Three questions on Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter and Shaq Harrison the Bulls need to answer


Three questions on Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter and Shaq Harrison the Bulls need to answer

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.

Improved 3PT shooting and lower usage the path to success for Kris Dunn

Improved 3PT shooting and lower usage the path to success for Kris Dunn

Much has (fairly) been made this year of the Bulls ongoing search for a long-term answer at the point guard position. While Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have taken big step forwards this in their development this year, Dunn's game has seemingly plateaued, with some pretty big red flags. But to act as if Dunn hasn't made some improvements this year would be a disservice to his game, and his perimeter shooting as of late definitely deserves a closer look.

In the Bulls OT win over the Wizards on Wednesday, Dunn attempted a career-high seven 3-point shots. And much, much more important than the fact that he took seven attempts from deep was just how went about taking them.

By my count, two of his seven 3-point attempts on Wednesday were step-back 3-pointers—he made 1 of 2—a shot that it was extremely rare to see him take in year's past.

In Jim Boylen's offense Dunn does a lot of his work by running to Lauri Markkanen or Robin Lopez for handoff plays. And when the opponent runs hard to deny Dunn the ball you will occasionally see him reject the screen and take a one-dribble step back 3-point shot.

Dunn's form still makes his shot relaease a little bit slower than most, but with how far defenses sag off of him, even a slow-developing step back will do wonders for his offensive game.

Through 11 games in March, Dunn has shot 40 percent from the 3-point line on 35 attempts. His overall 3-point attempt rate has not increased in a meaningful way but simply hitting his open shots are half the battle since opponents are still going so far under the screen on him. He has clearly worked hard on his shot and has so far seen his 3-point accuracy increase every season of his career.

So with all this in mind, it is still too early to give up on Dunn as a long-term piece of this team.

As LaVine has taken on a larger role as a primary ballhandler and play initiator, Dunn has adjusted his game in turn, driving to the basket less and focusing more on keeping the ball moving.

With all the changes the Bulls went through this year, a full offseason of work with the current roster will make Dunn a little bit more sure of his role on the team, which will surely change even more depending on who the Bulls select in the 2019 NBA Draft and what they do in free agency.  

But if ultimately Dunn's role is that of a low-usage, defensive-minded player who doesn't have the ball in his hands—a la Shaq Harrison—then the path for him to contine to start next to LaVine is there. 

Though the catch-and-shoot numbers are worringly bad this season (28.8 percent), Dunn has taken strides a pull-up shooter. After shooting a solid 36 .2 percent on 58 pull-up 3-pointers in 2017-18, that figure is up to 45.7 percent, though only on 35 attempts through 45 games. 

The overarching point here is that if Dunn's improvement from 3-point range is real—which his career-best 79.1 percent free throw percentage would suggest—then we should expect a small increase next season as well. 

Ultimately, despite being underwhelming on offense overall due to poor finishing at the rim—26th percentile among "combo guards" via subscription-based site Cleaning the Glass—Dunn can actually increase his offensive value by shooting less, and that is why there should still be optimism in regards to Dunn. 

To fully flourish in the NBA, Dunn needs to be on the floor with players who will use up enough possesions to make him an overqualified fifth option, rather than a woefully underqualfied third or fourth option. Whether the Bulls draft another PG or not, next season will be huge for Dunn. 

Marcus Smart is a great example of the type of player Dunn can and should become on a winning team.

In 2018-19 Smart has a career-low 13.8 usage percentage. But by taking a step back on offense (in terms of overall shot attempts) and redirecting his shot profile to attempt more 3-point shots than 2-pointers, Smart is putting together the best season of his career in terms of offensive efficiency. Once the Bulls have added yet another intriuiging offensive talent, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Dunn's career won't take a similar turn. 

With Boylen as head coach, there will always be minutes for a player like Dunn, who gives maximum effort on defense even if a tad overzealous with his physicality. But Dunn's game is coming along, even if it seems like it isn't.

He is a late bloomer who has improved his plus/minus rating by 0.7 points amid another tough season.

When the games are bigger and the lights shine brighter on what many expect to be a much improved team next year, Dunn will be ready to take another big step forward whether he is playing next to LaVine or doing more work with the second unit. And that is because despite being open about the PG position, the Bulls orginization still believes in Dunn, which Boylen showed with his postgame comments on Wednesday:

"Kris Dunn is a hard worker who cares, tries and isn't afraid of the moment."

Nine things to watch for in the Bulls’ last nine games


Nine things to watch for in the Bulls’ last nine games

Let's get right into it. Nine things to watch in the Bulls' final nine games.

Shaq Harrison’s continued offensive approach

In case you weren’t aware, Shaq Harrison is becoming one of the best individual defenders in basketball. He’s become an invaluable part of Jim Boylen’s game plan, has filled in for both Zach LaVine and Otto Porter this week and is the strongest chain on an otherwise ugly Bulls defense.

We know about his defense. It’s the offense that we’ll want to keep on down the stretch. Assuming the Bulls remain cautious with LaVine and Porter, who are resting respective knee and shoulder ailments, expect Harrison to get a ton of run in the final nine games; he’s played 32 and 39 minutes the last two games, both of which were season-highs.

That means more shot attempts, more touches and more strong drives to the basket. Since Jan. 29, Harrison is shooting better than 50 percent from the field with outstanding shot selection. He’s never going to be more than a fourth or fifth option when he’s on the floor, but any sort of improvements he can make on that end will only make him more valuable, given what he’s able to accomplish as a defender.

The best-case scenario for Harrison? 8 points on 4 of 6 shooting with a handful of rebounds and assists and limited turnovers. We know the steals and hounding defense will be there.

