Bulls

Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 guards: Satoransky, LaVine, White, Dunn

Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 guards: Satoransky, LaVine, White, Dunn

The Bulls’ 2019-20 season is officially over after 65 games.

And what a season it was.

Yes, a .338 winning percentage left them well short of preseason playoff expectations, even with the league’s novel 22-team resumption format allowing for teams within six games of the eighth seed into play-in contention (the Bulls finished eight back of the Orlando Magic).

But widespread front office overhaul — punctuated by the hires of Arturas Karnisovas as executive vice president of basketball operations and Marc Eversley as general manager —  somewhat salvaged a lost season. The two now face the rigors of an unprecedented, potentially nine-month offseason that will involve draft prep, continued roster and front office evaluation, and possibly a coaching search — all while continuing to grapple with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed much of the team out-of-market, limited training capabilities and could act as a buzzsaw to the CBA as we know it.

That’s a lot to digest. And we’ll get to it all. But first, let’s tie a bow on the on-court good, bad, ugly and otherwise the Bulls endured this season, in report card form. We’ll start with the guards, with wings and bigs rolling out in the very near future.

Tomas Satoransky

65 G, 28.9 MPG | 9.9 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 5.4 APG | 43% FG, 32.2% 3P, 87.6% FT | 2020-21 contract: $10,000,000

Satoransky’s was not the season the Bulls expected when they inked him via sign-and-trade to a three-year, $30 million deal this offseason, nor the one Satoransky expected of himself in his first chance as a starter in the NBA. He’ll be the first to tell you that.

The highs — a 27-point, 8-assist outing vs. the Hawks, every game against the Wizards — were high. But the lows — a 45-game stretch from December to March in which he shot 26.8% from 3-point range — were doldrums. As billed, he was the best facilitator on the team (leading the Bulls both in assists per game and AST/TO ratio) and has a tremendous feel for the game. But Sato isn’t one to shatter opposing defenses off-the-dribble or generate instant offense on a whim. The pitfalls of the latter qualities became glaring as the safety net of his game, catch-and-shoot jump shooting, fell off precipitously; in his first three years in the NBA, Satoransky shot 42.8% on 1.3 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game. This season, he doubled his diet to 2.6 per contest (love it), but his efficiency plunged to 32.9% (ah). Those figures could be due for some positive regression, and his steady hand on the controls is valuable for a young team, but this season cast serious doubt that the subtle traits Satoransky brings serve Zach LaVine as a full-time backcourt mate better than the explosiveness of a Coby White. 

Fittingly and in that vein, Satoransky’s tumultuous campaign culminated with White supplanting him for the starting point guard spot in the Bulls’ final game. It was a move that could have justifiably been made long before it was, in part due to Satoransky’s swoons, White’s improvements and the Bulls’ team-wide woes. Satoransky handled it with grace. He’s as congenial as they come, one of two players to appear in all 65 of the Bulls’ games this season (for this group, a feat), and, at 28, a bonafide vet. But the starting spot he coveted upon joining the Bulls could be gone by the time the 2020-21 season tips off. When it does, he’ll have much to prove with a partial guarantee (for $5,000,000) looming in 2021-22.

Grade: C

Zach LaVine

60 G, 34.8 MPG | 25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG | 45% FG, 38% 3P, 80.2% FT | 2020-21 contract: $19,500,000

You’d be hard-pressed to ask for much more from LaVine this season. In his sixth year, he cemented himself as a premiere bucket-getter in the NBA, bumping his volume (31.2% usage, 20 FGA/g, 8.1 3PA/g) to the superstar strata while maintaining steady shooting percentages, traditional and advanced. After a shaky first month of the season, his 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte (undoubtedly the most exhilarating highlight of the season) catalyzed a rare, extended scoring tear from late November through February. On the season, he had more 30-point games (19) than any other Bull had 20-point outings (Coby White was closest with 13).

Still, questions about LaVine’s defense and playmaking aren’t going away anytime soon. The Bulls’ star consistently displayed a willingness to get better in those areas, but the results again lagged behind. Two nuggets emblematic of that dichotomy: He finished the season averaging the second-most passes per game on the team, but 10th in AST/TO ratio. He’s active in passing lanes and his athleticism makes him a serviceable on-ball defender when engaged, but the Bulls defended at a rate of 10 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor. 

The Bulls also found themselves in the fourth-most NBA.com-defined “Clutch” games (imperfect but useful) this season, yet for every batch of LaVine heroics, there were multiple nights that starred empty, tunnel-vision possessions down the stretch. Of 42 players who played 100 or more “Clutch” minutes this season, LaVine took the second most field goals (91), and shot the fourth-worst percentage (33%). That’s not entirely his fault. Aside from White, whose emergence came late, LaVine is just about the only Bull that can generate his own offense (making targeted double-teams, at least, a nightly occurrence), and his late-game gumption drew consistent praise throughout the locker room, in good times and bad. There were public clashes with Boylen, but again, the locker room veneration persisted.

