January in the NBA can be filled with dog days. Fittingly, then, your questions had some extra bite this week:
Q: One player on the Bulls gets to take an offensive leap. Kris Dunn finds his 3-point shot. Lauri Markkanen takes advantage of his newfound muscle and gets a good post-up game. Wendell Carter Jr. gets to use his passing ability and runs the offense from the elbow. Zach LaVine levels up his court vision/passing. Tomas Satoransky becomes an isolation threat. Otto Porter Jr. stays healthy. Which one do you choose to unlock the Bulls offense? – Tristan C.
A: This is in the team picture for best question I’ve ever received — and I did my first Bulls mailbag for the Chicago Tribune back in 1996. Seriously, this is just a really good question and hard to answer. For me, it’s between Satoransky and LaVine and here’s why:
The Bulls, as they are playing offensively and with this roster, desperately need a point guard who can beat defenses off the dribble, get into the lane and spray out to shooters. That would put defenses into scramble mode, which rarely happens when the Bulls are in halfcourt offense. Satoransky is a wonderful player, the kind of guy any team would want. He’s versatile, selfless, makes the right play more often than not and can shoot enough to keep defenses honest. But he’s not an isolation player or someone who consistently breaks down defenses.
As for LaVine, the NBA is a star-driven league. And, as the Bulls are currently constructed, he needs to be their No. 1 star. I read your “court vision and passing” and broadened it to decision-making. LaVine is an excellent scorer. If he improved his decision-making to elite status, it would benefit the offense.
I’d probably give the slight edge to Satoransky — or any point guard — becoming an isolation threat because that would also benefit LaVine. Too often, defenses load up on him, particularly in big moments, because the Bulls lack shot creators.
Q: Why does Jim Boylen sub out Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen at the same time? It’s evident that one of the two should remain on the floor as much as possible. For example, in the last five games, the lineup of Satoransky-Coby White-Kris Dunn-Thad Young-Daniel Gafford has a minus-17.5 net rating. What am I missing? – Nick W.
A: He has stopped doing this as much, staggering starters minutes to keep at least one of them on the floor. LaVine and Markkanen are both in five of the six most-used five-man units this season. But you’re right that the offense is (even more) of a train wreck when both are off the floor. Against the Pelicans, the Bulls were minus-7 in the close to four first-half minutes they both were off the floor.
I’ll say this and have been saying this awhile: Markkanen needs to play more. Perhaps his minutes are down a bit in the Pelicans game because he’s fighting through that sore left ankle. But otherwise, he should be at 34 minutes, minimum, nightly.
Q: Do you think the Bulls will make a move at the trade deadline? – Hamza B.
If you’re asking do they move one of the identified core pieces of the rebuild, I’d say no. If you’re asking do they move a Denzel Valentine or possibly Thad Young, I say yes — if, obviously, the right deal materializes. They’re not looking to give away Young. But if he brings back the right return, they’d move him. Valentine has fallen out of the rotation again, so he’s certainly available. Teams looking to make deep playoff runs are always looking for shooting. I could see a team like the 76ers kicking the tires on a trade for Valentine.
Q: Everyone is begging for more Daniel Gafford minutes, which is likely now with Wendell Carter Jr.’s injury. I hear that. But two years ago, we were desperate for more Lauri Markkanen minutes. Last year we were desperate for more Carter minutes. Both those bigs have failed to progress. Why can't the Bulls develop their bigs? And in general, development seems stalled across the board. Some of that is on the players, but any insight in how position coaches are working with our bigs? It’s really frustrating to watch. – Casey A.
I’d disagree that Carter has failed to progress. Obviously, until his ankle setback, he had benefitted from staying healthy. His rookie season got cut short to 44 games because of thumb surgery. But he has become a more willing shooter and his defense, while strong last season, has taken another step as far as IQ and court presence. He also has 17 double-doubles and is almost averaging a double-double. His rebounding is up 2.9 per game.
This is a new staff. Roy Rogers is working a lot with the big men. He received some credit for Clint Capela’s rise in Houston.
Q: With Gafford about to get more playing time, is it time to add "...to Daniel" to your Twitter bio alliteration?
Watching Luka Doncic singlehandedly control Monday's game was incredible. What a difference a true superstar makes in the NBA. Hoping Zach or someone else on the roster takes that next step eventually. I guess it's a futile question. But if the lottery balls bounced differently and the Bulls ended up in the Kings spot, would they have taken Luka or Marvin Bagley III at No. 2? - Brendan G.
