Wendell Carter

Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Bulls mailbag: NBA bubble considerations, draft needs and Jim Boylen talk

Typically, at this time of year, questions about free agents would flow. Instead, it’s questions about bubbles.

How does the Bulls front office, coaches, players feel about the second bubble idea? And what, if any, impact has this had on the Jim Boylen decision timeline? — @ryanborja, via Twitter

Like most teams that weren't invited to the league's restart in Orlando, Arturas Karnisovas is on record as saying he hopes the league allows some formal group activities. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a bubble, although Michele Roberts, executive director of the players association, is on record as saying she’d only sign off on group activities if they meet the same safety protocols as those in Orlando. That means daily testing, quarantining for a period of time before playing and a plan to handle any positive tests, among other things.

This stance would seem to rule out teams gathering in their own practice facilities for group activities and perhaps regional scrimmages that would feature, for instance, the Bulls and Pistons or Cavaliers. Some of the eight teams not invited to Orlando prefer this model.

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I actually think the Bulls would have pretty strong representation if a second bubble occurs. They’re a young team and players miss playing. Zach LaVine even traveled to Chicago this week for some workouts at the Advocate Center. It would certainly make for some interesting decisions, though. For instance, Lauri Markkanen is eligible for a contract extension. Would he risk injury for what, essentially, would be glorified summer league scrimmages?

As for Boylen, it’s been reported several times that it’s more likely than not he and his staff would have presided over any possible conclusion to the 2019-20 season. Only Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley know if such activities would qualify, although they certainly would represent an opportunity for Karnisovas to see Boylen in action. That’s a stance Karnisovas also has stated publicly.

If by chance the second bubble materializes in Chicago, can the NBA incentivize these games by having teams play for upcoming draft positions? If they are truly against seeing teams tank for draft position, make these teams play for something. — Kenneth H.

The draft lottery odds are finalized. Your scenario raises this unlikely outcome: Veteran players busting their butts in meaningless games to better their teams’ odds to draft their replacement. That’s not happening.

Will the Chicago Bulls front office be able to travel to Orlando to scout players? — @chisportupdates, via Twitter

The last time I checked on this with the league, I was told no. It’s why this is such an unprecedented and difficult time for these eight teams. It’s such a competitive disadvantage to essentially not be part of the league as it resumes play.

What position do you think they will focus on in the draft? Or do you think they’ll just take best player available? — @tannermartello, via Twitter

For what it’s worth, Karnisovas disputed the notion this is a weak draft. Here’s what he said on June 6:

“I like a lot of players that are in our range. I think we’ve done a lot of work studying. That’s why the excitement is coming from studying those players and interviewing them and looking at the video. So I think we’ll add a good player to our roster next year.”

The biggest needs to me are wing depth and a true point guard. Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison each have displayed an ability to make an impact when healthy, but neither has been able to stay on the floor. And while Coby White displayed growth in terms of his decision-making and ball security, he remains more of a scoring guard to me. Tomas Satoransky is a rotation player for any team in the league, but he’s not going to be here long-term.

A lot obviously will depend on the draft lottery. The Bulls own 7.5 percent odds to win the No. 1 overall pick and a 32 percent chance to move from their current No. 7 slot into the top-four. Let’s say the Bulls get lucky. You’ll learn about how the new management team views the current roster with what they do then.

When talking about the Bulls draft position, I see a lot of mention about the need for a point guard and a true center with the names Killian Hayes, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman possible targets depending on draft position. However, I feel our biggest need is at small forward where all we have is Otto Porter Jr., whose contract will thankfully be over after next season, and Chandler Hutchinson, who is more frail than my roof during the last storm. We need some wings badly on this team. What are your thoughts on Isaac Okoro and the Deni Avdija kid? — Nick P.

My first thoughts are you need to be a writer with that flourish on Hutchison.

