John Paxson

Bulls mailbag: How can the offense improve? Is a big trade coming?

Bulls mailbag: How can the offense improve? Is a big trade coming?

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 " 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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Bulls mailbag: Who is the real Lauri Markkanen? Could Kris Dunn be extended?

Bulls mailbag: Who is the real Lauri Markkanen? Could Kris Dunn be extended?

The Bulls didn’t play on Christmas Day for the third straight season, all the more time for you to fill up the inbox with questions.

When is Lauri Markkanen coming back to the team? – John K.

Right out of the gate, I sense sarcasm.

You mean the same Markkanen who is averaging 17 points on 50.3 percent shooting, including 39.8 percent from 3-point range, in 12 December games? And this is while Markkanen still is only averaging 32 minutes per game and taking 12 shots. Maybe that’s what you meant: When he is coming back to the team enough for his teammates to start looking for him? (It’s my turn for sarcasm now.)

Markkanen is averaging just 11.9 shots, his low for his young career. Even in his rookie season, he attempted 12.7 shots. Coaches have been staying on Markkanen to run the floor more aggressively and cut with more purpose in halfcourt sets. So some of it is on the mild-mannered Finn. But the Bulls absolutely have to do a better job of utilizing Markkanen, both in terms of playing time and attempts.

Is Otto Porter Jr. enough to turn this dumpster fire around? He'd probably be their second-best player right now with Lauri Markkanen’s regression. – Andrew D.

With all due respect to Porter, he can’t be the Bulls’ second-best player. The entire rebuild is centered on Zach LaVine and Markkanen reaching stardom. That said, Porter is a very high basketball IQ player on a team often lacking in the department. And he’d certainly help because of his ability to space the floor and his defense. But he’s nowhere close to returning.

Porter is still wearing a walking boot and is just two weeks into the latest four-week window for reassessment of his injured left foot, which now has a small fracture. Let’s say in best case scenario, he’s cleared to start doing on-court activity in two weeks. He’d need at least a week or two to get ready for a return. So he’s minimum three to four weeks from returning — and that’s best case scenario.

Have the Bulls entertained the thought of moving Denzel Valentine to a point forward role with the starters? - Cee J.

There’s no chance of this happening. And Valentine’s 5-minute stint in Monday’s loss to the Magic shows that he’s not completely off Jim Boylen’s short leash. Valentine missed four shots, some of them ill-advised, and didn’t play in the second half after his poor rotational turn.

Plus, starting Valentine would take Kris Dunn out of the lineup. Dunn’s ascension to a starting role has played a significant part of the Bulls posting a .500 record this month. Valentine at least has carved out a rotational role with his shooting and playmaking, although it will be intriguing to see if it continues if Porter and Chandler Hutchison ever are healthy again at the same time.

I’m a 10-year season ticket holder here and appreciate your coverage of the Bulls.  I read an article that suggested the Bulls might be close to pulling Gar Forman from the general manager job and moving him to a different front office/management role.  Do you think that’s a possibility? If so, I think it’s a scapegoat move and Michael Reinsdorf and John Paxson should know that fans will see through it.  This is clearly Paxson’s team and he should take full responsibility for its failure.  I don’t think this team’s core can be turned into a winner and I don’t think any free agents want to play for Paxson.  - Matt C.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the story.

The Sun-Times reported that Forman’s job may be in jeopardy. Our reporting suggested that while everything would be on the table after this season should the team’s fortunes not change, Forman would more likely than not keep a job, if not his title.

The title largely is ceremonial these days anyway. Paxson, as you point out, drove the rebuild and became the face of the franchise again. Forman is almost fully scouting now and rarely is around the team. His role has changed.

One scenario I could see happening is the Bulls adding someone with power to the front office, though I don’t think anything has been fully decided yet and this person would still fall under Paxson. As for Paxson taking responsibility, that’s exactly what he said in recent interviews with various media outlets. He said everything starts and ends with him, although he also indicated he still has belief in Jim Boylen and this core.

As for free agents not wanting to play for Paxson, the Bulls acquired their top two targets last offseason. Granted, Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky aren’t top-tier players. But if the Bulls ever started winning again, there’s plenty to sell. The practice facility is one of the league’s best. The city is attractive. The tradition of the franchise is too.

After the Derrick Rose injury of seven years ago and the Jimmy Butler trade of close to three years ago, what has stopped the Bulls from creating a winning culture? Is Paxson aware the fan base's patience is wearing thin? -Ed

Yes, he is and, again, he acknowledged as much in his round of interviews. That’s absolutely the difference to this season. The Bulls pointed to this season as one the team would become relevant again. The vision was to field a team the fans would get excited about again. That’s why, to this point, the inconsistent play and blown games have made this season feel so flat.

When will they find a player to pair with Zach LaVine that can get his own shot and create for others? I don’t think Coby White is there yet. Lauri can’t create and I think that’s why he’s inconsistent. Can’t throw it to him in the post either; that’s not his game. Thoughts? - Tyler B.

This absolutely is an issue. As solid as Satoransky has been, he’s not someone who consistently breaks down defenders off the dribble and turns defenses into scramble mode. White really is the only other player besides LaVine who can do this. And it’s telling that in some of the bigger fourth quarters this season — the road victory at Memphis, the home victory against the Knicks — White played a huge role and closed with LaVine.

I know this: LaVine is a big fan of White because of the defensive attention he demands.

Kris Dunn, Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison, Denzel Valentine and Coby White. Which three stay with the Bulls next season? SportyGuy, via Twitter

White and Arcidiacono have guaranteed deals so, barring a trade, they’re here. I’m going with Dunn as the third. He and Valentine both are restricted free agents. I don’t see either player commanding that significant of a contract in free agency. Dunn, to me, has created a future for himself here with his toughness, defense and role acceptance.

As crazy as it is to ask, what do you think an extension for Dunn this summer looks like? For the right price, he could be a valuable rotation piece. And he seems to be a leader on and off the court.  – Nick P.

As you can see from my answer above, I don’t think it’s crazy at all. And I agree with your assessment that he’s a leader. He’s very well liked in the locker room. He’s very supportive of teammates and is back to his upbeat, humorous ways behind the scenes after a sullen period last season.

Dunn makes $5.3 million this season and has a qualifying offer of $7.1 million. Marcus Smart and Patrick Beverley, two players with whom Dunn has drawn mild comparisons to, each make $13 million annually. Dunn isn’t worth that much in my world, but those numbers give you an idea of the range. I’d guess a three-year deal in the $27-30 million range could be realistic.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you soon.

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Three key reasons why the Bulls continue to struggle

USA Today

Three key reasons why the Bulls continue to struggle

WASHINGTON --- The Bulls ruled September.

You remember. They had full participation at involuntary workouts. They passed conditioning tests and awarded Ryan Arcidiacono a wrestling-style championship belt when he won a draining and physical one-on-one tournament.

Vibes were high. Optimism reigned.

“Our goals for the season are to make the playoffs,” coach Jim Boylen said back on Sept. 30, the eve of training camp.

So what happened? How did the Bulls crash and burn their way to a 10-19 mark, coughing up a 26-point lead Monday night at Oklahoma City to further cement themselves as one of the league’s most underachieving teams?

Here are three culprits:

The coaching isn’t always transferring

In a Saturday interview, executive vice president John Paxson said he likes the teaching that he is seeing from Boylen and his staff but that what players absorb from practices and film sessions isn’t always taking hold in games. This can, in part, explain some of the Bulls’ fourth-quarter collapses.

After playing arguably their best first half of the season against the Thunder, the Bulls posted more turnovers than assists in the second half. More often than not, players stopped trusting the system and each other and the beautiful movement that defined the first half stagnated. Defensively, the Bulls failed to secure critical rebounds late and fouled at inopportune times.

There’s clearly a disconnect between what’s being taught and what’s playing out, especially when the same mistakes keep happening. Sure, that can be a byproduct of a young team, which the Bulls are. But it also calls into question how consistently Boylen and his staff’s message is getting through to players.

That’s why Paxson fielded a question on if he believes the players are still buying into what Boylen and his staff are selling.

Said Paxson: “The one thing I am confident is guys in that locker room share the same goal. They are together. There’s never going to be a perfect situation. There’s always some conflict. It can be teammate to teammate or coaches to players. That’s inevitable in this business. I don’t expect this group to fracture. I’d be disappointed if they did. All the guys in that locker room expressed to us their character and that’s not where they want to go or would ever go. I believe when they tell me that.

“I know that when things are bad or you’re not winning as much as you should, people want to point fingers. I’m not doing that internally. And we can’t do that internally. Once you do that, you’re in trouble.”

