Bulls

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.

Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.

Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”

But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.

Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.

Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.

All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.

Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.

Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.

“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.

And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.

“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”

Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.

Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.

His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.

Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.

But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.

They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.

Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.

Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.

He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.

“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.

“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

Bulls take sober approach in draft, satisfied with steady roster growth  

It wasn’t an exciting night at the Advocate Center but it was a successful one in the eyes of the rebuilding Chicago Bulls.

And a telling one, from their inaction as they stayed put to select Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. and Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison with their two first round picks.

They’re not looking to press the fast-forward button on this methodical process, placing unrealistic expectations on themselves that they’re nowhere near ready to embrace.

But perhaps, it was necessary.

Trade offers were around, and the Bulls were enamored with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III in addition to their interest in Mohamed Bamba. But the price of swapping picks, along with giving up the 22nd spot and a future first-rounder was too rich for the Bulls, according to sources.

“We’re always looking and probing for opportunity. How close we got, we don’t know,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said. “We looked into some things. We thought it was more than a six-player draft. And Wendell is a guy we’ve been high on for quite awhile.”

They believe they’ve opted for prudence instead of panic on a night where bold, confident steps are expected.

After a painful march to the end of an unsatisfying season and dropping a spot in the lottery, a trade would’ve been a do-good when many felt the Bulls should’ve been at the top of the draft order.

After all, so much was made of their scouts and staff spending so much time during the year to assess the top talent—nobody wanted to see all that unspoken promise result in a mid-lottery seventh selection.

“We feel we’re in a situation at this time of our rebuild that to give up assets, important draft assets to move up a spot or two, that didn’t make sense to us and the way we’re planning,” Paxson said. “We continue to talk about being patient and disciplined in how we make decisions.”

One can look at it as the Bulls being unwilling to embrace what comes with taking a top-four talent—especially with Jackson being viewed as a long play as opposed to an instant impact prospect—the word “playoffs” would’ve been swirling all around Madison and Wood for the next several months.

Or one can view it as a sober approach, that Paxson and Forman know there’s far too many unanswered questions about their core, that a slightly better-than-expected regular season wasn’t going to seduce them down a costly road.

They don’t seem to be completely sold on Kris Dunn as the unequivocal point guard of the future, unafraid to take Trae Young if he fell into their lap.

Zach LaVine didn’t play to his expectations, the franchise’s expectations and he didn’t look comfortable playing with the Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, in part because they didn’t have the opportunity.

He enters restricted free agency and nobody will know how much the Bulls value him until they put an initial offer in front of him, likely on the eve of free agency a week from now.

As much as the last 12 months were about hitting the reset button and trading Jimmy Butler to put themselves in this spot, the months of October to April didn’t shed as much light as many anticipated—hence the talk from Paxson about patience and not being in a rush with the rebuild right now.

Because honestly, there’s nothing to rush—the last thing this distrusting fan base wants to hear.

Carter can be exactly what the Bulls need—some ways immediately, other ways in time provided the roster construction is competent and not done at a snail’s pace, the biggest fear from this jaded fan base.

Having to sacrifice at Duke once Bagley III reclassified to get to college, his offensive game didn’t develop as much as it could have—and it’s not like he’ll be featured early on in Chicago with Markkanen and LaVine penciled in as main scoring options.

“As much as you wanna talk about the game getting away from bigs, big guys and their ability to score, the way the game’s going,” Paxson said. “He wants to set screens for guys. This is a young man who’s gonna fit into the team concept that we want to have. And Chandler will do the same.”

Carter had to submerge his talents and gifts during the one season he had to showcase it for the greater good. It speaks to a certain emotional maturity the 19-year old has, a sober approach to look at the bigger picture while still making the most of his not-so-plentiful opportunities.

“Wendell is still a young guy,” Paxson said. “Very few draft picks are finished product, especially in our game where we’re drafting so young. He’s got a lot of room to grow. Defensively as a rim protector, he’ll do really well. Verticality at the rim, he’s been taught really well. Smart kid, we think he’s gonna be really good.”

Hutchison isn’t the high-upside talent Carter is, having played four years of college ball, improving each year to the point that the Bulls supposedly made him a promise very early on in the draft process.

Their unwillingness to give up the 22nd pick, whether they like the perception or not, stems from their belief Hutchison can be an impact player.

“We like Chandler a lot,” Paxson said. “We scouted him early, scouted him often. He knew we liked him. He addresses a position of need. We had debates on wings and players at his position. His ability to rebound and take it off the board, those things are really valuable, especially the way we want to play.”

Paxson alluded to tense discussions leading to the draft, where one can surmise there was serious consideration about not just going with the status quo—their reported interest in point guard Collin Sexton should be proof of that—and that should come as a positive sign for Bulls fans, who feel the front office is satisfied with a slow-rolling, low-accountability approach since they aren’t saddling themselves with high expectations.

To paraphrase Forman, the Bulls are “still building up our asset base” and subtly saying they expect to be in a similar position next June.

Soberly saying winning and contention isn’t on the horizon can be refreshing to hear, but they walk a fine line of expressing too much comfort in things staying the way they are.

 

The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls make one aspect of rebuild clear: They’re constructing the roster around the face of the franchise in Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls had a decision to make Thursday night at No. 7.