My thoughts on wing depth were addressed in the previous question. As for those specific prospects, Okoro’s athleticism and defensive instincts stand out the most to the scouts I’ve talked to. Both Karnisovas and Eversley said they like players with defensive versatility, a trend in today’s NBA. Okoro projects to be able to guard point guard to power forward. Questions exist about his shooting ability, but he’s also got an improve-at-all-costs mindset.

Avdija is drawing notice for his willingness to make the right play and read screen-and-roll, which is essential in today’s NBA. His shooting has improved, and he’s one of those players who is tall and long enough to play power forward and also slide down to small forward.

RELATED: NBC Sports Chicago NBA Mock Draft 6.0

There’s this thought that Wendell isn’t an NBA center and more of a power forward like the player he gets compared to in Al Horford. Do you see his position moved? Should we wait to see him and Lauri Markkanen play side by side under a more capable NBA head coach? — @jermaine611, via Twitter

At 6-foot-9, Carter may be an undersized center and, yes, he has struggled at times against traditional big men like Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond. But how many of those centers are left in the league? I actually think the skill sets of Markkanen and Carter can mesh very well, particularly in today’s NBA.

Both are high-IQ players and willing, underrated passers. Both possess ball skills, so you could run offense through them or initiate actions with them. Horford has played plenty of center in small-ball lineups over the years. The way I see it, Carter and Markkanen can be interchangeable on offense at times, although Markkanen obviously possesses more shooting range. On defense, Carter can play center. He does own a 7-5 wingspan after all.

I think keeping Jim Boylen would be a big risk, don’t you? Maybe he's not the worst coach in the league, but this is not only about him being good or not. It's about perception, franchise reputation around the league, fan base enthusiasm. It's about the ability to attract good players and stay away from all the internet memes and jokes. And those things matter too. I think there's a lot of excitement right now because of the new management, but some fans are already starting to question if the overhaul was real, if Karnisovas really has full power. Change has to be real, or at least perceived as real.

One more thing: In a normal situation, Boylen could silence the critics winning some games early next season. Now he can't. If they keep him, they're facing months and months of critics. It's a tough decision and maybe Boylen really deserves another chance. But I think they should move on. What's your opinion? Thanks and stay safe. — Michele from Italy

My opinion is this is the best question I’ve received from an endless supply of questions about Boylen’s future. I understand the theory, but it's clear that Karnisovas isn't going to be swayed by public opinion. He's going to go through the evaluation process on Boylen. He does have full autonomy to make the decision. And as he has stated consistently, he’s getting to know Boylen and his staff before making such a critical decision.

All the Bulls have is time. There are no formal group activities occurring right now. Individual players can do voluntary workouts at the Advocate Center with an assistant coach. That’s it.

I understand the sentiment that firing Boylen now would please a certain segment of the fan base. I read and received all the feedback when Karnisovas moved quickly on firing Gar Forman. But Karnisovas also knows Boylen has ownership support. So of course he has to thoroughly go through the evaluation process if he's going to bring a plan for change to that ownership.

This is just a reading of the tea leaves, but I found how Karnisovas opened his end-of-season teleconference with reporters telling: “Our objective is to use this time in innovative ways to create opportunities for our players and coaches to encourage development. I know that you are anxious for me to comment definitively on our future of the Chicago Bulls. I understand that anticipation. That said, I take pride in being deliberate and thoughtful in my decision-making, and take the weight of my decisions seriously. I’m not inclined to make evaluations prematurely to satisfy our excitement to move this team forward.”

Read that last sentence again. Translated: He’s going to use the time he has at his disposal before making a decision on Boylen’s future. He's not going to be swayed by public opinion.

I’ve written this before, but one thing Boylen has struggled with since becoming head coach is trying to be all things to all people rather than just focusing on coaching. Karnisovas and Eversley have talked to Boylen and his staff about just focusing on coaching. They’ll handle all the organizational brush fires that always arise over the course of a season.

