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Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 wings: Porter, Hutchison, Valentine, Shaq

Grading the Bulls’ 2019-20 wings: Porter, Hutchison, Valentine, Shaq

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’ve hit the guards. Now, it’s time for the wings — where injury asterisks are sure to abound.

Otto Porter Jr. 

14 G, 23.6 MPG | 11.9 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.8 APG | 44.3% FG, 38.7% 3P, 70.4% FT | 2020-21 contract: $28,489,238 (player option)

Porter makes the Bulls a significantly better basketball team when he’s on the floor. In severely limited action this season (331 minutes), the Bulls registered an offensive rating of 110.2 points per 100 possessions and defensive rating 107 with him on the floor — figures that, extrapolated out, would register 16th and sixth in the NBA, respectively. Not phenomenal, but certainly better than their current ranks of 29th offensively and 13th defensively. 

That is in no way meant to insinuate the Bulls’ fortunes would have changed drastically with Porter in tow all season long. They were just 5-9 with him in the lineup. But his net positive impact makes sense. Injuries up and down the roster aside, Porter’s size, defensive versatility and reliable jump shooting (he’s a career 40.4% 3-point shooter on 3.3 attempts per game) were sorely missing qualities on the wing for the Bulls all season — especially considering his and Chandler Hutchison’s replacements ranged from Kris Dunn to Tomas Satoransky to Ryan Arcidiacono to Shaq Harrison. At 27 and a seven-year NBA veteran, his veteran competence was missed, as well.

But (and it’s a big but) that “when he’s on the floor” phrase is entirely operative. Porter missed 51 consecutive games this season from Nov. 6 to March 2 with a sprained left foot that’s recovery timetable seemed to permute with the wind. Despite being on a gradually increasing minutes restriction, Porter was effective upon returning, averaging 13.2 points on 48.2% shooting (36.4% from 3-point range) in five games before the pause while playing just 21 minutes per. He enjoyed a similarly positive-trending stretch in the games leading up to his injury in November.

The point: Porter is the Bulls’ highest paid and, theoretically, most well-rounded player, but he couldn’t stay on the court this year. That’s a problem — not the problem, but a problem — that’s resolution remains open-ended until Porter inevitably exercises his lofty player option for 2020-21 and we see what he can bring to the Bulls next season. If what he promises on paper ever fully comes to fruition on the hardwood, he’ll help the team immensely.

Porter checks in with an average, passing grade, with one tick up for positive individual play in his time out there.

Grade: C+

Chandler Hutchison

28 G, 18.8 MPG | 7.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 APG | 45.7% FG, 31.6% 3P, 59% FT | 2020-21 contract: $2,443,440

On Feb. 8, I wrote the following about Chandler Hutchison. At the time, Hutchison was in the midst of a miniscule four-game stretch in which he averaged 15.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals:

Hutchison’s current 17-game streak of simply playing in games is already the second-longest of his career (the longest being a 20-gamer between Dec. 15 and Jan. 25 of last season). There’s a lot to be said for building momentum day-by-day and his steadily increasing output is evidence.

Two games later, the All-Star break hit. What we didn’t know until returning to the Advocate Center the following Monday was that a shoulder injury that had cost him 17 games between November and January had flared up again in the Bulls’ final game before the break. Hutchison missed the team’s final ten games of the season. He’s played 72 of a possible 147 games in the first two years of his NBA career.

Unfortunately, Hutchison’s injury history must be addressed at the top of any assessment of his play and progress to this point. Any statistical evaluation (e.g. his 2.1% steal rate this season being in the 91st percentile for his position) is inevitably based on too small a sample size to take much appreciable away from — other than that his outside shooting (49.2% eFG, 59.5% FT for his career) must improve. He still brings great positional size at 6-foot-7, rare bounce and the tools to be a rangy, versatile defender at both forward spots. 

There were flashes, but he comes out with a flat grade. It’s simply not going to all come together until he can get consistent reps. And he’s already 24.

Grade: C-

Denzel Valentine

36 G, 13.6 MPG | 6.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.2 APG | 40.9% FG, 33.6% 3P, 75% FT | 2020-21 contract: RFA

Valentine followed up an encouraging second season in 2017-18 by missing all of 2018-19 with ankle reconstruction surgery. Recovered a rearing to go, though, he didn’t crack the Bulls’ 2019-20 rotation until injuries paved a path in late November. 

He then spent the year oscillating in and out of Jim Boylen’s rotation, despite profiling as the exact type of player the Bulls might want to execute their preferred style of play — a savvy playmaker, perhaps the most skilled passer on the team and a dead-eye long range shooter when open. 

Valentine was never suited to the Bulls’ aggressive defensive schemes, and occasional bouts of irrational confidence don’t inspire trust. But with the Bulls’ perpetually strapped on the wing, that he only played more than 20 minutes eight times this season is confounding.

By the end of the campaign, his counting stats and shooting percentages aren’t reflective of the lottery pick he once was. Checkered utilization undeniably played a role there. If his next contract (as he enters restricted free agency this summer) isn’t with the Bulls, it would hardly come as a surprise as of this writing — though it’s unclear how new management may view him.

Grade: C-

Shaq Harrison

43 G, 11.3 MPG | 4.9 PPG, 2 RPG, 1.1 APG | 46.7% FG, 38.1% 3P, 78% FT | 2020-21 contract: RFA

Harrison is what he is, a relentless, energetic defender best suited to a deep reserve spot. His ever-ready attitude in spite of wildly fluctuant playing time was admirable and evident in a few spot starts for the Bulls this season — among them, a 15-point, 11-rebound, three-steal outing in an early season drubbing of the Pistons, and a five 3-pointer night against the Pacers a week before the season froze. That Pacers game capped a four-game stretch in which Harrison shot 9-for-11 from 3-point range, a departure from his regular jump shooting woes.

Relative to expectations coming into the season, Harrison did about all you could ask of him. He’s a restricted free agent this offseason; if Kris Dunn moves on, might he be a discount alternative for a hard-nosed defense at the guard spot?

Grade: C

Adam Mokoka / Max Strus

The two-way squad! Mokoka had two shining moments this season. On the night of the trade deadline, he spruced up a bad loss to the New Orleans Pelicans by scoring 15 points in 5:07 minutes of garbage-time action — the first time in the shot-clock era a player has scored 15 or more points in as little playing time. On March 2, he keyed the Bulls’ second win against a team at or above-.500 at time of contest by pestering Luka Doncic down the stretch of a home victory over the Dallas Mavericks (without Zach LaVine). He’s got a nice shooting stroke (40% from 3-point range on 15 total NBA attempts) and displayed shades of a useful perimeter defender, but logged just 112 minutes of NBA action season.

That was still more than Strus, who appeared in just two games with the Bulls this year. In one of them, he scored five points in a flurry to push a blowout loss to the Heat back towards respectability (the Bulls have a knack for that huh?). But that was the extent of his NBA contribution. He tore his ACL on Dec. 23, with an expected eight-to-12 month recovery timetable at the time of injury. 

Either could find themselves back with the Bulls on two-way deals once again in 2020-21, though Strus’ rehab could take him to the doorstep of even next year’s delayed start date. Mokoka got a bit more run — and I personally wouldn't mind seeing more — but having a definitive take on either one of these two (or prescribing them a long-term role with the team) feels hasty.

Grade: INC

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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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