Williams into the top three (though I think he possesses All-Rookie talent, possibly first-team, and has a major role to play). Second-year guys (e.g. Coby) don’t often break into the Most Improved mix.
So I suppose I’ll go with Lauri Markkanen for Most Improved. Donovan’s envisioned offensive role for him, at least, seems to be more diverse and movement-based. The results were inconsistent, but Markkanen looked more assertive in the preseason. And he’s playing for his next contract now.
What would be a successful season for Lauri Markkanen?
Jason Goff: How successful this season is for Lauri Markkanen will determine what his next contract looks like as a restricted free agent. If he averages 21-9, this team is on a different trajectory than all of our aforementioned projected records. Will it happen? Who knows. But he's the difference between this team picking in the top seven again and them being a playoff team.
K.C. Johnson: A successful season would be less about his final numbers -- though those count for something -- and more about his availability and activity level. When he’s on the move and aggressive, he’s more effective. And he needs to prove he can stay healthy. In his first three seasons, Markkanen has missed 14, 30 and 15 games, respectively.
Rob Schaefer: Here are my benchmarks: 19 points per game. 8.5 rebounds. Mid-40s shooting from the floor. At least 37 percent from 3-point range. At least 15 field goal attempts per game. 63 games played. Noticeable improvements attacking mismatches. Noticeable engagement defensively. Noticeable bag-chasing mentality. With his defensive inflexibility, up-and-down rebounding and, to this point, limited playmaking arsenal, if Markkanen doesn’t prove himself a consistent shot-maker and above-average 3-point shooter, it’s fair to wonder what he is at this point in an increasingly positionless game. The buck stopped Monday.
Tony Gill: For me, Lauri needs to average 20 points and grab at least nine rebounds per game... And be considered for an All-Star nod. He doesn’t necessarily need to make it, but when I listen to NBA podcasts and shows, I need a name drop here and there.
Look, the most frustrating thing for Bulls fans is having to take a top 10 rookie all the way to the end of their rookie deal to figure out what they are. Markkanen needs to play great basketball if he wants to be a pillar for this era of the Bulls, and he should set those expectations of himself. Everyone sees what he’s capable of. But does he see that in himself? That’s the question.
Is Coby White considered the lead guard of the future this time next year? (In other words, will he prove he can truly run the point?)
Tony Gill: I know I answered that White will be my Most Improved Bull, but here is where I table myself. So are sports opinions, right?
I think White will show enough that he’s capable of running the point, but that better options for the future will present themselves. I’m just looking at precedent. It’s hard to fully convert a natural scorer into a playmaker, or someone who has those playmaking sensibilities, at the pro level. There may be examples, but I’m having a hard time finding one. It would be great for Coby to fill that role, but, to a certain point, maximizing his scoring potential might be better than forcing him to fit into a true point guard role.
K.C. Johnson: The answer to this question lies in how management views Zach LaVine. If they plan to extend and keep him as part of the core, White would have to start at point guard. If they don’t, White could slide to shooting guard, which is probably his more natural position. Even if White isn’t a true point guard -- he isn’t -- his willingness to play the position and learn could serve him and the Bulls well.
Jason Goff: The Coby White experiment is the one I’m most intrigued by. He’s got the physical talent to do it. The mentality we haven’t fully seen yet. He’s an incredibly young player to be getting this new task on this level. Lead guards make the world go round these days.
White can get anywhere he wants on the floor. Now the question is: Is he wired to find people, and will it take away from his offensive aggression because the role has changed? I just don’t want him to lose that wiring for scoring, because the Bulls are going to need every point in that lightning quick frame.
Rob Schaefer: I think White will fare well enough in the role this year, but not well enough to take the Bulls out of the running for a more natural-born lead guard should one of high promise become available in the draft or free agency next offseason. And that’s not intended as shade. White’s gift is putting the ball in the basket.
That said, at 20 years old, shouldering on-ball, playmaking responsibilities for as long as he’s needed to could be awesome for his development, especially with the way Donovan has preached finding the proper “balance” in the flow of games. He showed some facilitating chops out of the pick-and-roll in preseason. He's a consummate competitor and will work hard at it.
Will Patrick Williams start by the end of the year and if so when?
K.C. Johnson: Yes. (The opener? *ducks*) If not then, certainly by the trade deadline in March. What are the Bulls playing for anyway? The future. And Otto Porter Jr. can be a stabilizing presence for the second unit. Williams started the last two preseason games, so at this point, the surprise would be if he doesn't start the opener.
Rob Schaefer: As the only player on the roster safe from dispassionate evaluation by the new regime, I think he absolutely should. Realistically: If he doesn’t start on opening night — which, why not — I think an injury to Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen or Wendell Carter Jr. at some point necessitates his promotion. But one way or the other, he’ll break into the mix by the trade deadline (mid-to-late March) at the latest. In the new regime’s first season, they can and should play with an eye on the long-term.
Tony Gill: The most important thing this season isn’t to make the playoffs, or even to win as many games as possible. The most important thing is to create winning habits and see what the young group can do. So yes, Patrick Williams, this draft’s fourth overall pick, must start by the end of the year.