I'm taking Karnisovas' public words on the situation at face value. He has said he wants to see Boylen in action and get to know him and his staff before deciding upon his future. He's going through that process now. They spent time together a couple weeks back when Karnisovas first came to Chicago and again when he and Marc Eversley returned this week after the holiday weekend. As previously mentioned in this mailbag, Karnisovas has empowered Boylen since he landed the job. Karnisovas has asked Boylen for input on player development strategy, watched film with him and talked about draft and free agency plans. Boylen planned his normal offseason visits of players, although COVID-19 has impacted those for now.

Also, I’d dispute your point that Boylen wouldn’t silence critics if the Bulls started winning games. Winning cures all. Yes, there’d be some angst and anger over the time between the official announcement of Boylen’s return and the start of next season. And perhaps more importantly, winning consistently is a speculative stretch. But if it happened, people would start talking about Boylen’s care factor and ability to adapt. Stay tuned.

What are the basketball reasons you think would justify keeping Boylen? — Shannon R.

The fact the Bulls were a top-10 defense as a young team before widespread injuries hit. His staff. His ability to take direction and work collaboratively with a front office. LaVine's growth as a decision-maker and scorer. The signs of life when Otto Porter Jr. has played, which has been a mere 29 games due to injuries.

To be clear, I’m answering your question, not advocating for his return for those reasons. But I do think one thing being lost in talk about Boylen being one of the league’s lowest-paid coaches is that he also just hired a new staff. Chris Fleming and Roy Rogers just finished the first season of their three-year deals.

I’m not saying such contracts and considerations are deal breakers in the big picture, particularly for a franchise that prints money. But Karnisovas has a comfort level with Fleming, with whom he worked in Denver. He has also crossed paths with assistant coach Dean Cooper, who was in Houston when Karnisovas arrived there. And don’t forget that Karnisovas picked up the option of assistant coach Nate Loenser.

The decision is a multi-layered one, which is why Karnisovas, as mentioned in the last answer, is using the luxury of time that he has at his disposal to make it. Boylen and his staff are working as if they're going to return, which is how they should approach the situation.

Do you think Joakim Noah plays much for the Clippers? — Matt A.

Their bench is pretty stacked. But he’s a great signing, and I’ll be watching Clippers games to find out. If nothing else, seeing him clap from the bench while LeBron James is at the free-throw line will be entertaining.

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Bulls’ Wendell Carter Jr., Jim Boylen participate in Juneteenth march

Bulls’ Wendell Carter Jr., Jim Boylen participate in Juneteenth march

On Friday, a mass of Chicagoans participated in a faith community-led demonstration through Grant Park in celebration of Juneteenth.

The Chicago Bulls marched with them.

Specifically, Wendell Carter Jr., head coach Jim Boylen, assistant coaches Nate Loenser and Karen Stack Umlauf, and other Bulls staff took the streets. Behind the scenes, Boylen has taken an active role encouraging team-wide dialogue on racial injustice; beyond a team Zoom teleconference Zach LaVine and Thad Young spoke positively about to reporters, Boylen has also individually reached out to players to check in on them. As an organization, the Bulls recently introduced paid time off for Juneteenth and Election days, moving forward.

 

The Bulls contingent took up near the rear of the crowd. Boylen and Carter, save for a few words to those flanking him, marched deliberately. All parties donned face coverings, as did most every marcher, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But other than one passer by exclaiming “That’s Jim Boylen and Wendell Carter!” and offering a quick wave, members of the Bulls seamlessly blended into the throng of celebrators, who assembled under the leadership of Bright Star Church Chicago and Faith in Justice and Peace (FIJAP hereafter) — the latter a coalition of local faith-based organizations that have come together to address societal issues in five key areas: systemic racism, economic and community development, housing, health (mental and physical) and legislation/policy. 

The march ran from the corner of Columbus and Roosevelt on the south end of Grant Park up to Monroe on the north end. Along the way, demonstrators brandished signs, sang songs and chanted the names of fallen members of Black communities, many of whom were unjustly killed by police.

