Bulls

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

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USA Today

Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen trying to become dynamic duo for Bulls

Jim Boylen once worked for the Rockets. Now, the Bulls are playing like them.

OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration, obviously. For starters, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are proven All-Stars, while Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are trying to get there. The Rockets also clearly have an established offensive pecking order, while the Bulls’ equal opportunity system has produced some moments of drifting for LaVine and Markkanen.

And no team takes more 3-pointers or field goals earlier in the shot clock than the Rockets, who also only trail the Timberwolves in pace.

But after detailing his desire to break the Bulls’ offense down before building it back up, Boylen now has the personnel for his plan. The Bulls rank 15th in pace, eighth in fast-break points and, if shooters start matching their career numbers, could become a consistent 3-point threat.

As of Friday morning, the Bulls trailed only the Rockets and Bucks in 3-point attempts and led the league in attempts less than 5 feet. Somewhere, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey nods approvingly.

“We’re trying to do that style,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of taking less (mid-range shots). I still shoot the ones that are open. But it’s the style of play we want, and we’re going to work it.”

The Bulls rank tied for 22nd in 3-point percentage at 33.3 percent, just ahead of the Rockets’ 33 percent. At 6.3 attempts, LaVine is shooting the second-most of his career per game and connecting on 38.6 percent, above his career mark of 37.4 percent.

Markkanen entered this season as a career 36.2 percent 3-point shooter and has connected at just 30.4 percent this season. Otto Porter Jr., who is sidelined indefinitely with a sprained left foot, entered the season as a career 40.5 percent 3-point shooter and has recently overcome a slow start to pull to 40 percent.

“We have really good 3-point shooters on the team, LaVine said. “If you start slow eventually the numbers will average out, get you where you’re supposed to be at. I feel like I’m shooting the ball pretty well. Otto, before he hurt himself, got really hot in that Atlanta game. His shot started to come on. Lauri made a couple threes, so it’s picking up.’’

What also needs to pick up is LaVine and Markkanen forming a consistent 1-2 punch. The Rockets pretty much know what they’re going to get from Harden and Westbrook every night. Too often it seems if LaVine dominates, Markkanen doesn’t. And vice versa.

In theory, the duo should work perfectly — two players with shooting range and a broad offensive package. Drive and kick. Pick and roll. Pick and pop. You name it, LaVine and Markkanen should have the offensive chops to achieve it.

“It seems like a match made in heaven. We just got to be able to be consistent together and both be dominant on the court at the same time,” LaVine said. “We know we can be a dynamic duo, with our shooting, our athletic ability to get to the hoop. We just have to put it into the game. We’ve seen it at points in the game sometimes---last year, this year---but we’ve just got to do it consistently.”

And in the fourth quarter. Every opponent knows the ball will be in the hands of Harden and Westbrook the most come crunch time. Harden’s fourth-quarter usage rate sits at 41.7 and Westbrook’s 29.4. LaVine is at 30.5, while Markkanen is at 23.1.

LaVine has been efficient in the fourth. His 53 points in the final period ranks 14th in the NBA. Harden’s 69 fourth-quarter points ranks fourth, while Westbrook’s 59 points sits 10th.

“I'm not trying to force too many things. Obviously when I feel like I need to try to take over, be aggressive, I do that and I feel like that's the right thing,” LaVine said. “I know I'm still pretty high up in fourth-quarter scoring. I feel like I've been pretty efficient. I haven't been as efficient as I was last year, but it's early on in the season. If I can get my field-goal percentage up about six percentage points, I'll be where I was last year. Just continue to work on little things.”

Indeed, part of the responsibility of establishing an offensive pecking order falls on the player. Markkanen in particular is more effective late when he runs the floor hard or rebounds early. Players have to earn teammates’ trust and aggressively pursue shots.

For now, Boylen wants LaVine to focus on being a more complete player.

“I thought Zach was tremendous the other night,” Boylen said of LaVine’s performance in Atlanta. “He let it come to him. He had (four) assists, five deflections and two steals. And we won. I’ve been asking him to be a complete player. And, to me, he’s working towards that. And he’s working hard.”

LaVine only scored 10 points on 10 shots that game but engaged defensively and didn’t force matters. That the game was a blowout and his offensive aggressiveness wasn’t needed in the fourth quarter helped.

“As long as we get the win, obviously, I'm cool with it,” LaVine said of 10 shots. “I'm going to continue the way I'm supposed to. I feel like I played the right way. I got my teammates involved. I played really good defense. I know we'll need my scoring against Houston, though, so I'll be aggressive.”

That’s the right approach as well.

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How the Utah Jazz provide precedent for the Bulls' front office revamp

How the Utah Jazz provide precedent for the Bulls' front office revamp

In 2012, the Utah Jazz hired Dennis Lindsey as general manager, moving Kevin O’Connor into the executive vice president of basketball operations role.

O’Connor ran basketball operations for the Jazz for 13 seasons, making the playoffs nine times and ranking among the league leaders in home attendance throughout his run.

Lindsey took over seamlessly, using O'Connor as a resource when needed but possessing full autonomy while consistently wringing maximum production out of a small market franchise. He executed a similar succession plan in 2019 when he promoted Justin Zanik to general manager while assuming the title of executive vice president of basketball operations himself. 

The coincidence in the Bulls’ search for a new head of basketball operations isn’t as much that Zanik interviewed Monday and is considered a finalist for the job. It’s that Paxson and O’Connor enjoy a respectful professional relationship, and the family ownership structures and philosophies of the Jazz and Bulls are similar.

The Reinsdorfs, like the leaguewide perception of Jazz ownership, are known for running the business side and letting basketball operations do their jobs. 

No matter how many times it gets reported that Paxson is fine with moving into a senior advisory role like O’Connor did, a portion of a disgruntled fan base remains skeptical. It’s understandable. The Reinsdorfs are known for their loyalty and Paxson, along with Gar Forman, who has held the general manager title since 2009, has headed basketball operations for 17 years. 


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But the perception that Paxson will be some hovering presence, going kicking and screaming into the night, is simply wrong. Early this season, Paxson communicated his vision to ownership for a new-look, more modern front office. He initiated some of this need for change.

Michael Reinsdorf likely would have arrived at the same conclusion anyway and has taken the reins on addressing the issue. Well before news broke over All-Star weekend, he began performing due diligence and background on a wide variety of candidates.

What is getting lost sometimes in this story — but is perhaps is the most significant aspect to it — is the fact the Bulls are going outside their organization to hire a new head of basketball operations. This is unprecedented. 

Jerry Krause actually briefly served as Bulls director of player personnel in the 1970s and knew Jerry Reinsdorf well from baseball scouting circles when Reinsdorf tabbed him to run basketball operations in 1985. And Reinsdorf promoted Paxson from the radio booth to succeed Krause in 2003. 

Neither Zanik, nor Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, nor any of the other targeted names on Reinsdorf’s list —  some of whom are staying with their current franchises — have ties to the Bulls. Only Magic assistant general manager Matt Lloyd does, and if he is hired, it will likely be by the new basketball operations head as that person builds out his infrastructure.

Paxson knows the organizational history. He knows the city. He knows how to communicate with the Reinsdorfs. His goal, simply, will be to help whomever the Reinsdorfs hire succeed.

Zanik, in his days as a player agent, worked with Paxson and general manager Gar Forman and almost certainly would view Paxson as a resource, not a roadblock. 

Paxson already holds the title of executive vice president, basketball operations. So whatever his new title is will represent one difference between when O’Connor hired Lindsey.

This new Bulls’ hire isn’t being hired as a general manager like Lindsey originally was. He’s being hired to run basketball operations and will be given authority to make additional hires if he sees fit as he builds out the organizational infrastructure. In fact, in his new role, Paxson wouldn’t even likely be at the Advocate Center daily.