And I’m even going to say he should be starting by about ⅔ of the way through the season. Otto Porter Jr. isn’t the future of the Bulls. Neither is Garrett Temple. Chandler Hutchison is fine. But Williams has all the tools to be a starting wing in the NBA, and if this is the season management is using to analyze the roster, starting Patrick for a decent stretch should be on not only the front office’s personal list, but the coaching staff’s as well.
Who is the sneaky contender -- i.e. not a starter -- to flourish in Billy Donovan's first season?
Rob Schaefer: When he's fully ramped up following his excused absence quarantine period, it's Tomáš Satoranský for me. With his positional size and playmaking, he can fit into almost any backcourt configuration Donovan concocts (you remember those three-guard units in Oklahoma City that so flourished). And is there a more free-flowing, read-and-react, ball-and-player-movement friendly player on the roster? Rejuvenating poor -- by his standards -- catch-and-shoot numbers would clinch this pick. And he worked intimately this offseason with the trainer that’s credited with helping him jump more than 20 points in 3-point percentage between his first and second NBA seasons.
K.C. Johnson: Chandler Hutchison would’ve been the answer even if he didn’t have as strong of a preseason as he did. When healthy, he has proven he can defend, rebound and handle the ball. And while he doesn’t possess the quickest release on his jumper, he moves well without the ball, a staple of Billy Donovan’s offense.
Jason Goff: Chandler… It’s time. Staying healthy for a couple months straight and performing like the first-rounder they drafted out of Boise St. He’s an end-to-end athlete who doesn’t have a lot of wiggle, so I’d like to see that ball-handling grow so he can be an alternate ball-handler either on the break or in your initial offensive setups. I’m hoping Donovan can unlock the things that we see occasionally and make them more consistent.
Tony Gill: The only correct answer to this question is Denzel Valentine, right? I mean, just on the pure fact that he’s going to actually play under Donovan. Valentine is a good player and can contribute. With a more defined role and more consistent usage, I think his output is going to be felt this year.
Over-under: 1.5 trades by the March 25 deadline? And who (one player) do you think would be most likely to go?
Tony Gill: We’re still getting used to the new front office’s vision and management style. So, without any patterns to lean on or habits to read into, this is probably the most guessing any of us are going to do on this.
That said, I’m going to lean under. I believe the new regime legitimately wants to see this group for a full season. The caveat: If someone needs a scorer in, say, Zach LaVine, and makes an offer you can’t refuse, you do it. But if, for example, the way the new front office handled Jim Boylen’s firing is any indicator, I’d bet they’ll want to see the players on this roster for themselves over a large sample size.
Most likely to be traded is LaVine. He’s the team’s most valuable asset, and could hypothetically be used to accelerate the retool. He’s on a bargain of a contract and could instantly help a more suitable team. All other players’ values are at a low point at this moment.
K.C. Johnson: Under. The Bulls will make one trade. I’m going with Thad Young. Between his veteran dependability and his partially guaranteed deal in 2021-22, he makes the most sense. Plus, it alleviates the low-key logjam at power forward.
Jason Goff: Under. Otto Porter Jr. becomes less valuable in my eyes as we see the 2021 free agent class not looking as tantalizing as we thought it once might. Usually, massive expiring contracts -- Porter’s is $28.5 million -- are useful for teams looking to carve out cap room. But having a bunch of free money next offseason to throw, like, John Collins the max isn’t a place I think a lot of teams want to see themselves.
Rob Schaefer: Over. Let’s get wild.
I’m not necessarily sure core pieces start to get shuffled until next offseason. The new regime seems like they’re thorough in their evaluations, if nothing else. So, if only one player ends up going, I think it’ll be Thad Young -- hopefully, to somewhere closer to contention.
Won't be an All-Star game, but will Zach LaVine earn an All-Star selection this year?
Tony Gill: Outright, I’m going to say no. It’s just going to take too much in my opinion to get him in with the Wizards adding Russell Westbrook, and both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant back for the Nets. LaVine would have to average almost 30 points per game and have the greatest half season of his life to counteract the Bulls’ record, which, as mentioned, I don’t see taking a massive leap.
To be clear: This is no slight on LaVine. But this is the high point in the NBA where guards dominate. It’s tough to get in. Last season, it was a struggle to get Devin Booker in on the Western Conference side, and he’s a few notches better than LaVine.
Rob Schaefer: Tony hits it on the head. If LaVine was on the outside looking in last season, I’m not sure where he breaks in this year with Westbrook, Durant, Irving and even Jrue Holiday now theoretically in play. Bradley Beal was left out last season too. LaVine is only getting better and coming at this season with a focused, team-first approach. There's no denying that. But the Bulls would need to achieve a level of win-loss success I don’t see coming to vault him over some of the more established names.
K.C. Johnson: With apologies to Mr. LaVine, I don’t see it. It certainly won’t be for lack of production or care factor. LaVine has publicly acknowledged how much an All-Star selection would mean to him, which isn’t selfish because it’s rooted in the team-first goal of winning. If the Bulls had had a better record last year, he would have made it. And that’s where he’ll fall short again. There are just too many good guards from teams who will likely have a better record than the Bulls.
Jason Goff: I do not believe Zach LaVine will be an All-Star this year. The same guy(s) he’s battling with got better team-wise. If LaVine hits 30 points per game, there’s no way to keep him out. To average that he has to take a couple of steps. I hope he does. But I still see him barely missing it, with team success being the major factor.