 

The tenor of the proceedings ranged from celebratory to solemn to inspiring. Upon convening just north of Butler Field, Pastor Chris Harris of Bright Star led a stirring rendition of the Black National Anthem, followed by speeches from a litany of local faith leaders. Pastor David Swanson compelled white people to actively challenge “the systemic racism and structures of white supremacy that are being exposed,” emphasizing that Friday’s march represented not a finish line, but a starting point. Muslim, Jewish and Baháʼí faith leaders also spoke, preaching solidarity with Black communities.

Harris resided over all, bouncing the microphone from speaker to speaker, and leading prayers, chants and moments of silence — some observed, symbolically, on one knee. He wrapped the event by performing a rendition of a “Black Lives Matter” song he penned himself, to ebullient response.

“Today you saw thousands of people from faith — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Baháʼí, and so many others, you had elected officials, you had the police out here with us. Unity. This is what it's all about,” Harris told NBC Sports Chicago. “This march was about being solution-oriented, and so Faith in Justice and Peace is a vision that the lord gave to me, and I'm excited to have all of these partners saying we want to be involved to bring systemic change.”

Throughout, Harris lauded elected local officials in attendance using their platform to stand for action, and gave Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot special recognition for opening up Grant Park to Bright Star, FIJAP and the marchers for the demonstration.

Of the Bulls’ presence at the march, and the rapidly growing exposure of the movement, Harris expressed excitement.

“People of influence and affluence have to come and be involved in this,” Harris said. “Black people have been unheard in this country since we've been here, since we were brought over here at the bottom of slave ships and in chains. Many of our ancestors, matriarchs and patriarchs, they all died. 

“But now people are paying attention. Chicago Bulls were out here, White Sox, Cubs, the Bears… they called, the owners were calling me saying we're with you, we got your back, some of them supported in a way where we were able to get all of [these resources].”

But as Swanson preached, there’s a long road ahead. Harris’ biggest takeaways from the day’s events were optimistic.

“I'm excited,” Harris said. “My hope is next year, we do Juneteenth out here again and we have tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands of people. Hopefully COVID is gone and hopefully all restrictions will be gone, because we need to make sure we educate people about the lived experience of the African-American people.”

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Grading the Bulls 2019-20 bigs: Markkanen, Carter, Young, Gafford, Kornet

Grading the Bulls 2019-20 bigs: Markkanen, Carter, Young, Gafford, Kornet

The Bulls’ 2019-20 season is officially over after 65 games.

And what a season it was.

Yes, a .338 winning percentage left them well short of preseason playoff expectations, even with the league’s novel 22-team resumption format allowing for teams within six games of the eighth seed into play-in contention (the Bulls finished eight back of the Orlando Magic).

But widespread front office overhaul — punctuated by the hires of Arturas Karnisovas as executive vice president of basketball operations and Marc Eversley as general manager —  somewhat salvaged a lost season. The two now face the rigors of an unprecedented, potentially nine-month offseason that will involve draft prep, continued roster and front office evaluation, and possibly a coaching search — all while continuing to grapple with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed much of the team out-of-market, limited training capabilities and could act as a buzzsaw to the CBA as we know it.

That’s a lot to digest. And we’ll get to it all. But first, let’s tie a bow on the on-court good, bad, ugly and otherwise the Bulls endured this season, in report card form. We’ve hit the guards and wings. Last but not least: the big guys.

Lauri Markkanen

50 G, 29.8 MPG | 14.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.5 APG | 42.5% FG, 34.4% 3P, 82.4% FT | 2020-21 contract: $6,731,508

If it seemed like Lauri Markkanen was less involved in the Bulls’ offense this year than in his prior two, your eyes weren’t deceiving you. The numbers bear it out: In 2019-20, Markkanen’s usage dipped from 24.5% to 20.9%, his touches per game to from 66.2 to 45.3. He averaged 0.9 less shots than his rookie year, and played just 0.1 more minutes per game. While his catch-and-shoot and 3-point attempts ballooned in proportion to the rest of his looks, his efficiency faltered across the board. Other assertive statistics, such as his 41st-percentile defensive rebounding rate of 16.8%, slipped, as well. The bright spot was a 14-game stretch in December where he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8/41.6/83.3 shooting splits against the softest stretch of the Bulls’ schedule.