The Jazz’s succession plan worked then, and it works now. O’Connor, who now owns a senior advisor title, offers whatever input is needed on major decisions.

Paxson will, too — if this new hire wants to use him. If he doesn’t, Paxson cares enough about the organization and the Reinsdorfs to take as small a role as the new hire wants. 

It’s as simple as that.

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Bulls questions: How should the Bulls pitch potential front office candidates?

Bulls questions: How should the Bulls pitch potential front office candidates?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term | What happened to Lauri Markkanen?

The Bulls’ formal search for a new head of basketball operations began this week, and developments so far serve as a crucial reminder of two things:

  1. This is as much an interview of the Bulls as it is for the Bulls

  2. We are currently experiencing a staggeringly unprecedented time in NBA history

What developments drive those points home? Well, the Bulls entered the first weekend of April with four primary interview targets — Denver Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas, Toronto Raptors GM Bobby Webster, Indiana Pacers GM Chad Buchanan and Miami Heat assistant GM Adam Simon — for their lead executive spot. They entered Tuesday with just one of those four left on the market: Karnisovas, though Justin Zanik rose from the ashes with reports that the Utah Jazz general manager conducted a virtual interview for the gig Monday afternoon.

The reason for the inaccessibility of the other three isn’t a matter of public record, but based on pertinent reporting, we can infer a fair amount. Buchanan withdrew consideration first for reasons relating to his comfort level and “strong personal situation” in Indiana, according to our K.C. Johnson. Then, on Monday, seemingly in one fell swoop, Webster and Simon were off the board, as well. 

Some rushed to categorize these developments as slaps in the face — surefire signs that talk of the substantive change many are hoping for was smoke and mirrors. And that’s a valid first instinct to have. But the reality is greater are forces in some part at play. In the case of Webster, specifically, Michael Grange of Sportsnet reported a litany of reasons for the Raptors planning to reject the Bulls’ interview request — ranging from uncertainty surrounding the team’s impending free agents to the expiration of both president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse’s contracts after the 2020-21 season. With so much uncertainty in the post-coronavirus NBA landscape, can you blame Toronto for not letting their brightest young mind stroll out the door to interview for his (sort of) hometown team? Or Webster for passing up a chance to potentially grab the reins in Toronto down the road?

This is not to dismiss all skepticism. Despite a storied history, the Bulls are no longer an organization of enough repute to pluck top-tier talent from top-tier organizations at will — player, coach or front office. As much as these issues are more complicated than we often make them out to be, that dynamic is inescapable. 


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So, how should the Bulls navigate this search — one that is so crucial for the fate of this rebuild and future of the franchise? Beginning interviews when they did is a good start. The faster the onboarding process moves, the more time the new hire will have to pass judgement on every layer of the Bulls organization, and set into motion subsequent hires and transactions. If the NBA does find a way to resume its regular season (not likely it seems, but also not impossible) and they’re able to get an intimate look at the Bulls’ day-to-day operations and game action before the offseason, all the better.

Then, there’s the pitch — again, this is as much an interview of the Bulls as for them. Contrary to popular cynicism, this team can put together an attractive one for accomplished candidates.

For one, any new hire coming in walks right into a pretty flexible roster situation, in spite of this team being locked in as-is for the 2020-21 season. While the salary cap ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet known, these books beyond the 2020-21 season are about as clean as one could hope for (figures via Spotrac):

  2020-21 2021-22 2022-23 2023-24
Total Cap Allocations $106,027,707 $65,249,867 $9,344,636 $0
Signed Players 13 8 2 0

That 2021-22 column is one many will be focused on: The summer of Giannis. Lauri Markkanen’s impending extension looms over that ~$65 million figure, but that number also includes fully guaranteeing the third years on Thad Young ($6 million partial guarantee) and Tomas Satoransky’s ($5 million partial guarantee) contracts, picking up Ryan Arcidiacono’s third-year $3 million club option, inking Chandler Hutchison’s two-year team option and a couple other extenuating factors. Even if the cap stayed static at roughly $109 million (or takes a slight dip) through then, that's a hefty amount of room.

This isn’t meant to be a cap-dissection column, but the point is: The crucial cogs on this team are young and cost-controlled — to the extent the Bulls wish them to be — on rookie deals. On the court this season, we saw the detriments of having the third-youngest roster in the NBA. These are the benefits.

And speaking of youth, whatever your gripes with the John Paxson/Gar Forman era, they didn’t frivolously throw away first round picks. The Bulls own all of their first round selections for the foreseeable future, so they won’t be working entirely from behind in that respect, á la the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets of the mid-2010s. They’re due for another top-10 selection this season, albeit in what many consider an underwhelming draft.

Market considerations matter, as well. The Bulls haven’t been a free agent destination for some time, but the franchise’s tradition and top-notch facilities do mean something for prospective candidates Zooming/Skyping in and envisioning the infrastructure they’ll attempt to build.

Of course, devil’s advocate must be played. While this job is more desirable on its face than many give it credit for, it’s not a utopian situation. The biggest hurdle in that regard are questions about the power structure — chiefly, if Paxson and (to a lesser extent) Forman will truly cede full autonomy to the new hire. Many interpreted the early exits of Buchanan and Simon from consideration for the job as an indication that we might be in for more of the same in that regard.

For what it’s worth, Paxson reportedly played a part in initiating this search in the first place and has also reportedly expressed an intent to fully comply with the new hire’s desired role for him — however involved or absent that may be. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the new hire is interviewing for Paxson's title. Even all of that won’t be satisfactory to some, but it’s the state of affairs. We know at least that this ownership group is not one notorious for over-meddling in basketball operations.

Further, that question of the true nature of the Bulls power structure ripples through every layer of the decision-making process for candidates. If full autonomy really means full autonomy, the new hire can come in assured they will be afforded the opportunity to assess and reshuffle the Bulls organization from top to bottom — from roster to coaching staff to scouting department and beyond — and move freely in whatever direction they so choose. If this hire is to be nailed, preserving that dynamic is crucial.

From there leads into another hurdle, which could actually be viewed as a perk, depending on your perspective. Most agree this Bulls’ core is talented, albeit underachieving to this point. But even the most optimistic of evaluators wouldn’t peg any of the team’s current core — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. or Coby White — as slam-dunk, transcendent, franchise-altering stars at this point. For that reason, there’s a non-zero chance whoever this new hire is is going to have to get creative and make some difficult decisions on who to prioritize and invest in at some point in their tenure, perhaps even early on.

That could prove difficult to be sure, but the hope is that any talented executive — young or veteran — would embrace such a challenge. Isn’t that what one gets into the business for? The thrill of the rebuild? It’s in situations such as the one the Bulls can present that executives dream of walking into: Clean books, some young talent, a balanced draft budget and full control of every strata of the organization.

For all of that to be executed well, you need a 'dispassionate evaluator' in the big chair — a term I picked up from this feature on Minnesota Timberwolves executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

What does a dispassionate evaluator look like in the Bulls' case? Someone who, say, didn’t live and die by every Markkanen 20-10 game in February 2019. Someone who is unbothered by letting Kris Dunn walk inviting the perception of ‘losing’ the Jimmy Butler trade. Someone who can cooly and rationally look at the situation before them and do what is necessary to accelerate the Bulls’ path to contention.

All of this is to say, even with a number of prospective candidates already out of the running, the Bulls are not in a bad spot — not yet is it time to sound alarms. This week, two external, veteran and accomplished GMs with experience building relationships, management structures and winning programs will weigh what the Bulls have to offer them from a personal and career perspective.

The good news is, the Bulls might just have more to offer than you’d think — at least on paper.

RELATED: Bulls Talk Podcast: Bulls search for new front office member begins 

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