The two biggest takeaways for LaVine from this year: In his second full year back from an ACL tear that truncated his third and fourth professional seasons, he again improved markedly across the board, a theme throughout his career. But nothing about this campaign will stymie the ‘empty stats on a bad team’ label that hounds him. 

For two more years, he’s on one of the better contracts in the league given his production. Though LaVine ascending into the highest echelon of NBA stardom may never be in the cards, he’s better than what was put around him this season. With gradual improvements in the above areas, and a couple extra wins, adding All-Star hardware to his shelf next year on the weight of his rising stardom as a scorer isn’t outlandish. That he was even on the fringe this year speaks volumes.

Grade: A

Coby White

65 G, 25.8 MPG | 13.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.7 APG | 39.4% FG, 35.4% 3P, 79.1% FT | 2020-21 contract: $5,572,680

It’s amazing how quickly a narrative can flip. Entering the All-Star break, Coby White had logged 20 points just once in his previous 38 outings, and despite flashes of brilliance — his first month in the NBA featured four 20-point games, including a record-smashing seven 3-pointer fourth quarter barrage against the Knicks — was largely an enigma, defined as much by his inconsistency as his microwave scoring ability.

Then, he busted through his self-professed rookie wall. In ten post-All-Star-break games, White averaged 24.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists on 46.8/40.7/89.5 shooting splits (19 FGA/g, 8.6 3PA/g), carrying the Bulls’ offense to a scoring rate of 112.8 per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 94.5 with him off. All of a sudden, off-the-dribble jumpers were falling with regularity, he was finishing through contact at the rim and his fight on the defensive end began to leap off the screen. The game appeared to markedly slow down for him, and it coincided with increased opportunity. After Kris Dunn went down with a sprained MCL on Jan. 31, White’s minutes per game average lept from 23.9 to 32.4, and his production with it.

Is he the point guard of the future? Is he a traditional point guard at all? The jury is still out. One of the only basketball-related reasons to mourn the Bulls’ shortened 2019-20 slate (which could have ended… really ugly) is a lost chance at evaluating White and LaVine as a starting backcourt tandem; while White made his first NBA start on March 11, LaVine was nursing a quad that kept him out of the team’s final five games after proving a mainstay for the first 60. Theoretically, they make for a potent offensive combination, given both’s ability to play dynamically on- and off-the-ball. But whether the two share enough defensive and playmaking acumen to form a winning duo remains to be seen.

Regardless, White’s season ends with unvarnished optimism. All the tools — the breakneck speed, the quick-twitch jumper, the 6-foot-4 frame and improving vision — now have tangible results to back them up. Boylen consistently lauded White’s film study and practice habits throughout the year. That, along with his undeniable talent, will carry him to the next level. 

Grade: B+

Kris Dunn

51 G, 24.9 MPG | 7.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 3.4 AST | 44.4% FG, 25.9% 3P, 74.1% FT | 2020-21 contract: RFA 

Dunn took an offseason that saw the Bulls publicly shop him, sign a replacement to start at point guard (Satoransky), draft a potential lead guard of the future (White) and re-sign to a multi-year contract a Jim Boylen-favored reserve competitor (Arcidiacono)… And parlayed it into a career-reviving campaign.

Perhaps that’s a tad strong. But Dunn truly found and established an identity as a defensive linchpin in this, his fourth season. When Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison went down in November, his 6-foot-4 frame and tenacious ballhawking ability allowed him to dutifully slide into a wing spot in the starting lineup and thrive at the head of the Bulls’ blitzing pick-and-roll coverages. Dunn started his first game of the season on Nov. 29. In the month of December, the Bulls played to a 7-7 record with the second-rated defense in the NBA. On the season, the Bulls’ defense was 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with Dunn on the floor — roughly the equivalent of the disparity between the 18th and second-rated defenses in the league. He was second in the league in steals when he went down on Jan. 31 with a sprained MCL, while averaging just 24.9 minutes per contest. And while steals are no surefire measure of comprehensive defensive impact, the magnitude with which the Bulls defense cratered in his (plus Wendell Carter Jr.’s) absence in February demonstrate his value.

Skeptics will immediately point to his 3-point shooting as a shortcoming — and indeed, any fastbreak fruits the Bulls reaped from Dunn turnovers echo quieter than bricks laid in the halfcourt. Shooting is coachable, but Dunn’s 25.9% clip from deep (with a ton of bad misses peppered in) is uninspiring and a ; already 26, it might be too late to expect a Marcus Smart-ian pivot to league-average long-range capacity. Opposing defense’s consistent willingness to ignore him from behind the arc in favor of clogging passing and driving lanes was actively detrimental to spacing for a team that already struggled for quality looks. In spite of him slicing his volume and dialing up his efficiency at the rim, the Bulls’ offense was bottom-of-the-barrell whether Dunn was on the floor or not this season, and slightly worse with him on.