I don’t want to be too hard on Markkanen. But it was an ill-timed regression for multiple reasons. For the Bulls, seeing their second cornerstone falter in such a glaring manner in a season that began with playoff promises had to have been a wake-up call. For Markkanen, himself, a down Year 3 precluding rookie extension negotiations is far from ideal. 

The question of how it should impact our expectations for Markkanen moving forward is even more complex. The first step there is to assign responsibility for his struggles, but that’s far from a clean calculation. Sure, Markkanen could have done more to actively inject himself into the Bulls’ offense. All those missed shots left his fingertips. But Jim Boylen and the rest of the coaching staff could have taken more intention in getting Markkanen involved, too; Markkanen’s minutes and the manner in which they were allocated fluctuated game-to-game. And then there were injuries — a nagging oblique to start the year that surely impaired him shooting the ball, then a twisted ankle he played through in January, then a pelvis strain that sidelined him 15 games. Markkanen had returned for four games on a minutes restriction when the season paused, to little meaningful result.

The new management regime has vowed to get to the bottom of the above set of considerations. The tools — his shooting range and agility are so rare for a 7-footer — are still there, and he just turned 23. Whether it be a new coach, training regimen, playstyle or otherwise, something must change for Markkanen if the Bulls’ rebuild is to get back on track. For the time being, his underwhelming campaign (regretfully) receives the lowest grade of the core, in part due to the expectations it began with.

Grade: D+

Wendell Carter Jr.

43 G, 29.2 MPG | 11.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 1.2 APG | 53.4% FG, 20.7% 3P, 73.7% FT | 2020-21 contract: $5,448,840

Carter’s raw numbers are never going to jump off the page, but his value to the Bulls is immense. Along with Kris Dunn, he was the connective tissue that held an over-performing defense together this season; his mobility and smarts were especially valuable at the center position, the final and most overtaxed line of defense in the team’s blitzing schemes. His block rate declined sharply in part due to those schemes drawing him up and away from the basket in pick-and-roll coverage, but even undersized, he remains a force on the offensive and defensive glass — the best on the team by a country mile and in the upper quadrant of the NBA, statistically. His impact shows up on film, in the advanced numbers and, often, in conversation. When he went down with a severely sprained ankle in early January, the defense cratered, and the rest of the team with it. The only glaring defensive deficiency to tidy up moving forward is his fouls; Carter  committed 3.9 per game in 2019-20 — fourth in the league among qualified players — and fouled out of five contests.

Most of his improvements will need to come on the offensive end, where he was often relegated to quick pass-outs on DHOs or hunting second-chance baskets. Sprinkling in an open midrange jumper or two (which have clearly been coached out of him) couldn’t hurt, from a spacing perspective. Percentages aside, his willingness to extend his range beyond the 3-point arc is encouraging — and did you know he shot 40% at Duke? — but his ankle injury cut that experiment short for this season. It must be mentioned that he’s appeared in just 87 of a possible 137 games in his first two seasons.

The sky's the limit for Carter, especially on the defensive end. He showed that in spurts this year. He must be empowered to shoot for it. 

Grade: B

Thad Young

64 G, 24.9 MPG | 10.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG | 44.8% FG, 35.6% 3P, 58.3% FT | 2020-21 contract: $13,545,000

As I wrote a couple months back, this season was a tale of three segments for Young. They break down as follows:

  • 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

After the first 24 games, averaging the second-lowest minutes total of his career to only his rookie campaign, the Chicago Sun-Times first reported that Young was displeased with his role. A modest uptick in minutes ensued, as did his production and, seemingly, comfortability in the Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive and defensive systems.

Then, when Markkanen went down with his aforementioned pelvis injury, Young slid into a starters role, bumped his minutes average to over 30 per game and fully blossomed as a shooter and team defender at the power forward spot, even as the season imploded. That his best stretch of play coincided with Markkanen being sidelined is not encouraging for the long-term fit of the pairing. Nor is the fact that the two only shared the floor for 279 minutes this season, and the team sported a -3.9 net rating (with a putrid 99.1 offensive rating) in those minutes. There’s a serious question as to whether — from a basketball perspective — the two can co-exist without biting into each other’s opportunity. 