Staring them in the face was Michael Porter Jr., undoubtedly the biggest risk in the draft but also one of the most talented, and a fan favorite to boot. Both Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox presented options who would fill needs on the wing for a Bulls team desperate for a perimeter threat. The team was also reportedly interested in Alabama point guard Collin Sexton during the pre-draft process, and the potential to trade up for a Luka Doncic or Mo Bamba at 3 or 4 was on the table.

Instead the Bulls opted against going high upside, high risk. They passed on filling one of their glaring needs. They didn’t mortgage future assets to move up in a draft they felt was already deep enough. What the Bulls did on Thursday night in selecting Duke center Wendell Carter was make clear one aspect of their rebuild: Lauri Markkanen is the face of the franchise and the man they’re constructing this roster around.

Everything that makes the 19-year-old Carter a great prospect is what detractors felt might hold Markkanen back at the next level. Carter was built to thrive in the paint, an energetic center who posted a better offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the floor) than Texas’ Mo Bamba and his 7-foot-10 wingspan. Carter was one of the best players in the country at scoring off those offensive rebounds, and he did all this while playing alongside Marvin Bagley, the No. 2 pick to Sacramento and the ACC’s leading rebounder.

But Carter is more than just a young Tristan Thompson. Though he rarely had to use it on a Duke team littered with perimeter threats, Carter showed a solid touch in making 41 percent of his 46 3-point attempts. He looks comfortable at 15 to 17 feet, and he passed well from those areas, too. That shooting will come as an added bonus; Carter was the anchor a Duke defense that transformed to zone midway through the season, and the Blue Devils defense was nearly 6 points per 100 possessions better with Carter on the floor.

It's not surprising that the Bulls were reportedly interested in moving up with centers Jaren Jackson and Bamba on the table, more defensive-minded complements to Markkanen, and not Doncic or Porter. It felt as though the Bulls were drafting at 7 not only to grab the best player available, but to maximize Markkanen's potential.

What Carter will be asked to do, at least in the early going with this roster’s makeup – is much of what he was asked to do at Duke. He played second fiddle in the frontcourt to Bagley, who led the Blue Devils in all major offensive categories and won ACC Player of the Year. Carter posted modest 13.5-point and 9.0-rebound averages while doing the dirty work on defense. His 7.6 percent block rate (percentage of shot attempts he blocked while on the court) was impressive considering how often Duke played zone.

“The young man sacrificed a lot in order to be a good teammate. A lot of it speaks to who he is,” Forman said. “We think in really studying his game is, if you look long-term, is a guy that can fit with Lauri and obviously Lauri is a huge part of what we’re trying to build here."

The Bulls are rolling the dice that Markkanen can be the face of franchise. A year ago LaVine was far and away the core piece of the Jimmy Butler trade, and that was while he was rehabbing from ACL surgery. Markkanen was a question mark and a project, and Kris Dunn was a 23-year-old rookie who posted awful numbers in Minnesota. Questions about LaVine's future in Chicago with restricted free agency this summer now linger, and Dunn is going on 24 years old with 50 career starts.

It's Markkanen's spotlight, and the Bulls know it. He showed he was for real as a rookie; he was not, however, Donovan Mitchell or Ben Simmons, a can't-miss, sure-fire star. Yes, he joined LeBron James and Dario Saric as the only members of the 1,000-point, 500-rebound, 140-3-pointer club last year. He put up shooting numbers for a 7-footer matched only by Hall of Fame center Dirk Nowitzki. Questions persist on whether he can make a leap to stardom, but adding pieces like Carter to complement him and cover some weaknesses are a step in that direction.

"You hope you draft players that become stars," Paxson said. "We believe that last year, in drafting Lauri, he has that potential. He has a long way to go, but we believe he has that potential."

That could be part of the reason the Bulls opted against moving up in the draft, like Dallas did in dealing No. 5 and a future first-round pick to grab Luka Doncic at No. 3. Paxson and Forman both hinted at the Bulls being in a state of the rebuild where giving up future assets to attain something greater didn't provide a positive net worth. They're happy and comfortable with where they stand at this stage in the rebuild, with Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Bobby Portis and an enormous amount of cap space.

Now they can add Carter and No. 22 pick Chandler Hutchison to that list. The 6-foot-7 Boise State forward was yet another complementary piece to the roster. Like Carter, Hutchison projects as a high floor, low(er) ceiling player. Hutchinson is a four-year senior compared to Carter being a year removed from high school, but the two are similar. Hutchison will provide a physical presence on the wing the Bulls have lacked, and he can cover defensive weaknesses of players like Denzel Valentine, LaVine and even Markkanen.

"We feel these two players complement the team and the roster that we have very well," Paxson said. "One year later we feel like we’ve added five really good young core pieces to build and that's important to us. We’re excited about the future, the direction we’re headed."

The Bulls didn’t need to roll the dice with their 7th pick on Thursday night. They rolled the dice with the same selection one year ago and hit on it. Taking Carter midway through the Lottery is a complement and a compliment to what the Bulls believe Markkanen is and what he will be for a franchise looking to get back in contention.

It's a lot to ask for a 21-year-old Finnish stretch forward. But superstars win in the NBA and the Bulls believe they have one budding at the power forward position. Thursday's decision to play it safe and draft a complementary piece in Carter, one who played a role in college he'll be asked to play in Chicago, only cements that belief.