The Chicago Bulls Had a Splashy Offseason, but How Will It Play out Next Season?
Remember two years ago when the Bulls signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to join Jimmy Butler in a desperate attempt to please Butler and remain competitive and relevant? That team went 41-41, and even though they made the playoffs and actually won two games, it made the Bulls realize they needed a change. While Chicago was relevant for the better part of a decade, it was finally time to do a rebuild, instead of continually making short-sighted moves that jeopardized the team’s long-term future.
They did so by trading Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. The rebuild had begun; they got two young players in Zach Lavine and Kris Dunn plus a first-round pick that became Lauri Markkanen. Then during the season, they continued on the rebuild path by trading Nikola Mirotic to New Orleans for another first round pick and Omer Asik. The Bulls were willing to take on some salary to get picks; they knew they would be bad in the near future, so why not stock up on assets?
It seems to be working, the Bulls were awful last season finishing with a 27-55 record and the worst point differential in the East, but there were signs of life. Markkanen showed real promise, Dunn can become an elite defender, and Bobby Portis became a great bench scorer. Then in the draft, they added center Wendell Carter, who looked great at the Summer League and another first-round pick in Chandler Hutchinson. Both look to be promising young pieces to add to their already young core.
The plan is coming together; Chicago has put themselves in position for long-term success. In a another year or two and Chicago should be ready to compete, but when has the Bulls front office ever been patient? LaVine was a restricted free agent this summer, and the Sacramento Kings signed him to a massive four-year $78 million offer sheet. The smart thing would have been to let him walk, but no, the Bulls matched. Now they are paying nearly $20 million a year, for a terrible defender, and an inefficient scorer with an alarming history of injuries. Luckily, they put some injury provisions in the contract.
Chicago then signed Jabari Parker to a two-year deal for $40 million. I am more okay with this move because it's a short-term risk, and I like when bad teams take a swing on talent even though there are risks. It was still an overpay, Parker also has an injury history and plays zero defense. Plus Chicago plans to play him at the three even though he’s better suited as a four. The idea of signing Parker makes sense for a lot of teams, but this just wasn’t the best fit. Also, his comments recent comment of “They don’t pay players to play defense” don't exactly signal that he will be better on that end or ever care.
Those weren't the only moves the Bulls made in the offseason; they also traded Jerian Grant, a solid back up point guard, to the Orlando Magic for basically nothing. Going into the season here is what their depth chart should look like.
PG-Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne
SG-Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday
SF-Jabari Parker, Denzel Valentine, Chandler Hutchinson
PF-Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis
C-Wendell Carter, Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio
These moves don't indicate a rebuild; these moves indicate a playoff push. Yes, the East is weak, but is it realistic to think the Bulls have a shot at the playoffs? This is a young team, with very few two-way players. Fred Hoiberg is a good coach, but this will be a challenge. In order to even sniff the playoffs, some of the pups will need to grow up fast. Here is what we can expect from the Bulls next season.
I am scared. This team was 28th in defense last season, which, given their youth is not that surprising. They were terrible at just about everything on defense; 26th in rim protection, 22nd in three-point defense, 26th at forcing turnovers, and19th in transition defense. Chicago's only strengths on that side of the ball were defensive rebounding (2nd) and foul rate(11th).
At least they had a couple of strengths, but there are still a lot of concerns, especially now that they are adding notoriously bad defenders Zach LaVine (for a full season) and Jabari Parker. LaVine had a -2.14 defensive RPM, Parker had a -1.70 defensive RPM. Plus they’re adding a rookie center in Carter who will need time to adjust defensively, unless Robin Lopez starts, which they may need to because at least he competes and knows what he is doing on that end.
Then, there is Dunn, who had a -0.55 defensive RPM, although the tools are there for him to be good. He is still young, has dealt with injuries and has had bad defensive teammates, so I am still high on him on that end. Markkannen showed a ton of offensive promise, but on defense, he struggled as most rookies do, with a -0.89 defensive RPM. He should get better with another year of experience and a stronger body, but there are still long-term concerns. Markkanen lacks foot speed and is not a great rim protector. Ideally at his position, you want to have one of those.
He doesn't get a lot of blocks or steals, but the good news is he does not foul a lot either. Last year, he struggled a lot defending the post, and so a stronger body should help. I think he can become an average to slightly above average defender, but never a great one.
Add it up, and you have a lot of holes, and that is just the starting lineup. The bench has Bobby Portis, who was graded as one of the worst defenders in the league last season. Between him, Markannen, and Parker all splitting time at the four, there’s not a solid defender in sight. Denzel Valentine is average at best, ranking in the 33rd percentile according to Synergy Sports, and posting a negative defensive RPM.
