Bulls

Why the Bulls are better off not being invited to the NBA bubble

Why the Bulls are better off not being invited to the NBA bubble

Coby White could deliver some mojo again. Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen could continue their progress after returning from injuries. Zach LaVine, well, could be Zach LaVine.

There would certainly be basketball-related benefits if the Bulls wind up one of the teams invited to conclude the NBA’s 2019-20 season in Orlando, Fla.

Having the new management regime watch players in live action and avoiding a nine-month layoff between games should the league begin the 2020-21 season on Christmas Day (as the current scuttlebutt says), represent a few.

But all those positives pale to one significant potential drawback, safety concerns (of which there are many) aside: jeopardizing the Bulls’ draft lottery position.

With the league set for another Board of Governors call on Friday as it nears proposing a suggested return-to-play policy, finalizing the format for the draft lottery is one of many fluid situations. Nothing is yet guaranteed other than — bad joke alert — the Bulls drafting seventh.

Indeed, when COVID-19 shut down the sports world in mid-March, the Bulls ranked seventh in the draft lottery standings. That translates to a 32 percent chance at a top-four pick and a 7.5 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. 

And while that doesn’t translate to a 100 percent chance at the seventh pick… Man. That the Bulls currently sit No. 7 — where they have drafted White, Wendell Carter Jr. and acquired the rights to Markkanen over the last three drafts — feels twistedly poetic.

Simply put, weak draft or not, a higher pick is more beneficial to the new front office regime than some fluky playoff run. Sorry, Jim Boylen.

Think about it: Say the league invites the top 24 teams to Orlando and the Bulls, currently 11th in the Eastern Conference, make the trip. The best case scenario? The Bulls get hot, build up a bit of good will and, who knows, maybe even advance a round. But their long-term fates don’t change. And if the NBA eventually models a revised lottery formula for this season in a manner similar to the NHL — which awards lottery odds to teams excluded from their play-in round, and teams that are eliminated in the play-in round, regardless of regular season standing — it could hurt their chances at a higher pick significantly, if not erase them entirely.

To be clear, there is currently no indication of the NBA molding its own lottery formula after the NHL’s. In fact, there is nothing concrete on that front to report at all. 

Still, for a team mired in a rebuild that needs to maximize its assets, the above would not be a good development.

And all of that’s without mentioning the flipside of a potential trip to Disney World for the Bulls. What if more than a month of potentially high-risk travel and training to retake the floor results in a quick flameout — or merely a handful of meaningless regular season games? Any evaluation that could be conducted over that period, which would be colored by the unprecedented circumstances at hand, simply isn’t worth the cost.

So be careful what you wish for, Bulls fans. Yes, everybody is starved for basketball. And, yes, the Bulls were supposed to be done tanking a while ago.

But this is one time when not getting invited to the party could be a good thing.

RELATED: Where the Bulls stand in each of the NBA’s reported resumption plans 

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How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

Every weekday for the next three weeks, NBC Sports Chicago will be breaking down the 15 full-time players on the Bulls' roster, with each week featuring a different position groups. First up is the guards, and to kick it off, Zach LaVine, who took another seismic step in his sixth season.

2019-20 Stats

25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG | 45% FG, 38% 3P, 80.2% FT | 31.2% USG

Contract Breakdown

July 2018: Signed 4-year, $78 million contract (two years, $39 million remaining)

2020-21: $19,500,000 | 2021-22: $19,500,000 | 2022-23: UFA

Strengths

LaVine is a prolific and multi-faceted scorer, and he does it in every way you’d want from a modern offensive star. His career-high 25.5-point-per-game scoring average (12th in the NBA) in 2019-20 came on a steady diet of 3s (38% on 8.1 attempts per game; 36.4% on a high volume of pull-ups) and layups (8.1 restricted area attempts per game, third among guards), many of which were high-difficulty in the Bulls’ cramped offense. He carried a top-10 load, but his production wasn’t all volume and empty calories. Among 13 qualified players with usage rates north of 30%, LaVine currently slots fifth in effective field goal percentage (52.6%), and the Bulls’ offense was 3.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor — an 80th percentile mark, per Cleaning the Glass.

