If this sounds familiar, it should: the Bulls are facing another important offseason. The beginning of Rebuild Year No. 3 is just 41 games away as the Bulls crossed the halfway point of the season last night in a loss to the Blazers. They’re 10-31, tied for the third worst record in the NBA, have suffered more injuries to key players than any team in the East, fired their head coach and had a near mutiny in the new coach’s first week. Who said losing was boring?
But before the Bulls enter a critical summer where they’ll have $40 million in cap space, another top pick and an improving young core, they’ll need to begin answering a few questions in the remaining 41 games.
Is Zach LaVine a scorer, playmaker, or somewhere in between?
Off the top, let’s admit that Zach LaVine was worth the $78 million deal the Bulls matched last offseason. Even if he never becomes an alpha scorer or develops into a plus defender, the Bulls are going to get their money’s worth the next four seasons. He’s a lock for 20 points a night, having done so in 26 of 35 games this season, he’s a free throw magnet when attacking the rim – his 5.9 attempts per game are 16th most – and stands to continue improving; sometimes we forget that just because he’s one of the more veteran Bulls, he’ll be just 24 years old in March.
And yet, he’s still the biggest question mark the franchise has, not in terms of whether he’s going to pan out but what he can actually be. Injuries to Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen forced LaVine into a James Harden-esque role in October, November and early December; before Kris Dunn returned on Dec. 10, LaVine was third in the NBA in usage rate (31.1%) behind only Harden (36.2%) and Kevin Durant (31.5%).
He was asked to shoulder a magnificent scoring load for a team whose leading scorers behind that during that span were Jabari Parker and Justin Holiday. But LaVine was also an underrated distributor. The raw numbers showed him averaging 4.8 assists – a career-best pace – and his assist ratio (percentage of Bulls possessions that ended in a LaVine assist) was 16.1%, on par with guys like Paul George, Donovan Mitchell and Kawhi Leonard; granted, those players weren’t primary ball handlers like LaVine was, but LaVine was being asked to do everything.
Since Dunn’s return –Markkanen’s returned a few games earlier in a limited role – LaVine’s usage has shrunk to 28.1%, which is still 19th highest in the league in that timeframe. His passing has taken a hit with Dunn back; he’s averaging 2.8 assists per game, albeit at a slower pace under Jim Boylen which has kept his assist ratio at 11.9% in that span, on part with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two wings with ball-dominant point guards.
LaVine has looked comfortable in pick-and-roll action with both Markkanen and Wendell Carter. He’s driving to the basket more frequently under Boylen when taking pace into account, and he’s beginning to find a feel for when to take over and when to find a hot hand (see: the Indiana game).
LaVine is most likely a No. 2 scorer on a contending team. As far as the Bulls are concerned, Markkanen is on the fast track to being the leading scorer and shot taker on most nights. But that’s hardly to say that LaVine can’t continue to make a significant impact.
The next 41 games are critical for LaVine to find chemistry with Markkanen, learn to play off the ball with Dunn and not only be a scorer, but an additional distributor and creator. If LaVine can creep back up near his assist ratio he had with Dunn on the bench it’ll go a long way toward his progression. Plus, the player the Bulls select in June will need the ball in his hands. There can’t be too many passers on the floor, and LaVine doing so in an off-ball role is the next step in him becoming a worthy No. 2 option long-term.
What is Wendell Carter’s offensive game?
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Wendell Carter’s offensive game. One, Fred Hoiberg gave the rookie freedom to look for his shot – even create on his own at times – and expand his game, allowing the 19-year-old to grow on the fly. It resulted in a handful of ugly shooting performances – in 24 games with Hoiberg, Carter shot better than 50 percent in just eight of them – but experience was the best teacher. Plus, the Bulls needed him to score with Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis shelved for much of that timeframe.
The second school of thought is how Boylen has deployed Carter: fewer shots per game that come closer to the basket, more post-ups and fewer outside looks – in 17 games under Boylen, Carter has shot better than 50 percent in eight of them. He’s taking fewer shots but shooting a better percentage, which isn’t a bad thing for a 19-year-old rookie.
Here’s what the raw numbers look like: Under Hoiberg, Carter attempted 52 percent of his shots from within 8 feet of the basket; under Boylen, that number is up to 64 percent. Conversely, Carter attempted 22.9 percent of shots under Hoiberg from beyond 16 feet; under Boylen, that number is down to 16.0 percent.
True, there isn’t as much room to space out Carter with Markkanen back in the fold. Where Carter did some of his pick-and-popping in October and November, Markkanen is clearly a better option.
