Silver linings and small victories come with the territory when observing the 2018-2019 Chicago Bulls. Wins and losses aren’t important and this is what rebuilding looks like regardless of how some outlets in the city continue to cover the team. An expected win total hovering near thirty and some ping pong luck was always part of the plan regardless of what the misguided Jabari Parker addition seemingly signaled.
The Bulls are proud of the young core they’ve started to assemble and this season was supposed to offer a glimpse at what that quartet would provide as a whole rather than recurring episodes of the Zach LaVine show. It’s an entertaining show and the 23-year-old guard is living up to the off-season contract that he secured on his way to a potential All-Star Game berth. It wasn’t the plan though. The former UCLA product has taken some really bad shots at times and his decision making falters too often.
On the positive side, however, LaVine’s scoring prowess is evident and he looks to be fully recovered from ACL surgery. His defense has improved; mostly from a conscious willingness to exert effort on that end of the floor. Zach is also averaging 27.1 points per game and is being asked to carry an undermanned Bulls team early in the season. It’s a welcome sight through 14 contests and is a positive step for the rebuild as a whole.
When looking at this season through a wide lens and focusing on the whole forest rather than just the trees, three main objectives come into focus. The young core playing together was a major tenant of this season and that has yet to bear fruit. The growth of Lauri Markkanen was another as his skillset offers the highest upside of any of the accumulated talent. And finally, young teams lose games. The current roster wasn’t assembled to lose regularly but it definitely wasn’t orchestrated to win often either.
The Core Four
The Bulls’ front office will tell you that they love their gaggle of young players. Some are more important than others, however. The core four consists of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. One of the major roles of this season is to find out how these players will fit together on the court. To this point, the tetralogy hasn’t taken the floor together. Markkanen and Dunn are both injured and probably won’t return to action any time soon due to the cautious nature of the organization and tanking practices well underway.
LaVine has ascended as was previously discussed and Markkanen and Dunn had solid seasons during their Chicago debuts. Dunn, the 5th overall pick in the 2016 draft, was a huge loss early in the season. He’s a tough-minded leader who creates opportunities for his teammates and also possesses the best perimeter defense on the squad. The fourth member of the quartet, 19-year-old big man Wendell Carter Jr. has held his own early on after being thrown into the fire. His defensive abilities and knack for blocking shots as stood out. The former Blue Devil is a better scorer than advertised as well and it looks like the organization might have hit on another draft pick.
Bobby Portis, Chandler Hutchison, and Denzel Valentine have been mentioned as key contributors as well but they don’t light a candle to the core four. Hutchison has received playing time after being selected with the 22nd overall pick this year out of Boise State. Portis was seen as a contender for the 6th Man of the Year award but he is also missing time due to injury as well as 2016 1st rounder Denzel Valentine. Finding out how the meat of this team will play together is still an important cog of this campaign. It just has to wait until after the holiday season.
How Good is Lauri Markkanen?
The 21-year-old Finnish big man had a sensational rookie season for the Bulls in 2017-2018 after being taken with the 7th overall pick of the draft out of Arizona. The seven-footer averaged 15.2 points per game which was good for 4th among rookies while shooting 36.2% from three-point territory. His game showed glimpses of being more complete than was anticipated and he can do more than just shoot from range.
Markkanen is efficient in pick and roll scenarios even though the club didn’t do it enough when he was healthy. While he’s not a superb defender, he did an adequate job of switching onto defenders as the season went along. The biggest knock on Lauri’s game was that he needed to add solid weight to his frame. He did so this off-season and was going to be a focal point of the attack before he was shelved with an elbow injury.
Lauri Markkanen has special offensive skills. What he has shown to this point makes him a fairly certain bet to be a solid regular contributor. How much more than that can he realistically accomplish though? This year should give a glimpse of the potential upside but it won’t be for a while still. The worst part about the elbow injury that he sustained in training camp is just the missing minutes. Lauri needs to play. He’s the cornerstone of the Bulls rebuild and despite what LaVine has shown, is still the most important player in the organization currently. Markkanen could be a high-end starter and he should have All-Star appearances in his future. He just needs to play and prove it.
Losing A Lot is a Positive Development
John Paxson swore up and down that his club wasn’t interested in trying to lose on purpose in the same manner in which they did last season. The Bulls didn’t have “tanking” on their 2019 mission statement. They would have lost plenty of games with a young, under-talented roster regardless though and being a bad team was still kind of part of the plan. Injuries and a lack of depth have the club sitting at 4-10 through 14 games. Their upcoming stretch is brutal and the losses should continue to pile up.
18 of the Bulls’ next 19 games are against teams with more victories than them. The Nov. 21 home game against the Suns is the exception.
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 13, 2018
The club will improve later in the year once Markkanen, Dunn, and Portis return to action. Until that point, however, it’s imperative that the high-level losing continues. The Bulls need to be persistent in adding high impact young talent and the 2019 NBA Draft is flush with phenoms. Ricky O’Donnell of SBNation recently outlined the reasons why it would benefit the Bulls to land in the top five of next year’s draft lottery.
Starting with the 2019 draft, new lottery rules will take effect. These guidelines could offer benefits to the Bulls. While this team will hover around the NBA cellar, they have some competition for epic putridity. In the past, the team with the worst record in the league was afforded a 25% chance at receiving the #1 overall pick. Under the new edict, the bottom three teams in the league will receive an equal 14% chance at the top spot. The clubs with the 4th and 5th worst records in the league will receive a 12.5% and 10.5% chance respectively.
The Bulls need to acquire a star and that is no secret. They will be on the prowl in 2019 free agency but their track record in late June is much better than their track record in July. The 2019 Draft is also slated to be quite a bit better than the 2020 iteration. There is star power in the form of dynamic wings in this upcoming class and the organization would be well suited to add one of them.
The fast forward button is not an option for this Bulls season. Silver linings and small victories must be the goal. Zach LaVine will keep scoring and Wendell Carter Jr. will gain valued experience. Stopgap veterans such as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez will be discarded. The team will get healthier and eventually the core four will play meaningful minutes together. Until that happens, the losses will accumulate and those outcomes will put the franchise in a better position to win a championship in the future. It’s not all bad Bulls fans. We just need to ignore the trees and focus on the whole forest.
Follow James Fox on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune