Their young core seems ready to do something special…if they can reach their potential.
In one of the most widely panned deals of the decade, the supposedly inept management of the Chicago Bulls traded their star—a top-20 player, an All Star, and one of the premiere two-way wings in the league—for what seemed insufficient returns.
Jimmy Butler reunited with former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau (now with Minnesota) in exchange for a player coming off a torn ACL, a top-five pick who had just a remarkably underwhelming season, and the seventh pick in the ‘17 draft. In addition to receiving a questionable haul of players/prospects, Chicago sent back—with Butler, mind you—its own first-round pick from that draft, perplexing media and fans alike.
The results at the ‘18 All Star break of that trade read pretty much as you’d expect. The Timberwolves, thirsting for their first playoff appearance in 14 seasons, sat comfortably in playoff contention at fourth in the Western Conference. Butler, along with ascendant forward Karl-Anthony Towns, was an All Star. The Bulls, conversely, were (and continue to be) one of the league’s worst teams (17 games under .500 at the break) and are competing with a host of teams for the league’s worst record.
However, despite the Bulls’ pitiful record, it’s not quite as certain that Gar Forman and John Paxson’s move was as insipid as previously perceived. The ‘17 seventh overall selection, seven-footer Lauri Markkanen, has exceeded expectations in his first 53 games. The ‘16 top-five pick who was thought to be a dud, Kris Dunn, has had a remarkable bounce-back year. And one new ACL later, Zach LaVine has shown flashes of brilliance in his 16 games back from injury.
These are enormous positives for the Bulls. Obviously the trade of Butler signaled a tank for one of the NBA’s premiere franchises. It looked like a four- or five-year process at least of stockpiling picks and young talent had begun. But with all three pieces of that trade showing growth and maturity in their first season with Chicago, it could be argued that the team’s timeline for rebuilding has been accelerated. LaVine, 22, Dunn, 23, and Markkanen, 20, are a viable core around which to build.
Via Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune
The team will continue attempting to improve its lottery odds for the final 25 games of the season in a wildly competitive tank-off. Head coach Fred Hoiberg announced this week that Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba, who has been a small surprise, would start games after the break and that Cameron Payne would be seeing more minutes in the team’s final 20 or so games. Management also traded Nikola Mirotic, the team’s best player, before the trade deadline, ostensibly because he was winning them too many games but also because of his cold relationship with power forward Bobby Portis.
These are good moves. The team clearly isn’t ready to compete now, and there are areas where their young stars need to grow. Being bad and adding even more talent around Dunn, Markkanen, and LaVine will only enhance the Bulls’ chances of bouncing back.
The biggest question going forward for Chicago is if any of that threesome has superstar potential.
Let’s start with Dunn, whose vast improvement this year was the mixed result of more playing time and channeling negative energy into positive places. The point guard out of Providence played in 78 games last year for Thibodeau but started only seven. Thibodeau’s notoriously poor minutes allotment affected Dunn, as he played less than 20 minutes per contest backing up Ricky Rubio and, to an extent, LaVine.
Under Hoiberg, he’s had much more room to work as the team’s starting point guard. Dunn averages almost 30 minutes per game and, as a result, his per game averages are up across the board, including a ten point per game jump on a nine shot per game increase. His efficiency has also increased, as he’s shooting six percentage points better from the field and three percentage points better from three.
Via Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune
Clearly he’s benefited from more opportunity. But an intensity to prove his doubters wrong also contributed to his transformation. This summer before Dunn was traded, Thibodeau noticed how religiously Dunn adhered to his workout regimen, saying that he knew Dunn would have a comeback year.
Dunn, in a Chicago Sun-Times piece by Joe Cowley, said, “[Thibodeau] saw the work I put in this summer when I was in Minnesota before I got traded. I was there almost Monday through Sunday. I was really trying to get back, trying to prove people wrong and get my respect back. He saw me in the gym for long hours. I was putting the work in.”
This work ethic and desire to prove himself is a great sign. Couple that with his marked improvement this year, and you have to be impressed with the type of talent Dunn could eventually be. As a point guard, he’ll need more time to develop than the average prospect, though at 23 (almost 24) he should be farther along than other, younger point guards in his draft class.
As for the surest bet of the triad to ascend to greatness, Markkanen is that. At seven feet tall, he plays like fellow tall shooting man Kristaps Porzingis. He can shoot (and has a stellar shot selection) from any spot on the floor: distance, post up, pull up, midrange. His offensive repertoire is advanced for someone so young, and that has to do with how he learned to play in his native Finland.