Dunn’s offensive deficiencies were at times destructive on a bad team, but deployed strategically, his rare defensive instincts and ability have a place in the NBA — in the right situation. But when free agency opens, he’ll be fresh off a major knee injury (he hasn’t eclipsed 52 games in a season since his rookie year) and without a tidy landing spot on the horizon. He’s an ideal fit as a discount defensive specialist on a winning team, with the chops to swallow top-tier guards and swingmen on assignment, but the hiatus’ impact on the salary cap is yet unknown in a summer without many cap-space-flush teams to begin with. I wrote about pros, cons and financial particulars of the Bulls bringing Dunn back at greater length here. But for now, he gets a pat on the back for a solid season.

Grade: B

Ryan Arcidiacono

58 G, 16 MPG | 4.5 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 1.7 APG | 40.9% FG, 39.1% 3P, 71.1% FT | 2020-21 contract: $3,000,000

Arcidiacono is capable enough as a deep reserve guard. He’s far from the most athletically gifted player in the league (a clause I’m sure I’m the first to write), but he occasionally scrapes his way to punching above his weight defensively, makes his open ones and brings a tone-setting brand of hustle at his best.

With injuries dotting the roster, Arcidiacono was thrust into more minutes this season than in what I’d imagine the Bulls’ best possible 2019-20 timeline would have been. Still, for a team that was ninth in 3-point attempts per game and 24th in 3-point percentage, a 39.1% clip from deep (2.2 attempts per game) is nothing to sniff at. For a team as injury-prone as this, neither is 58 appearances. 

Simply put, Arcidiacono is hardly the Bulls’ biggest problem, nor a part of the long-term solution. After a fully-guaranteed $3,000,000 in 2020-21, the Bulls will have the chance to get out from under his number with a club option in advance of a highly-anticipated summer of ’21. If they do, it won’t be for a lack of grit.

Grade: C

RELATED: It's over: Bulls' highlights and lowlights from 2019-20 season

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

NBA, NBPA announce zero positive COVID-19 tests from inside Disney bubble

In the first round of testing announced since the NBA began playing official restart games on July 30, there's more good news.

Of the 343 players tested for COVID-19 since the last results were announced on July 29, there remains zero positive tests. This is the third round of testing results made public in a joint statement from the NBA and NBPA, whose strict safety protocols appear to be working. Teams have now been in the so-called "bubble" on the Disney World campus outside Florida for close to a month.

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The statement reiterated that if one positive test occurs, that player will be isolated until he meets all rules established by the two parties to resume play. The 22 teams on the Disney campus traveled with limited parties of 35 people. Players undergo daily testing.

The season is scheduled to conclude in October with the NBA Finals. Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, long made it clear they badly wanted to crown a 2019-20 champion, even when Silver paused the league in mid-March after Rudy Gobert posted the first positive test. The league and NBPA have drawn rave reviews from around the sporting world for the execution of their plan to this point.

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Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

Here are key Bulls players' most recent public comment on coach Jim Boylen

It’s Day 147 since the Bulls last played a game. The NBA has restarted its season to first-weekend-of-March-Madness-esque affect. With no positive COVID-19 cases yet reported from within the bubble, and games taking on a playoff feel, buzz is palpable.

But no, the Bulls have not yet announced a decision on the future of head coach Jim Boylen.

Still, tea-leaf reading continues to abound with respect to Boylen’s job status, and it’s easy to reason why. After a tumultuous third year of the current rebuild, ownership installed fresh leadership at the highest level of the front office in executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas; in turn, Karnisovas brought on general manager Marc Eversley, assistant GM J.J. Polk and VP of player personnel Pat Connelly. John Paxson retreated to an advisory role and Gar Forman was fired. There’s been a bit of deck-shuffling in the training and coaching staffs, though most were based on contract option deadlines.

All of which is to say, winds of change are howling for a franchise that was in dire need of it.

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So — whichever direction the team goes — what’s the hold up on committing to or moving on from Boylen? Karnisovas publicly addressed that question at his end-of-season conference call nearly two months ago.

“I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation,” Karnisovas said. “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.”

Then: “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… In order for me to keep players and coaches accountable, I have to have personal relationships with them.”

That, and leaguewide financial uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, appear to have contributed to Karnisovas playing the long game in deciding on Boylen’s future.

But a vocal segment of the fanbase hasn’t been satisfied with that approach. And a common mantra among that group has been that keeping Boylen aboard as long as the new regime has is directly contradictory to their stated goal of making the Bulls a “players first” organization. Boylen’s 39-84 record through one-and-a-half seasons is the kindling for calls for his job. Reports of players privately expressing discontent with him have stoked the flames further.

