With the all-star break upon us, officially signifying the end of the year rapidly approaching, the only thing that can be said about the Bulls season to this point is that it’s been a roller coaster. Starting with a punch to the face of Nikola Mirotic from Bobby Portis, leading to a 3-20 start in Mirotic’s absence. A seven game winning streak followed Mirotic’s return and the Bulls have been treading water ever since.
Regarded by many before the season as the outright favorites for the worst record in the NBA this year, the Bulls have turned some heads with the play of the young core acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade–Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and Lauri Markkanen. The narrative around the team has begun to shift slightly, yet many still believe the Bulls should still be doing anything to lose as many games as possible. In this round-table discussion, TLS Senior Writer David Wildman and TLS Intern Ethan Levy discuss where the Bulls go from here, and discuss some highlights from the first half of this roller coaster season.
Biggest surprise from the first half of the season?
David: You mean besides Bobby Portis breaking Niko’s face on the first day of the season?
Ethan: What, you weren’t expecting that? All jokes aside, happily there have been plenty of pleasant surprises this season. But to me, the biggest has to be Lauri Markkanen — which says a lot given the fact that he was drafted seventh overall. If a redraft were held today, he’d go anywhere from first to fourth, at the very lowest. Not even GarPax could have foreseen the poise, polish, and two-way ability ‘The Finnisher’ has brought to the table every game. His switch-ability on defense and surprising ball-handling and post-up game is unheard of for someone his size and age. The sky’s the limit for the rook’.
David: I absolutely agree with that. Lauri almost by himself is changing the narrative on the Jimmy trade. That being said, I think for me the biggest surprise has been the evolution of Fred Hoiberg as a coach. We’ll talk more about that later, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with Hoiberg this year. To keep his guys playing at a high level nearly every night while everyone is seemingly rooting for them to lose is an incredibly encouraging sign.
Ethan: Couldn’t agree more. Fred’s finally got the personnel he needs to run the pace-and-space style he was brought to Chicago to implement, and it really seems like he’s better suited to mentor these young guys rather than manage a group of high-profile alpha dog personalities like Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler, and Rajon Rondo. We all know how that went.
David: Last year the locker room was a disaster. Dwyane Wade did quite literally the opposite of what he was brought in to do. Jimmy Butler made the environment even more toxic and was undermining Fred from day one. Fred never had a chance, and for him to bounce back from that and lead the squad this year is great.
Ethan: I think people tend to forget that just as players grow, develop, and acquire new skills, coaches do too. You’re spot on in pointing out last year’s toxic chemistry, and it was undoubtedly a learning experience for Fred. He’s only gotten better from it.
David: One other surprise I’d like to enter. We still draw more fans every night than the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs’, Celtics and every other team in the NBA. Don’t question Bulls fans commitment.
Biggest disappointment from the first half of the season?
Ethan: Too many wins! Just kidding, but we’ll get to that later. For me, it’s the performance, or lack thereof, from Cristiano Felicio. The Brazilian big man signed a weighty four-year, $32 million contract this summer due to his nimble feet on defense, his rim-running ability, and his aggression on the glass. But it looks as if he’s in a sequel to Space Jam. Slow on defense, lethargic rebounding–he’s moving in quicksand out there. Where can we find the ‘Monstars’ who took his powers?
David: I was never a huge fan of the Felicio contract from the beginning. I don’t want to say I saw a huge regression coming, but I was not a fan of handing him a four year deal.
Ethan: Wade, as polarizing as he was in locker room, made Cris the beneficiary of some gorgeous lobs last year, which went a long ways in demonstrating Cris’ value to the team. I still think he has solid potential as a modern NBA backup center, but he’ll need to get himself in better shape. That’s hard when you’re stacking together DNPs, but he’ll get his opportunity on the home stretch.
David: So for me, it’s hard to find much to be overly disappointed about this year, it’s going pretty much exactly how we expected, save for a few more wins. If I had to pick something that’s disappointed me this season it would probably be in college. I was really upset Michael Porter Jr. got injured before we even got a chance to see him. I was really hoping to watch him play and see what be brought to the floor. I have some major questions about him as a prospect and was really looking forward to seeing his adjustment to college.
