With Monday's expected news that Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn won't play in any more games for the Bulls this season, the coaching staff and front office now have to make an evaluation of their play based on a much smaller sample size than they would have preferred.
Dunn played in 52 games, averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6 assists, while LaVine was limited to just 24 games, averaging 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3 assists. Even more concerning was the lack of extended court time together, with Dunn playing his best basketball while LaVine was still in rehab mode following ACL surgery in February of 2017.
So, as the decision makers look ahead to an important off-season, what do they really know about the two players (along with Lauri Markkanen) acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota last summer? Has Dunn established himself as the long term answer at point guard, and is LaVine worthy of a long-term contract commitment?
The decision on Dunn's future is probably easier to make. He established himself as a high quality defender (fourth in the NBA in steals), with better than expected shooting range. Dunn also showed the willingness to take big shots late in close games and his positional size allowed him to score over smaller point guards in isolation sets. The biggest issue he faces going forward is a high turnover rate (2.9 per game), reducing his assist to turnover ratio to a pedestrian 2.1.
Has Dunn showed enough to let John Paxson and Gar Forman pass on highly regarded college point guard prospects Collin Sexton and Trae Young if one or both are still on the board when the Bulls are on the clock? Again, the answer is probably yes, especially considering the Bulls also have back-up point guards Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.
At 6'4", Dunn could certainly handle the defensive responsibilities playing alongside a smaller point guard like Sexton or Young, but it's more likely the Bulls would use their top 10 pick on a small forward prospect like Mikal or Miles Bridges.
The LaVine situation is a lot trickier, especially considering he's heading into restricted free agency. Paxson has said consistently the Bulls plan to re-sign LaVine this summer, but at what cost?
Since the Bulls hold LaVine's Bird rights after the trade with Minnesota, LaVine would be eligible for a five year max contract at around $146 million, depending on where the cap is set in July. The Bulls could try to sign LaVine at a lower total package or for fewer years, and they also have the option of letting Zach and his agent shop the market for an offer sheet the Bulls could match.
Washington used that strategy with Otto Porter last summer, and wound up matching a Brooklyn Nets offer sheet for four years at around $106 million. Porter is a good player, but hardly worth that kind of contract, and the Bulls could be in the same position if they let another team set the market. The one advantage the Bulls do have is because so few teams have money available to offer a max contract this summer, it's unlikely any franchise would want to tie up its dollars on a restricted free agent they're unlikely to get.
Still, Paxson and Forman have to evaluate what LaVine's ceiling could be. Will LaVine make a big jump in his second year following knee surgery and become an Eastern Conference All-Star or is he a high volume scorer who needs the ball in his hands to be successful and sometimes drifts on defense?
LaVine showed flashes of his pre-knee injury form during his 24 games this season, especially in his first game against his former team. LaVine scored a season-high 35 points and out-dueled Butler down the stretch in a 114-113 Bulls’ win at the United Center. The explosiveness and leaping ability is still there, and you'd have to expect he'll be a more efficient player next season with a full summer and training camp under his belt.
LaVine admitted as much to me in a recent interview, saying, "You've got to work to improve your game each summer. I think that's where NBA players make the biggest jump is in the off-season. You get your experience through the season, you build on what you want, and you go back and evaluate it. Me personally, that's where I put a lot of my work in. Obviously, last year, I didn't get a summer so I'm really looking forward to it. Me and Kris talk all the time, this is going to be a big summer, we're going to make a big jump, there's not going to be any messin' around. We're going to go to work."
Best guess here is that the Bulls will offer LaVine a long term contract at less than max value, and if the two sides can't reach an agreement, LaVine could sign a two or three year deal and then re-visit the market as an unrestricted free agent with more teams willing and able to join in the bidding.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
With the Bulls winning back to back games against the Magic and Wizards, it looks like they'll need some lottery magic to move up from their current eighth position in the reverse standings. Matter of fact, there's a decent chance the Knicks might catch or pass the Bulls before we hit the finish line.
If the Bulls stay at number eight, their choices will likely come down to one of the point guards we mentioned earlier, Duke big man Wendell Carter or small forwards Mikal Bridges of Villanova and Miles Bridges of Michigan State. Mikal Bridges fits the mold of the "3 & D" small forward that would mesh nicely with the team the Bulls are building. Mikal Bridges is 6"7" with a 7'2" wingspan, and he plays the point on Villanova's trapping defense. It wouldn't be a franchise-changing addition like some of the prospects at the top of the draft, but remember this year's rookie sensation, Donovan Mitchell, was the 13th pick last June.
Don't look now, but the New Orleans Pelicans are crashing back to earth. Anthony Davis is one of the top five players in the league, but even he can only carry a team so far. New Orleans went 0-for-4 during a brutal stretch of games against Houston, Cleveland, Portland and Oklahoma City. In the process, the Pelicans have dropped to eighth in the West, just one game ahead of Denver.
The Bulls own New Orleans' first round pick as a result of the Niko Mirotic trade, so they'll be rooting for the Pelicans to fall into the lottery over the final week of the season. Owning two lottery picks might give Paxson and Forman enough ammunition to move up a few spots in the top 10 if a player they really like starts to slip.
That player might just be Michigan State big man Jaren Jackson Jr., who formally applied for the draft on Monday. Jackson Jr. had an inconsistent freshman season because of foul trouble that limited his playing time, but some scouts believe he's the ideal "stretch 5" with his ability to protect the rim and shooting range out to the 3 point line.
In this era of perimeter-oriented play, we could see five players 6'10" or taller go in the top six picks with Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. joining international prospect Luka Doncic, a 6’8” combo guard.
If a point-guard needy team like Orlando decides to reach for Sexton or Young, one of the elite bigs could fall to the Bulls. At least, that's what Gar and Pax are hoping.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has had issues in the past because of a poor attitude, and he took that to a new level on Saturday after a one point overtime loss to Brooklyn. Whiteside didn't play over the final 21 minutes because Heat coach Erik Spoelstra decided to go with a smaller line-up. Which led to these comments post-game from Whiteside about Spoelstra choosing to match up, "It's annoying. We shouldn't. Why are we matching up? We've got one of the best centers in the league. Why are we matching up?
A lot of teams don't have a good center. They are going to use their strengths. It's (B.S.). It's really (B.S.) man. There are a lot of teams that can use a center. That's one of them. That's (B.S.)."
The Heat fined Whiteside an undisclosed amount for conduct detrimental to the team. Spoelstra insists the issue is behind them, but he did offer this interesting take on how Whiteside could let him know he's unhappy, "Guys want to throw a few eggs after the game or TP my house, that's actually a better way to deal with it than speaking to [the media] about the frustrations."
Wouldn't you love to see a 7-foot center toilet-papering the head coach's house? Talk about your viral videos!