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With his head down, he’s near impossible to stay in front of, he can jump out of the gym and fire from the logo. When all of that works in concert — as it did in his 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte, among other explosive performances — he’s virtually unguardable, and the show marched on with remarkable consistency this season. LaVine started 60 of the Bulls’ 65 games in 2019-20, and scored 20+ points in 45; he logged more 30-point outings (18) than any other Bull had 20-pointers, and his six 40-point nights ranked fifth in the NBA. And talents come with an edge — consider that the Charlotte outburst came one night after being pulled from a game for "three egregious defensive mistakes."

Add strides as a defender, playmaker and locker-room leader to all of the above, and we’re talking about a burgeoning star in the league. At 25, his prime lies ahead, and he's gotten better in each of his two full seasons since tearing his ACL in 2017.

Areas to Improve

We have to start on the defensive end, a favorite of LaVine detractors and generally a mixed bag. The good: In 2019-20, LaVine displayed both willingness to consistently engage on that end of the floor, and the athleticism to hound passing lanes and hang with certain wings on-ball — all of which resulted in him posting career-high steal (2%) and block (1.3%) rates. Undeniable improvements, albeit in an aggressive, turnover-happy system. But the bad: Occasional lapses off-ball and on help rotations persisted, and the Bulls’ defense was 10 points per 100 possessions worse with LaVine on the floor this season. There’s noise in there — the Bulls’ most-used lineup featured LaVine and had a 97.1 defensive rating, he’s not destructive — but ominous nonetheless.

On the offensive end, there are two holes to poke. The big one lies in his playmaking. Of that same 13-player 30-plus-percent usage sample, LaVine ranks 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.23), ahead of only Joel Embiid, and 11th in assist rate (21.8%). Inextricable from those numbers is how battered down and ineffective most of the offensive options around him were all season, which allowed opponents to hurl double-teams at LaVine on a nightly basis. Still, as the centerpiece of the offense, there’s room to grow in the halfcourt consistently executing pick-and-roll reads and not succumbing to one-track mindedness on drives. Despite memorable flashes, LaVine's overall numbers in the clutch (33% FG, four total assists) lagged this season, in part due to the above factors. 

And a knit-pick: his foul-drawing. Given how frequently LaVine gets to the cup, and how much the ball is in his hands, you might want to see him average more than 5.6 free throw attempts per game — not a paltry figure, but just outside the most notorious offensive boons in the league. Some of that relies on getting whistles, but attracting contact on drives is an acquired skill. It’s the easiest way for him to bump his scoring into the high 20s or low 30s per game.

Ceiling Projection

Right now, LaVine’s production makes his contract inordinately team-friendly; he’s the only non-rookie-contract player in the league averaging more than 25 points per game and making less than $25 million, annually. There’s two years remaining on that deal, and LaVine will want big money at the end of it, possibly even a max. Does his ceiling match what that type of commitment connotes? That’s a decision the Bulls will need to make soon. 

Given what he's shown, there's no reason LaVine shouldn’t continue to blossom into a perennial top-5-to-10 scorer, and All-Star, as he moves through his prime. Whether he can drive winning basketball in Chicago probably depends most on the deck-shuffling the Bulls’ new front office regime enacts. At least individually, he appears ready for it.

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Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

Every Monday for the next five weeks, NBC Sports Chicago will be counting the best 10 Bulls players at each position in franchise history.

First up, the point guards.

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Here, there are a wide array of specialties. The rugged defense of Ricky Sobers and Norm Van Lier. The sharp shooting of John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong. The unmatched athleticism of Derrick Rose. And so much more.

All of which is to say, none of these rankings are sure to be easy — especially for a franchise as storied as the Bulls. But here goes nothing.

Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

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