Ethan: I have some good news for you. Rumor has it that Porter Jr. is making his way back, and will do so before the NCAA Tournament starts. We may still get a sneak peek at what he has to offer. I was looking forward to his performance too, and on paper he’s a great fit for this rebuild. Let’s hope he gets healthy.
David: I would love to see him in the tournament, but I doubt he’ll be looking like a top 5 prospect coming off a major back injury. I hope I’m wrong but I was really looking forward to seeing a full season of development from him. I think he could have used it, and if he still declares I’d have major reservations. His tape makes him look very raw and I’d be afraid that’s how he’d come out of the draft after that injury.
Should the Bulls continue losing as much as possible, or does the value of the young core learning to win outweigh the value of increased lottery odds?
David: This is something I go back and forth on a lot. I think I’ve finally reached a point where I’ve decided that if the core three are leading us to wins then that’s never a bad thing. When the other young guys start getting time and we’re losing on the back of Cam Payne, fine.
Ethan: Management has made clear it needs to see what it has in all its young players, which means extended auditions down the stretch for guys like Felicio Paul Zipser, Cameron Payne, and Noah Vonleh. That’ll help the losing plenty. But make no mistake — if wins are coming because the young core is playing winning basketball, there’s zero reason to gripe. I think people tend to conflate tanking too much with losses under any and all circumstances. Teams that “tank”, do so because they don’t have the talent to win and need to get it through the draft. It’s one component of a rebuild – of many. The biggest, though, is player development.
David: Also the idea that a top four pick guarantees us our key championship piece is just dead wrong. Lauri proves that the best players in the draft are not always 1-4. Not even close.
Ethan: If the Bulls were bottom three record-wise in the NBA, players like Dunn, LaVine, and Markkanen likely aren’t making the strides we’re seeing from the today. Fans would be killing GarPax for whiffing on the Butler trade. That is a much worse outcome than winning because the trade turned out better than we could have hoped. You add young talent, develop it, and worry about the rest later. It’s a great problem to have.
David: The development of a core we can roll with moving forward is the best case scenario for this year. If the Bulls had kept up that 3-20 pace, it would mean Dunn was the player he was last year with the Wolves, Lauri had proven those that called him an nonathletic spot up shooter right, and Zach was either showing signs of not recovering mentally or physically from his knee, or the situation was just so messy he couldn’t save it. How can you call yourself a fan and want that situation? No prospect is saving a team in that reality.
Ethan: Let me ask you this — do you think the Magic would rather be in the hunt for the first overall pick after just having shipped off Elfrid Payton for a second round pick, or instead be picking around 10th with guys like Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac looking like future All-Stars?
David: Of course not. Now I have a more difficult question. If you were the Suns, one Devin Booker, or three core pieces moving forward and still an outside shot at landing your Devin Booker in the upcoming draft?
Ethan: Give me three core pieces any day. Nobody knows if Devin Booker will be an MVP-level player. Adding young talent is hard in this league. The draft is a crap-shoot. It’s a superstar-driven league, but it’s also a team game. You need multiple pieces to win anything meaningful. Point is, the Bulls are in great shape. Losing would be great for draft odds, but people don’t get what comes with the losing.
David: You hit on it. You want the players you have to develop. To continue that 3-20 pace would mean we literally did not develop at all this year. Most of the things that fans are feeling good about this year would not be happening. Fred would be on the hot seat which is not a good thing, and like I said, the young core emerging is distinctly good.
Question: Which player currently on the team are you most excited about?
David: This is a tough one for me. I love all three members of our new core. That being said, Lauri Markkanen is just a ton of fun to watch. He is the perfect modern day big man. No one saw how athletic he actually is before the draft. We’re at the all-star break and every game he does something that makes my jaw drop. I’m really excited about his future and he looks like a no doubt home run from this draft. He really does it all.