Cameron Payne showed some chops as a versatile defender, who can get steals and block shots at a high rate for a guard. However, he stinks on offense, he’s not exactly a coveted two-way player. Payne will be Chicago's back up point guard this season, and they are going to need him to step up and have a good year. Then, there is Holiday, probably there best wing defender, but he’s only a backup.
This is hard for any coach to deal with. Hoiberg will need to get creative with lineups, matchups with other teams. He will need to try to hide your worst defenders while still providing a lineup that can score. Mixing lineups with offensive and defensive players will be a challenge on a nightly basis.
Parker and LaVine, for example, are okay individual defenders when they try. They are athletic and strong and have rated well in guarding simpler action, like spot ups or one on one. Where they get in trouble is with rotations, help assignments, and pick and roll defense. Those two do not have a great feel for these things, so if they are put into a pick and roll together, (and they will be), it could be tough sledding. Hoiberg may need to stagger their minutes, but that will be tough to do after signing them to big contracts.
So, will the offense be good enough to make up for a struggling defense? Last year the Bulls were also 28th on offense and 29th in effective field goal percentage. They struggled in pretty much every aspect: creating easy looks at the rim, off offensive rebounds and getting open threes. Chicago was also 25th in transition and 23rd at three-point shooting. Not a lot of strengths to hang their hat on. They were a decent passing team, didn’t turn the ball over much. Hoiberg is a bright coach, but there was just not a lot of talent.
Parker should help mostly by opening up the floor with his three-point shooting. Last year, he shot 39% from deep, and his spacing should provide Markkanen and Carter with more room to work with in the paint. Carter should also provide a boost, even as a rookie. Although Lopez doesn't offer much on offense, he’s a good screener, a solid offensive rebounder, and a decent midrange shooter. Still, Carter should be an upgrade offensively with his athleticism, finishing ability, and passing.
Markkannen’s expected second year leap should provide a significant boost as well. Last year, he showed his shooting chops but struggled to finish around the rim. A year of added strength will help, and if he gets fouled more, his efficiency will go up substantially because he is already an excellent free throw shooter.
Then, there is LaVine. There are a couple of things I like; he is a better passer then he gets credit for with an 18% assist percentage and is a reasonably low turnover player. The problem is he is inefficient from three, midrange and at the rim. I wouldn’t call any of those areas strength. At least he does a pretty good job of drawing fouls. Still, he is a volume scorer. Volume scorers can't be a number one option for a good team. He should probably be third behind Parker and Markkanen. For him to be efficient, he must significantly improve from the three-point line. Last year, he only shot 34% from three and took way too many ill-advised threes. If he improves as a catch and shoot three-point sniper, Chicago's offense could go up a notch.
A lot has to happen for Chicago's offense to work. Dunn also needs to improve his shooting from deep. Portis showed he is a good pick and pop option, but he needs to get stronger and finish around the rim better. Payne needs to prove he can do anything on offense. Holiday is who he is, a solid player, who is a decent shooter, but nothing special. Valentine is a good shooter, who can get hot, but he needs to learn to dribble even a little bit. Even though he has flaws, he should play more this year since, he can shoot, rebound, and make the simple pass. He doesn't need the ball to be effective which makes him a good fit alongside a lot of lineups.
This seems like a lot more questions than answers, right? A lot needs to go right including a lot of internal improvement for the Bulls to make a serious jump. To me, the Bulls will likely pan out as a bottom five defense and, at best, an average offense. People will see that as an insult, but even if they jump from 28th to say 17th on offense, that's a big jump.
So how can Fred Hoiberg maximize this team and find some balance? Well, since ownership probably demands that Parker and LaVine start, I would pair them with Markkanen, Dunn, and Lopez. I wouldn't start Carter right off the bat; Lopez should at least be able to provide some defensive stability early on. He and Dunn give the Bulls a fighting chance at least. Holiday will need big minutes though. Last season, he was in three of their top five defensive lineups, as was Dunn. Another lineup that is interesting is LaVine, Dunn, Valentine, and Holiday, with Markkanen at the five. This gives them shooting and a little more defensive versatility. Remember, Hoiberg will have no choice but to stagger LaVine and Parker some, especially against elite offensive teams.
Chicago is not a playoff team. This team looks like it will finish somewhere around 32-50. A lot would have to go right, and I doubt it all will. Whatever happens, they need to keep developing Markkanen, Carter, and Dunn. That is their core; that is their future.