It’s true that the players work and genuinely like each other. The locker room is positive and professional. But the disconnect is real enough that players have subtly questioned an offensive system that has led to some overthinking over instinctual play and an aggressive defensive scheme that has produced turnovers but allowed open shots.

The offense isn’t producing

As of Tuesday morning, the Bulls’ offensive rating of 103.3 ranked 28th in the league.

Yes, the Bulls’ shot profile has looked solid for the most part, as Boylen likes to say. And, yes, they’ve missed open shots. They rank second in producing shots from 5 feet or less and take the 10th-most 3-pointers in the league but rank 29th and 22nd, respectively, in converting those opportunities.

It’s pretty hard to shoot 55.6 percent from 5 feet or less, but the Bulls are doing it. The middle-of-the-pack team, the 15th-place Nuggets, is converting 60.4 percent on such opportunities.

Still, what can’t be overlooked is individual player regression and stagnation at critical times. The Bulls shot 35.3 percent in the fourth quarter against the Thunder with two assists. They had almost as many turnovers with five as field goals with six. Nobody scored more than two points except Zach LaVine, who had 10. Chris Paul outscored the Bulls by himself.

Lauri Markkanen has showed flashes of turning the corner but then has a fourth quarter like he did against the Thunder---two points on two shots in close to 9 minutes.

Kris Dunn, who otherwise has had a brilliant bounce back season, is shooting 21 percent from 3-point range. Tomas Satoransky, while extremely solid overall, hasn’t completely solved the point guard issues because he’s not the type to break down defenses off the dribble.

Losing Otto Porter Jr. to a small fracture in his left foot has hurt, although Porter struggled initially this season before finally showing signs of life just before he got injured.

Paxson conceded a “miscalculation” on his part came from not realizing players would take so long to adjust to Boylen’s new offensive system, which was created with input from assistant coach Chris Fleming. In Paxson’s estimation, players aren’t playing instinctually enough.

Markkanen, in particular, has looked lost most often, a player whose first tendency isn’t to be aggressive and one who is begging to play with a true point guard.

The faster-paced system also relies on good decision-making from a team with a relatively low basketball IQ. Save for Satoransky and Ryan Arcidiacono, the latter a spot-minutes player, most rotation players’ assist-to-turnover ratios aren’t great.

Preseason concerns about physical play are being justified

On Media Day, Paxson noted how he’d be watching to see how a young, untested team handled physical play and adverse moments. On Saturday, Paxson acknowledged failure in those departments.

“Teams that are physical with us have hurt us a lot this year,” he said.

Opponents have outrebounded the Bulls in 20 of 29 games. Nine times, they have done so by double digits.

Too often, the Bulls lose battles for 50-50 balls. Worse, they consistently do so at critical times.

This dynamic is more subjective and based on the old-fashioned eye test, not analytics, but too often the Bulls succumb to adversity. A feeling of “here we go again” takes hold as a lead evaporates. This is played out by ball and player movement stagnating on the offensive end and poor rotations or boxouts transpiring at the defensive end.

The Bulls actually flipped this script in Monday’s collapse. After blowing all of their 26-point lead and falling behind by four with 76 seconds left, LaVine scored four straight points around a defensive stop to tie the game.

But multiple mistakes followed.

The problem with such underachieving is that it mostly obscures some legitimate positives. The defense is ranked ninth and sits second over the last 10 games. When he isn’t in foul trouble, Wendell Carter Jr. has become a consistent double-double threat. After an inefficient start, LaVine is putting up All-Star numbers.

The losing has prompted some moving of the goalposts. Boylen cites development and growth and how young the Bulls are often. And it’s true they are young.

But that’s not the message Boylen and management sent on the eve of training camp. In his Saturday interview, Paxson said the playoff talk was set publicly in part because of the vibe players gave following that triumphant September---when every team is undefeated.

And even with the slow start, Paxson didn’t back down from such talk.

“The way Jim is wired, we’re all wired, why shouldn’t we be sending the message to them to compete for the playoffs?” he said Saturday. “If that’s a pressure you put on people, I’m fine with that. I don’t waver.

“But I don’t know where that lands. I don’t know if that’s a realistic thing right now. We certainly haven’t played like a team that’s playoff-bound. But 50-some games left, it can change. If it doesn’t, we obviously didn’t achieve something that we thought we could’ve.” 

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