The sum of it all is a down statistical season for Young; he hadn’t averaged under 30 minutes per game since 2011-12, much less 25, and though he steadied his long-range shooting on decent volume, his percentage from the field was the lowest of his career. But marked improvements when given opportunity show he’s not necessarily on the downswing of his career. He’s still 31, played in all but one game this season and is a locker room sage. A winning basketball player on a losing team. The offensive on/off splits are ugly (though noisy), but perhaps it may have all looked different if other areas had panned out. Young was inked as a supplementary player, after all.

Grade: B- 

Daniel Gafford

43 G, 14.2 MPG | 5.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 0.5 APG | 70.1% FG, N/A 3P, 53.3% FT | 2020-21 contract: $1,517,981

Gafford has the chance to be a true steal from where the Bulls selected him — No. 38 overall — in the 2019 draft. His pseudo NBA debut on Nov. 18 featured 21 points, five rebounds, 10-for-12 shooting and two blocks against the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks. Many of those themes permeated his rookie year. 

Gafford ends 2019-20 the rookie leader in total blocks (56) and blocks per game (1.3), and fourth in the NBA in blocks per 36 minutes among those who played in 20 or more games. His high-flying ways stole hearts and his impossible combination of reach, bounce and force rattled rims. If he makes steady progress as a shot-blocker and rim-runner, he’s a productive NBA player and maybe the ideal backup center of the future to complement Carter. If the latter extends his range and repertoire as a facilitator (big-to-big lobs anyone?), they could even make a fun frontcourt pairing in spurts.

His tendency to overreach (he averaged 2.3 fouls per game in only 14.3 minutes per game) needs shoring up, but he was a rookie big playing in a strenuous defensive system. No reason for anything but optimism here.

Grade: B

Luke Kornet

36 G, 15.5 MPG | 6.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.9 APG | 43.9% FG, 28.7% 3P, 71.4% FT | 2020-21 contract: $2,250,000

Kornet came to Chicago a low-risk, potentially high-reward flyer. But his first season as a Bull was fraught from the beginning. Sinus obstruction surgery in November cost him eight games, and the issues that precluded it undoubtedly impaired him before the operation itself — through 10 October/November contests, Kornet was averaging four points, 1.9 rebounds and shooting 34.9% from the field (5-for-23 from deep).

By the time he got back up to speed, Gafford had emerged, and playing time came sporadically. While one of the selling points on Kornet was his obscene block rate with the Knicks in 2018-19, he struggled under the demands of persistently blitzing pick-and-rolls and the extra rotations that style elicits. His skills are probably more suited to drop coverage, where he could man the middle and use his obstructionary 7-foot-2 frame at more of a standstill. The jump shot came and went, but by the end of his season (which came in February after a severe ankle sprain sustained in practice) his 28.7% clip from deep (three attempts per) registered below expectation given his reputation as a floor-stretcher. The brightest stretch was a 14-game spell he started from mid-January through mid-February in which he averaged 10.1 points on 49.1% shooting. The Bulls went 4-10.

Kornet doesn’t make the top 100 of the Bulls’ biggest problems, but the flyer hasn’t panned out. He’s back next season in the last of a two-year deal, probably as the third center.

Grade: C-

Cristiano Felicio

22 G, 17.5 MPG | 3.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.7 APG | 63% FG, N/A 3P, 78.3% FT | 2020-21 contract: $7,529,020

Let’s not spend too much time here. Felicio popped into the rotation towards the end of the season mostly on account of injuries, and just about met current expectations. A 12-point, nine-rebound (seven offensive) performance in a win over the Timberwolves on Jan. 22 was the high water-mark.

The contract is an albatross. It expires after next season, but could hypothetically be used as a trade-filler in the meantime.

Grade: D

 

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