Outside of maximizing their draft lottery odds, what exactly are the Bulls playing for over the final 35 games of the NBA season?
Wendell Carter Jr.’s rookie season is most likely over after going through surgery to repair ligament damage to his left thumb, so the 19-year old center won’t be able to continue to develop his offensive game. Carter did show enough in his 44 games to convince the front office he will be an important part of the team’s future.
Before we hit the trade deadline on February 7th the Bulls could ship out two of their veteran players in Robin Lopez and Jabari Parker which would move largely unproven players into backup roles.
Still, with almost half of the schedule left to be played there are several important things for the front office to learn about the roster and the coaching staff.
1. Should Jim Boylen be brought back next season? Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson told reporters the plan is for Boylen to be the coach next season, but as we all know, plans can change. Zach LaVine’s comments last weekend about the team getting blown out too often after playing competitively early in the season had to resonate with the front office. If the Bulls limp to the finish line and fall short of the 20 victory mark, Paxson and general manager Gar Forman will have to take a long, hard look on whether they can start Year 3 of the rebuild with the same coaching staff in place.
2. Is Kris Dunn the PG of the future? The Bulls were high on Dunn dating back to the 2016 draft when he was selected 5th overall by Minnesota. They thought about swinging a deal for the Providence All-American that year, and eventually did acquire him on draft night 2017 in the Jimmy Butler trade. Dunn has shown flashes of being a solid NBA starter, especially on the defensive end, but his lack of consistency and availability (due to injuries) will probably bring considerable debate in the Advocate Center offices on whether to offer the 3rd year guard a big money extension of his rookie contract this summer. Forman has already been seen in college arenas twice over the past week scouting Murray St. PG Ja Morant, who could wind up being the 3rd pick in the 2019 draft. Dunn needs to have a strong finish to the season to convince the Bulls’ decision makers that he’s the right man to direct the offense long term.
3. Can Dunn, LaVine & Lauri Markkanen co-exist? The three players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota haven’t had much time to play together because of injuries, but the analytics show they aren’t very successful over the minutes they have shared the court. Both Dunn and LaVine are at their best when playing on the ball, which means all too often Markkanen has a tough time getting consistent touches. The Bulls’ coaching staff and front office will be watching closely over the final two and a half months to see if the threesome can co-exist or if a trade might be necessary to improve offensive efficiency.
4. Is Bobby Portis still worth a lucrative contract extension? The Bulls worked with Portis’ agent right up to the opening night deadline with hopes of extending the 4th year forward-center. Reportedly, the Bulls made a very competitive offer on a 4-year contract, but Portis and his agent decided to roll the dice and see if he might do better as a restricted free agent this summer. Problem is, Portis has already missed two long stretches of the season because of knee and ankle injuries, which could hurt his value in a crowded 2019 free agent market. The Bulls will have to evaluate his play over the final 35 games and decide if a good shooting 6th man is worth a 4 year contract that could fall anywhere from 48 to 64 million dollars.
5. Is Chandler Hutchison a starting caliber SF? The Bulls are happy with Hutchison’s growth over the first half of the season, but questions remain about his ability to shoot consistently from the outside. On a team lacking consistent 3 point shooting, can the Bulls afford to start a non-shooter at a position that normally features a primary scoring threat? With the Bulls hoping to land Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett in the draft and possibly making a run at free agent SF Tobias Harris, they’ll want to have a better idea of where Hutchison fits in the rebuilding puzzle by season’s end.
So, when you’re watching the final 35 games and our pre and post-game coverage on NBC Sports Chicago and the My Teams by NBC Sports app, these are some of the areas to focus on that go far beyond winning or losing that night’s game.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
When training camp began in late September, Paxson told the assembled media the Bulls were healthy and 2 deep at every position. As we all know, that blew up almost immediately with Markkanen suffering a serious elbow injury in one of the first practices, Denzel Valentine being lost for the season to ankle reconstruction surgery and Dunn and Portis going out in the opening weeks of the regular season with knee sprains.
The Bulls were hoping to show the kind of progress we’ve seen in Sacramento and Brooklyn this season. Both of those teams have gone through long stretches of losing basketball, but they’re finally coming out on the other side. Sacramento is over the .500 mark for the season with 2nd year PG De’Aaron Fox looking like a future star, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic scoring on the wing, and young forwards Marvin Bagley III and Justin Jackson still in development mode. Kings’ coach Dave Joerger has done a terrific job getting his young squad to play with pace and believe in each other. Plus, Sacramento will have significant cap space this summer to try to add a veteran star to a team on the rise.
The situation looks even brighter in Brooklyn, where the Nets currently hold the 6th playoff spot in the East, own two 1st round picks in the upcoming draft and have the potential to offer two max contracts in free agency,
In case you didn’t know, the Nets have won 17 of their last 22 games and their improvement hasn’t been lost on the rest of the league. Head coach Kenny Atkinson told Newsday’s Barbara Baker, “Hopefully, there’s really talk among players in the league, like ‘hey that’s a neat place to go to.’ “They care for their players. It’s a positive culture, a collaborative culture. You really want players to talk about that, to say that’s a place I’d love to go.”
Baker wrote dramatic improvement engineered by Atkinson in his 3 seasons in Brooklyn could outweigh the lure of Madison Square Garden when the Nets and Knicks compete for the elite free agents available this summer. If Kevin Durant would seriously consider signing with the Knicks, why wouldn’t he jump at the chance to bring another elite free agent with him to a team on the rise in nearby Brooklyn?
The progress made by organizations like the Kings and Nets will only make things more difficult for the Bulls when they try to recruit free agents in July.
Klay Thompson was at it again Monday night in Los Angeles, making his first 10 three point attempts against the Lakers to tie an NBA record and finishing with 44 points in just 27 minutes.
Bulls’ fans witnessed another Thompson explosion back in October when he knocked down an NBA record 14 threes and didn’t play in the 4th quarter. Surprisingly, Thompson hasn’t shot the ball exceptionally well for the season, but it looks like he and Draymond Green are back in peak form after slow starts.
The Warriors have won 8 in a row, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are playing at MVP level, they’ve got another former All-Star in the line-up with DeMarcus Cousins at center and they’ve taken over 1st place in the West.
Barring injury, it’s hard to imagine any team beating Golden State in a best of 7 series come playoff time.
Finally, January 22nd holds special significance for a couple of recent events. Back in 2006, Kobe Bryant exploded for 81 points against the Raptors, which ranks as the 2nd highest single game total in NBA history, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain’s incomprehensible 100 point performance.
Closer to home, January 22nd, 2010 is the night Derrick Rose unleashed that iconic two hand thunder dunk on top of Suns’ guard Goran Dragic. It definitely ranks as one of the signature moments in Rose’s career and the classic call by Stacey King has been replayed locally and nationally hundreds of times. Check it out on our website when you get a chance. I guarantee it will still bring a smile to your face.