Ethan: The great thing about this question is there are no wrong answers. Lauri’s in the Rising Stars Game. He’s well on his way to First-Team All Rookie. You’re absolutely right–he’s a future All-Star.
David: The term “Unicorn” is the hot topic lately. So speaking of unicorns, have you stacked his rookie numbers up to Kristaps Porzingis in his rookie year?
Ethan: I haven’t. Take me to school.
David: Alright I’ll present this to you as a game.
Player A: 20.3 PPG. 4.4 Rebounds. .430% FG. .288% Three Point 15.3 PER Age 19
Players B: 15.3 PPG. 7.7 Rebounds. .430% FG. .354% Three Point 15.5 PER Age 20
Players C: 14.3 PPG. 7.3 Rebounds. .421% FG. .333% Three Point. 17.7 PER Age 20
Any guesses who’s, who?
Ethan: Man, you’re making it tough on me. I’m gonna guess The ‘Markksman’ is B. But he could be any of them.
David: Good guess. Lauri is indeed player B. Any guesses on the other two?
Ethan: I think Kristaps may be C. Player A, though, I have no idea.
David: Player C is Kristaps. Player A is none other than Kevin Durant.
Ethan: Wow. That’s amazing. We got ourselves a good one, don’t we?
David: It’s an unbelievably encouraging start for him. Better than we ever dreamed.
Ethan: That’s terrific. I love it. But for me, I’m most excited about Kris Dunn. He has completely rebounded from his disappointing season last year under Tom Thibodeau, and looks every bit the part of a top-five pick. To measure Dunn’s importance, look no further than their record in his absence–they went 3-8, and apart from LaVine’s explosion against the Timberwolves, played some of their worst basketball of the season. His tenacity, his competitiveness, and his grit all scream “Chicago”. He’s a guy the fans have embraced, and has become the team’s engine and closer. When asked what his goals were for the back stretch of the season, Dunn said “I’m going to start trying to be more of a vocal leader.” Dunn looks every bit the part of future franchise point guard.
David: Dunn has been the motor and heart of this team almost every time he’s on the floor.
Ethan: Here’s an interesting tidbit for you–leading up to the 2016 NBA Draft, Dunn was widely projected to go anywhere from three to five at the very latest. The Bulls were slotted to pick 14th, and had a 1.8% chance of picking in the top three. They met with and interviewed Dunn. Due diligence, or had they been targeting KD for awhile?
David: This front office has loved Dunn for awhile. Who can blame them? He was tantalizing in college. His size, athleticism and ability to get to the hoop is something else. They liked him enough to be inches away from pulling the trigger on Jimmy for Dunn almost straight up in the 2016 draft.
Ethan: Call me a GarPax truther, but along with the ascendance of Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine, it sure looks like they have an eye for young talent, huh?
David: It’s all about the development of those young guys. I think they’re finally headed on the right track in terms of creating a locker room environment and coaching staff where these guys can develop and flourish and gain confidence.
Favorite moment of the season so far?
David: This one is easy for me, Zach LaVine carrying the team and beating the Timberwolves last weekend.
Ethan: There are so many to choose from. Lauri hanging 33 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden in a double overtime win was unforgettable. Jakarr Sampson not getting the memo…then being sent to the G-League the next day. But here’s a sleeper favorite: Kris Dunn putting on a Klynyk in South Beach.
What are you most looking forward to for the second half?
Ethan: TANKING! Just kidding. Markkanen, Dunn, and LaVine sharing the court with unrestricted minutes. They’ve only played four games together, most of which either Dunn or LaVine were on minutes restrictions rehabbing from their injuries. I can’t wait to see these three develop chemistry and learn to play together.
David: Watching these guys grow and develop. Like you said, minutes restrictions, concussions, chipped teeth are all in the past. It’s time for this young core to just ball and let the results speak for themselves. Ball don’t lie, and I think Bulls fans should be happy with what they see.
Ethan: Always a pleasure catching up, David.
David: Always happy to talk a little Bulls Basketball.