But part of what made the Carter selection in June so intriguing was his versatility. Yes, it’s a draft day buzzword, but where Carter lacked in size and length compared to the centers drafted before him, his outside shot was seen as a major plus. He made 40 percent of his 3-pointers at Duke and showed a real promise with the offense playing through him in the high post; under Hoiberg, Carter averaged 7.0 elbow touches per game, far more than the 4.6 he’s averaging under Boylen.
Asking Carter to do more around the basket feels like a waste. His percentages are up, as they would be for any player attempting more shots around the rim, and he continues to show a veteran savvy on pick-and-roll actions. But this year is supposed to be about the growth of the players. Before last night’s make against the Blazers, Carter had missed his last 16 3-point attempts dating back to Nov. 12.
But isn’t that part of the growing pains of a rebuild? We know Carter can run the pick and roll and has a soft touch around the rim. But that’s not where his offensive game is going to flourish. If he’s going to be more than an 8-point-per-game scorer – and the Bulls are banking on him to be more – then his offensive game needs to expand like it had been under Hoiberg.
The Bulls have harped on not focusing specifically on positions (see: Parker, Jabari) so expanding Carter’s game should be near the top of Boylen’s to-do list.
Have the Bulls found a keeper in Shaq Harrison?
The revolving door that has been the Bulls point guard situation the last six years is nothing short of remarkable. We won’t bore you with details – Google their rosters every year after Derrick Rose’s first ACL tear and see for yourself – but more than a handful have come through the United Center doors.
Kris Dunn continues to improve in Year 2 with the Bulls and is making a strong case that he can be the point guard of the future. If he can improve his 3-point shooting even a smidgen the Bulls will have something to work with.
Assuming Dunn is part of the long-term future, he’d join a group that includes Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison. It’s just this writer’s hunch but usage monster Bobby Portis will price himself out of Chicago in the remaining 41 games, as someone takes a risk and throws big money at a 24-year-old stretch forward with the personality of an NFL offensive lineman.
The Bulls will add a sixth member to their long-term core in June when they draft one of the Duke kids or a consolation prize. Six players won’t fill out a roster, or even a rotation. The Bulls need more, and while they’ll cast a net in free agency and hope to pull in more key contributors, but finding a little homegrown talent never hurt.
That’s where Shaq Harrison enters the picture. Remember everyone clamoring for the Bulls to keep David Nwaba? The Bulls may have found a better one. STOP! Before you take to the comment section and tell me about Harrison’s offensive numbers, let’s get one thing clear: Harrison’s role as part of the long-term future should be as a defensive stopper on the second unit, and someone who can potentially close games as the Bulls’ offensive roles come into focus.
He’s a poor offensive player. There is no sugarcoating any of his numbers. His shooting splits are .398/.256/.600 – his true shooting percentage is sixth worst in the NBA among players averaging 15 minutes. He doesn’t offer much in the way of passing, and as bad as the Bulls are on offense they’re 4.1 points per 100 possessions better with Harrison off the floor.
So why should he maybe be part of the future? Again, it’d be in a limited capacity in terms of role, but Harrison is the best defender the Bulls have had since Jimmy Butler. He has excellent size on the wing at 6-foot-4, has no problems defending his assignment for 94 feet and reads passing lanes as well as any player this author has witnessed this season.
He has a steal in 25 of the 31 games he’s played double-figure minutes, he leads the NBA in steal percentage – he accounts for more than 42 percent of the Bulls’ steals as a team – and for whatever it’s worth, leads the NBA in average defensive speed (4.54 miles per hour). He’s ninth on the Bulls in minutes per game and yet he’s second in deflections per game (2.2) and is among the league leaders in the percentage of defensive loose balls recovered (80.6 percent; to put it in context, Patrick Beverley is at 76.9 percent).
The Bulls have to find small wins. They traded two picks to move up and take Doug McDermott, who they believed could be a game changer offensively despite offering next to nothing on the defensive end. They have a similar player in Harrison, who should be fined every time he shoots but plays All-NBA Defensive First Team defense.
Harrison is a free agent in July and the Bulls would be wise to bring him back. They’ll need to find some answers in the next 41 games about whether he can bring any sort of value to the offense, but as long as he keeps defending like this he should have a spot on the long-term roster. He’s that good defensively. Plus, he’s a Jim Boylen player. And like it or not, Boylen’s the guy to lead the Bulls in to the next phase of the rebuild. They might as well have his kind of players.