Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.
The buzz around the 2019-20 Bulls season crescendoed last offseason. With a promising core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. already in place, the addition of an electric Coby White through the draft and savvy, supplementary vets through free agency appeared to be a winning formula in the third year of the rebuild.
That calculation was made on paper. In practice… Well, you saw the results.
But how did those additions for the 2019-20 seasons perform? How should they fit into the team’s long-term plans? Let’s evaluate (all contract figures via Spotrac):
Thad Young — signed to a three-year, $44 million contract last summer (third year partially guaranteed at $6 million)
Young’s season can pretty tidily be divided into three subsections (all per game averages):
First 24 games: 21.2 minutes, 8.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 0.9 steals; 40.9/34.2/56.7 shooting splits (8.5 attempts)
Next 21 games: 23.7 minutes, 9.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4 steals; 43.3/34.8/64.7 shooting splits (8.9 attempts)
Next 19 games: 30.8 minutes (15 starts), 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals; 49.8/37.7/56 (11.1 attempts); 17 double-digit scoring performances
Those segments aren’t arbitrary. The first 24 games represent (approximately) the first third of Young’s 64-game season. At that tentpole, he was averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his 13-year career (to only his rookie campaign) and looked largely uncomfortable navigating the Bulls’ up-tempo, 3-pointer-heavy offensive system.
Segment two begins on Dec. 11, when Young logged a then season-high 33 minutes in a 35-point home victory over the Atlanta Hawks, notching 15 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. The next day, a report surfaced from the Chicago Sun-Times that Young was unhappy with his playing time, which Young addressed at length to the media soon after. From there, trade rumors and rumblings of broken promises festered. Through it all, he remained publicly professional and a keen advisor to many of the team's young players behind the scenes. His play subtly began to improve, especially on the defensive end, with a modest uptick in minutes.
Segment three starts with Markkanen sidelined for a little over a month with an early stress reaction in his pelvis. Young started 15 games in his stead and played his best ball of the season, even as the Bulls floundered. The correlation between increased opportunity and production is one Young never shied away from.
What has been behind Thad Young’s strong recent play?— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 21, 2020
“More minutes,” Young said, smiling.
The question moving forward is whether his interests and the Bulls’ are at odds. In general, this wasn’t the season he and fans expected from him, but he proved he has enough in the tank to be a contributor to winning basketball. If the Bulls aren’t ready to do that, the question of a long-term fit here is a legitimate one. Juggling Young and Markkanen’s minutes was already a point of friction this season, and if anything, Markkanen should be doing more next year. Plus, what if the Bulls invest their impending top-10 draft pick on a forward? They couldn’t find any takers for Young at the deadline, but finding an outlet for the final two years of his deal (and finding him a winning situation) could be on the team’s radar.
Tomas Satoransky — signed to a three-year, $30 million contract last summer (third year partially guaranteed at $5 million)
The specter of Satoransky was always intriguing. A low-maintenance, pass-first, heady floor general to start alongside LaVine while White developed in the wings. Facilitate, hit open jumpers and defend at a clip reasonable for his 6-foot-7 frame, and Satoransky would be the quintessential complementary piece.
And while he showed flashes — a 27-point, 9-assist outing in Atlanta (oh man, is there a trend here?) and multiple stat-sheet-stuffings against the Wizards — his production largely didn’t pass the sniff test. Among the most alarming figures from Satoransky’s first season in Chicago: From Dec. 1 on, Satoransky shot 26.8% from 3-point range (3.1 attempts per); on the season, he converted 32.9% of his catch-and-shoot 3-point looks — a steep dive from his 42.8% career mark entering the season (a huge part of what made him such an intriguing option in the first place). Moreover, his general assertiveness on the offensive end seemed to wax and wane at times.
A positive: If this rebuild has proved anything, it’s that availability is an ability, and Satoransky was certainly that. He and White were the only two players to appear in all 65 games before play was indefinitely suspended. In the final game before the league shut down, Satoransky gracefully ceded the starting spot — a title he coveted upon signing with the Bulls — to White, admitting that he hadn’t performed up to his own expectations this season. He’s another guy that draws rave reviews from teammates and coaches at every turn.
As of the current roster construction, Satoransky continuing to back up White is probably the team’s best course moving forward, though that’s subject to change depending on how the Bulls use that aforementioned top-10 draft pick. Satoransky running the team’s second unit can still be a winning formula, and $10 million next season with a non-fully guaranteed third year isn’t the end of the world.
Luke Kornet — signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract last summer (fully guaranteed)
To say Kornet didn’t meet expectations doesn’t feel fair. He was always a low-risk flyer, and the emergence of Daniel Gafford softened the blow of his tumultuous campaign.
What’s more, he overcame a debilitating nasal ailment that marred his first three months in Chicago to flash spurts of productivity in January and February. After Carter badly sprained his right ankle on Jan. 6, Kornet re-entered the rotation for 19 games and averaged 8.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and nearly a block per game while shooting 47.4% from the field and making 14 starts. A severe right ankle sprain sustained in practice ended his season in late February.
But the 3-point shooting never came around. Kornet converted a career-low 28.7% of his long-range attempts and only 30.4% in that aforementioned 19-game stretch. The Bulls’ blitzing defensive system that draws bigs up and away from the basket is not suited to his strengths. He’s not on the short-list of the Bulls’ biggest problems, but isn’t a part of the long-term solution either.
Bonus section for the non-Coby White rookies, because they warrant mention (and White’s going to get his own column soon enough):
Daniel Gafford: A gem if the Bulls have ever found one. Scooped up with the No. 38 pick of the 2019 draft, Gafford led all rookies in total blocks (56) and players with more than 20 games played in blocks per 36 minutes (3.3) while clawing his way into the Bulls’ rotation after starting the season off the map. His energy, high-flying capacity and rim-protecting potential make him an incredibly viable — if not ideal — cost-controlled backup center option. First on his to-do list for year two is working on limiting his fouls. But he exceeded expectations this season (something not many Bulls can say) and should figure into the team’s plans for at least the immediate future.
Adam Mokoka: He signed a to a two-way deal for this season and appeared in 11 games as the Bulls balanced his NBA days down the stretch. It would have been nice to see more of him. Two times Mokoka caught eyes over the course of this season — once with a record-setting 15-point outburst against the Pelicans in February, then with lockdown defense on Luka Doncic to key one of the Bulls’ few quality wins of the season. If the team decides to let Kris Dunn walk this offseason, Mokoka (along with Shaq Harrison) is a young and potentially inexpensive option to replace some percentage of Dunn’s production and defensive energy. And not for nothing, Mokoka has a solid stroke and shot 40% from 3-point range (15 total attempts) in those 11 games. A heftier 31-game sample size in the G League saw him convert 32.7% of his long-range looks on 5.4 attempts per game, but there’s cause to believe that can be built upon.
Max Strus: Another two-way guy, and a local product. He tore his ACL in December after appearing in just two NBA games. It’s hard to discern what Strus’ future with the Bulls might be, but he has been a consistent presence around the United and Advocate Centers throughout his rehab process.