So, in the spirit of getting it down on paper, let’s run through key Bulls players’ most recent public comments on Boylen (disclaimer: since the league shutdown began). We’ll update this piece if and when more filter through:

Tomáš Satoranský, Aug. 4: “I certainly don’t want to throw dirt on him”

Tuesday, Lukas Kuba, who’s all over all things Sato, had this tidbit from an interview Satoranský conducted on Express FM, a Czech radio station. In it, Satoranský acknowledged the harsh realities of the 2019-20 season, but was largely sympathetic towards Boylen due to a combination of his first-year status, front-facing role and work ethic:

 

Per Kuba, Satoranský has commented on Boylen to Czech media multiple times since the Bulls last played, and stayed diplomatic doing it. A common thread: Sato seems to see Boylen as a positive thinker who works hard, even if the fruits of that care factor haven’t bloomed on the court. He has also criticized Boylen’s rotations, but maintained — at least publicly — that he thinks Boylen will be back next season:

  

All of the above is likely translated from Czech — important context to note if analyzing every word.

Daniel Gafford, July 21: “He aight”

For the most part, Bulls players have maintained diplomacy speaking on Boylen since the NBA shuttered on March 11. Rookie center Daniel Gafford represents the most glaring exception. Here’s how he responded to a viewer question on his opinion of Boylen while live-streaming on Twitch:

 

“He aight. I don’t like him a lot but he OK,” Gafford said. “Got some things he can work on. Got some things he can get better at — as a person and as a coach. Not gonna hate on him, not gonna hate the man, but you know (trails off)...”

Far from a ringing endorsement, especially when you listen to Gafford’s tone in the audio itself. 

Context: Boylen light-heartedly admitted in the preseason that he’d been hard on Gafford in the run-up to the start of his first year; then, Gafford started the season out of the rotation in favor of free-agent-signing Luke Kornet before the rooke from Arkansas burst out with 21 points (10-for-12 FG), five rebounds and two blocks on Nov. 18 against the Milwaukee Bucks, unimpeachably proving his merit.

And on Jan. 6, there was this incident, when Boylen appeared to leave a timeout in his pocket with Gafford writhing in pain on the floor after turning his ankle in a game against the Dallas Mavericks. Gafford was allowed to sub out only after play stopped for a foul called on Tim Hardaway Jr.

 

Zach LaVine, June 5: “I think he goes out there and does his best.”

Thad Young, June 5: “He’s probably one of the more energetic coaches I’ve played for”

Both LaVine and Young took the high road when asked about Boylen in their end-of-season press conferences back in early June.

“I’m going to keep the same stance I always have. It’s not for me to judge somebody. I think he goes out there and does his best. I don’t think anybody in any organization in the NBA goes out there and tries to fail,” LaVine said. “Sometimes, it’s out of your power on won-loss record or what happens during the game. I know for a fact he tries and does his best. That’s all you can ask for sometimes. As a player, I just follow the lead and do my job. On decisions and things like that, I leave that up to higher management. That’s not my role in the organization.”

And, in a perfect closing line: “I think you know I was going to answer that correctly.”

“That’s not really a question for me to answer,” Young echoed. “I think that’s more up to the front office. Obviously, Jim is very energetic. He’s probably one of the most energetic coaches I’ve played for. My job is to go out there and basically help lead this team to try to win games and play to the best of my ability each night. It’s the same for each guy down the line. That’s something you’ll have to ask Marc and Arturas and let them answer.”

Both LaVine and Young also had public differences of opinion with Boylen throughout the season. For LaVine, the inflection point was being pulled three-and-a-half minutes into an early-season blowout loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.”

“I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do,” LaVine said that night, only to drop 49 points and 13 3s on the Charlotte Hornets the next. 

An evident show of frustration (“Why?”) caught on camera following a last-minute Boylen timeout amid a 27-point defeat to the Toronto Raptors stands out, too. The near-coup that took place when Boylen took over in 2018 is well-documented, as is LaVine paying a $7,000 fine for the coach late last season — at the time, a sign of an evolving relationship that has since seen more bumps.

And Young’s frustrations with his role, first made public in a report by the Chicago Sun-Times in December 2019, permeated an up-and-down campaign in which he was asked to adjust to a style he hadn’t encountered in his 13-year career and inconsistent playing time. His best stretch came in place of an injured Lauri Markkanen, but he finished 2019-20 with non-rookie-year career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes per game.


How much stock you put into the above comments is in the eye of the beholder. They all contribute to the murky picture around the Bulls’ coaching situation right now.

RELATED: Why Arturas Karnisovas’ long play on Jim Boylen's future is the smart play

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