In a Bulls.com article by Sam Smith, Markkanen said, “My dad was just trying to make sure even though I was taller than the other kids they’re not putting me [in] just to play [with my] back to the basket or [sic] making me a center and you can’t do anything else… He had a lot of effect on that, talked to the coaches, [telling them] that I am going to play the point guard even though I am the tallest guy on the team.”
Obviously with how the NBA has shifted to being a guard-dominant league, his versatile offensive skillset makes him one of the highest ceiling players from his draft class. Not only is he a gifted scorer though, but he also cleans the glass, leading the team in rebounding with more than seven per contest.
Via Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
His defense leaves a bit to be desired. A 110 defensive rating per Basketball Reference and pedestrian to below-average blocks and steals per game averages show room for improvement for the Arizona product. However, he’s accumulated more defensive win shares than offensive, signaling that there’s places he can grow on the defensive side of the ball. His long arms, guard-like ability, and footwork should combine to suffocate passing lanes in pick and roll situations and allow him to switch and be at least a problem for smaller, more nimble opponents.
The question mark of the group is LaVine, whose ACL tear last season only made his future murkier. A man whose athleticism is nearly unchartable, potentially ruined by injury to a body unequipped to handle that much torque is a storyline Bulls fans know only too well.
Since coming back, LaVine has looked like his previous self. His famous lift is still there and his shooting is about where it was last year before his injury. He even took over a game against Butler and the Wolves just before the break, scoring 35 points including Chicago’s final 11 and 15 of its last 17.
That is a highly encouraging sign. If your 22-year-old is going toe to toe with one of the best defenders in the league and winning when it counts, you have to feel great about his potential. His raw athletic prowess could be honed into one of the most threatening weapons in the league.
Via Locked On Bulls
But here’s the thing about LaVine: Despite his crazy potential, he can be inconsistent and highly inefficient. In the 16 games he’s played since being back he’s shot 50% or better five times. He’s shot less than 30% also five times and has not shot less than nine times in any game, meaning these percentages aren’t skewing towards a highly efficient, low volume performance (a.k.a. an outlier). He can go from scoring six points on 18% shooting then the next game put up 23 points on 61.5% shooting.
It’s possible that this inconsistency stems from his rehabilitation. There’s no proof for that, but it can’t be ruled out as it seems like a plausible explanation. But one negative that can’t be explained by his injury is his penchant for taking (and oddly making) low percentage shots while being unable to make the easy ones.
According to NBA.com’s statistics, LaVine shoots better from the floor and from deep after taking three or more dribbles. This goes counter to the notion that a catch and shoot attempt is the easiest and best non-layup shot attempt. Additionally, he’s shooting better when closely guarded (zero to two feet) as opposed to lax defense (two to four feet) or just being flat open (four to six feet).
|Closest Defender Diastance||FG%||3PT%||eFG%|
|0-2 Feet (Very Tight)||52.9%||50%||54.4%|
|2-4 Feet (Tight)||44.4%||30.8%||47.2%|
|4-6 Feet (Open)||35.6%||33.3%||45.8%|
|6+ Feet (Wide Open)||47.2%||45.5%||61.1%|
These are perplexing anomalies that probably only have to do with a small sample size skewing. But they serve to offer more question marks around a guy who really could be an offensive force in the league. That’s nothing to say about his defense, which has been subpar over the course of his four-year career. But if you can get 23+ per night from him, you’re certainly willing to live with that trade-off (this is assuming he never finds it defensively. Which isn’t really a fair assumption, but for the sake of the hypothetical, we’ll ride with it).
Yet with the skyscraper ceiling of Markkanen and the steady hand of Dunn, LaVine’s raw potential is worth a risk for Chicago. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal and will be a restricted free agent this summer. A couple summers ago, LaVine would have gotten a max extension, but with how money has dried up around the league and his injury history, teams may not be willing to break the bank for him. All the better for Chicago, who you’d have to think would match any offer anyways. The two sides were unable to come to an agreement in October, but all signs point to a Windy City re-up for LaVine.
Via Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune
The Bulls were projected to win 21.5 games at the beginning of the season. They are only two victories away from going over on that proposition with 23 games remaining. Much of that is attributable to Mirotic, who was having a career year before being traded. But it would be irresponsible not to laud the efforts of Markkanen and Dunn, who have been and will be the anchors for this team (it would also be irresponsible not to point out that Portis, Nwaba, and Justin Holiday have all also had strong seasons). LaVine’s infusion of athleticism and the potential of his dynamite scoring should help this team not only now but also into the future as well.
Hoiberg finally has a crew of players suited for his style of coaching, and he’s doing intriguing things in Chicago. The youth movement is not without its challenges, but provides Bulls fans with hope. One of the teams with the bleakest outlooks coming into this season may actually be the best suited for long term success.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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