Lauri Markkanen’s shooting touch

After breaking out of a long shooting slump in Wednesday’s overtime win against the Wizards, Lauri Markkanen said he had gone back and looked at tape and saw that he was fading away on some of his missed 3-pointers.

It was a pretty mature and pointed response when Markkanen simply could have given a run-of-the-mill answer about always believing in his shot and continuing to practice. The fact that he’s analyzing his game down to that level is a great sign for his future.

Now, of course, he has to make good on it. Even if Markkanen isn’t able to find his shooting touch in the final nine games his sophomore season will have been deemed a rousing success. But it would probably make him, the coaching staff, front office and fans feel a little better if he finishes out the season on a strong note from beyond the arc. He seems dedicated and committed to making it happen, so he’s already off to a good start.

Zach LaVine’s, Otto Porter’s health

Two different injuries, two different things to watch on this one.

Zach LaVine’s mentality that he’s already missed enough games in his career is valiant, and Otto Porter Jr. sure doesn’t sound like someone ready to pack it in. But the truth is the Bulls should be – and will be – extra cautious with dealing with these injuries down the stretch. Forget tanking and catching the Cavs, there’s no real benefit to having these guys play unless they’re 100 percent healthy.

LaVine and Porter have both shown what they can do, and the chemistry they built in February will carry over into next season. If anything, them sitting gives the front office a longer look at some other bench guys who may or may not stick with the team next season. It’s in everyone’s best interest that two key pieces to the Bulls’ core stay healthy and remain healthy heading into the offseason.

Cris Felicio’s baby steps

With Cameron Payne gone he’s been the butt of every tank joke, but Cris Felicio has shown a pulse over the two weeks that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It isn’t going to move the needle or change any part of the Bulls’ rebuild, but credit where it’s due: In his last six games Felicio has averaged 8.0 points on 63 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds in 16.3 minutes. That includes back-to-back double-digit point totals in his last two games – the first time he’s done that this season – and his first double-digit rebound game since last April.

He’s never going to be worth $8 million per year and he’s never going to have any trade value unless the Bulls attach an asset along with it, which they won’t. But as long as he’s on the roster he’s worth monitoring, and dare we say he’s actually deserving of these minutes? His defense is still as ugly as it’s been, but if he can have 8 and 5 nights and play in the teens, all the better.

They’re just baby steps, but for the first time in a long time Felicio appears to at least be heading in the right direction.

Back to the basics on defense

Remember when Jim Boylen took over, instilled that drill sergeant mentality into his team and it resulted in the Bulls doing an absolute 180 on defense? Yeah, about that.

In Boylen’s first month the Bulls actually ranked eighth in defensive efficiency. Seriously. They were better than the Warriors, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers in December. True, Zach LaVine missing some time, Jabari Parker getting tossed out of the rotation and a healthy Wendell Carter Jr. helped matters, but it was still an impressive showing.

That has wholly disappeared in 2019. Since the calendars flipped over the Bulls are 29th in defensive efficiency, second only to the Cavaliers. Perhaps as the Bulls offense has opened up it’s led to breakdowns on the other end, and they aren’t going to fix their woes in the final nine games, but some sort of improvement would be nice.

In their final nine games the Bulls will play teams ranked 15, 6, 5, 6, 30, 13, 8, 30 and 8 in offensive efficiency. That’s five games against top-10 offenses for those who have difficulty counting. It’ll be a challenge but these are also good tests for a Bulls defense that seems to have had trouble communicating. Nothing like getting thrown into the fire to see what you’ve got. They can only go up from here.

Wayne Selden playing for a spot somewhere

Remember the Wayne Selden hype train? It’s been a rough go for the former Grizzlies wing since a really nice stretch in late January and early February. But since the All-Star break Selden is averaging 8.2 points on 40 percent shooting and just 23 percent from beyond the arc. He continues to be a fluid player in transition and has solid court vision, but too often he’s playing on his own and is out of control on both ends.

Whether or not Selden is playing for the Bulls next season, these nine games are critical for his NBA future. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that as the Bulls have slowed down the pace, Selden’s numbers haven’t been as good. That’s all the more reason for him to push in transition when he can to try to knock him out of this funk he’s been in. He’s had his moments but the consistency just hasn’t been there.

Will the pace keep picking up?

Jim Boylen slowed things down to a snail’s pace when he first took over in December, wanting the Bulls to take care of the ball, dirty up games to stay competitive longer and work inside-out. But over time he’s continued to give the young Bulls some more freedom to get out and run.

Here’s how the Bulls have ranked in pace under Boylen, by month:

December: 26th, 96.4 possessions
January: 23rd, 98.8 possessions
February: 20th, 99.8 possessions
March: 18th, 100.3 possessions

It’s a glowing trend to see, and even though he insists on playing a ridiculous amount of stretches with the ball going down to Robin Lopez on the block, the Bulls are still moving it around for a 48-minute stretch. Remember, pace doesn’t just mean wild 3-pointers and fast break opportunities. They’ve been more decisive and it’s shown. Hopefully those possessions stay on the rise in the final nine games.

The scoreboard

Let’s be honest. It’s impossible not to look at what the Cavaliers are doing. They’ve won eight of their last 15 games and that’s included victories over Orlando, Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee. So even though the Cavs have a difficult schedule down the stretch, they look ready to compete.

So whether you’re part of the 14 percent club or believe that it’s all up to chance so who cares, monitoring Cavs games is critical. As it stands, the Bulls are two games up in the win column on Cleveland with nine games to play (the Cavs have 10 left). It doesn’t seem like the Bulls will “catch” the Cavs, especially with two games left against the Knicks, but keep your eye on those Cavs scores.