A: I’m sticking with “. . . to Denzel” for my final “D” until Valentine is gone. Thanks for reading so closely through.
Yes, Doncic is something, one of those generational talents that, if healthy, should keep the Mavericks relevant for a decade or more. He’s fun to watch. Remember when the Bulls had those guys?
The Bulls, like all teams, scouted Doncic heavily. They also were enamored with Bagley and Trae Young, who they had in for predraft workouts. My guess is they would’ve gone Bagley. Most of my reporting, then for the Chicago Tribune, leading up to that draft centered on them focused on big men. They wanted someone to pair with Markkanen. They also liked Jaren Jackson Jr. Maybe that would’ve changed if they had landed the No. 2 pick and done more work on Doncic. It’s impossible to say.
I do know this: He’d go No. 1 in the redraft.
Q: Do you think John Paxson, Gar Forman, and Jim Boylen will be back next year? What needs to happen this year for there to be changes? – Tim G.
A: You can’t do a Bulls mailbag without a fire GarPax question. I do think Paxson and Forman will return, though Forman’s title could change. He’s heavily into scouting now and doing so almost exclusively.
As I’ve written previously in this feature, I can see the Bulls adding to the front office next offseason and bringing in a respected, veteran voice. I can also see them adding to their scouting staff. They’ve actually slowly made changes to the front office over time, adding duties for Brian Hagen and Mike Wilhelm, and bringing on Doug Collins as a consultant.
As for Boylen, his relationship with ownership and management remains very strong, and he just signed an extension. So, yes, I expect him to return. The extension is small enough money-wise that if things became disastrous, that could lead to a scenario where the Bulls move off him. But even though it’s not showing up in the standings, the Bulls have played more competitively since Dec. 1. And management is pleased that Boylen is trying to establish a style of play at both ends, which, for now, is manifesting itself in improved defense.
Q: The Bulls’ real test in January has not gone well so far. They are now 1-15 in games against winning teams, and I see no reason for that to change. Could a super-long losing streak cost Boylen his job? It’s not all on him, but his poor coaching stands out more in these close losses/“moral victories”. If not, please tell me the team is open to re-signing Cameron Payne to command the Tank down the stretch. – Nick P.
A: That’s some solid humor at the end there. I’ll try some, now: I have as much a chance of replacing the injured Max Strus on a two-way contract as Boylen does of getting fired during this season.
Q: If the Bulls do decide to clean house this offseason, what do you think of the possibility of hiring B.J. Armstrong to replace John Paxson? Besides being a former Bulls player (Jerry Reinsdorf loves bringing back Bulls alumni), Armstrong worked under Jerry Krause in the Bulls front office before Krause resigned in April 2003. In addition, Armstrong could follow in the steps of other player agents who turned into front office executives, such as Bob Myers, Rob Pelinka and Arn Tellem. – Dan B.
A: Never say never in professional sports. But this is close to that. Armstrong and Reinsdorf have a solid relationship. But Reinsdorf’s respect for Paxson has only grown since he picked him over Armstrong back in 2003. I actually think Armstrong would be good in an executive role should he choose to pursue that again. For now, he’s dabbling some in media while still representing Derrick Rose.
Q: Wanted to get your take on this, the elusive winning mentality. Obviously, the Bulls don't have it. And when you look at the roster, really only Thad Young has played in and won big games in the NBA (including those overachieving Sixers who knocked out the Bulls after Derrick Rose got hurt). Maybe Tomas Satoransky if you count international play. So when the game is tight, they lose, partly because they collectively don't know how to get it done. How do they get there? I'm not convinced Jim Boylen knows what he's doing at all. But I think of the Thibs teams and, more accurately, the Skiles teams, and how hard they played and how they got over that hump and learned how to win games. A .500 NBA team is still a pretty good team, and they couldn't keep it up, especially without superstar talent. And you could tell they got burned out and started losing and then Skiles was gone. Because it's hard to win games in the NBA. But the Bulls clearly have the talent. Some guys had success in college but not Zach, the best player, and his T-Wolves teams got beat up all the time (still take him over Wiggins). Even Vinny Del Negro was .500 over two years. – Elijah H.
A: This question gets asked, oh, at least twice every postgame: How do you let the repetitive losing not creep into the mental state and become habitual? Players say the right things, but there’s certainly merit to your question. LaVine talked consistently during training camp about how he’s never played for a winning team and learning how to win was the next step for his progression. Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky were supposed to contribute to the Bulls overcoming this dynamic, but the issues go well beyond them. The Bulls, quite simply, are one of the league’s biggest stories as far as underachieving.
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