After years of being stuck in the middle, the Chicago Bulls pushed the plunger on a rebuild in 2017-18. The question this season: Can Chicago stop anyone?
The Chicago Bulls spent more than a decade in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference, save for a couple of dominant years in the early 2010s that were undone by Derrick Rose‘s balky knees. They finally went all-in on a rebuild last summer and the road back promises to be long.
The most significant move before last season was the draft-night trade that sent perennial All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves along with the rights to 16th overall pick Justin Patton in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and the rights to No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen.
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Markkanen, the 7-footer from Finland via the University of Arizona, turned out to be the most significant addition, leading the team in scoring and rebounding as a rookie en route to a spot on the All-Rookie first team.
Dunn played well in spots, but was still prone to excesses in both turnovers and fouls — a tough combination from your starting point guard — and LaVine averaged 16.7 points on 14.8 shots per game in the 24 games in which he appeared after coming back from an ACL injury sustained late the previous season.
Coach Fred Hoiberg coaxed 27 wins out of a group that was changing parts on the fly all season long, trading forward Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans a week before the February deadline, shuffling players to and from the G League and bringing in Sean Kilpatrick in late March.
How disjointed were the Bulls last season? Shooting guard Justin Holiday led the team in minutes per game, as the former undrafted free agent played 31.5 minutes a night (his previous career high had been 20.0).
The Bulls are hoping that another big forward taken at the No. 7 overall spot, Wendell Carter Jr., can team with the small-ball savvy Markkanen to form at least two-thirds of Chicago’s frontcourt of the future.
LaVine figures to be 100 percent to start the season, while Dunn may still be first in line to run the point. He was re-signed to a four-year, $78 million deal after the Bulls matched the offer sheet LaVine received from the Sacramento Kings.
That leads to some significant questions about Chicago’s ability to stop anyone. Markkanen wasn’t a defensive wizard as a rookie, while LaVine, Dunn and Parker have shown little to no aptitude for engaging on that end of the floor.
A significant departure from the Bulls long history of defensive excellence. Hoiberg enters his fourth season with Chicago since replacing Tom Thibodeau in a stylistic 180-degree turn in 2015 and there are still questions about his ability to lead an NBA team despite some success collegiately.
The Bulls added a second first-round selection to the roster when they nabbed Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison at the No. 22 overall spot, but Hutchison appears to be more of a developmental project than NBA-ready talent at this point.
27-55, 13th in Eastern Conference
102.9 PPG (26th), 110.0 OPPG (27th)
103.8 Offensive Rating (28th), 110.9 Defensive Rating (24th)
Team Leaders (minimum 42 games/82 3-pointers made)
Scoring: Lauri Markkanen 15.2 PPG
Rebounding: Lauri Markkanen 7.5 RPG
Assists: Kris Dunn 6.0 APG
Steals: Kris Dunn 2.0 SPG
Blocks: Robin Lopez 0.8 BPG
3-point shooting: Denzel Valentine 38.6 pct.
Lauri Markkanen (All-Rookie 1st)
Rawle Alkins, G (2-way)
Ryan Arcidiacono, G
Omer Asik, C
Antonio Blakeney, G
Wendell Carter Jr., F
Antonius Cleveland, G
Kris Dunn, G
Cristiano Felicio, F-C
Justin Holiday, G
Chandler Hutchison, G
Zach LaVine, G
Robin Lopez, C
Lauri Markkanen, F-C
Jabari Parker, F
Cameron Payne, G
Bobby Portis, F
Denzel Valentine, G
Derrick Walton, G
Wendell Carter Jr. (draft), Chandler Hutchison (draft), Julyan Stone (trade with Charlotte/Orlando, July 8), Jabari Parker (free agent, Milwaukee, July 14), Antonio Blakeney (converted two-way contract to full deal, July 19), Antonius Cleveland (waivers, Atlanta, July 23), Rawle Alkins (undrafted free agent, 2-way deal, July 25). Derrick Walton (free agent, Miami, Aug. 14).
David Nwaba (free agent), Jerian Grant (trade with Orlando/Charlotte, July 8), Sean Kilpatrick (waived, July 12), Paul Zipser (waived, July 14), Julyan Stone (waived, July 14), Noah Vonleh (free agent, New York, July 24).
Against the Brooklyn Nets
Last season (home team in CAPS)
Feb. 26: NETS 104, Bulls 87
April 7: Nets 124, BULLS 96
April 9: NETS 114, Bulls 105
Dec. 19: at Chicago
Jan. 6: at Chicago
Jan. 29: at Brooklyn
Feb. 8: at Brooklyn
Projected Depth Chart
C: Robin Lopez, Wendell Carter Jr., Cristiano Felicio, Omer Asik
PF: Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis
SF: Jabari Parker, Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine
SG: Zach LaVine, Chandler Hutchison, Antonio Blakeney, Antonius Cleveland
PG: Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono
The Bulls in 2018-19 may be the closest they’ve been yet to the type of offensive team Hoiberg favors. LaVine being back to 100 percent adds a degree of explosive athleticism to the attack that had been lacking and Parker was a 20-point-a-night scorer before his second knee injury.
The addition of Carter should help Chicago have an actual interior scoring presence after a few years of diminishing returns from Robin Lopez and Markkanen figures to improve over a solid rookie year.
The problem for the Bulls — who were a bottom-five team on both offense and defense last season (never a winning combination) — will be stopping opponents from hanging 120 a night.
LaVine has the athletic skills to be a decent defender, but hasn’t often shown the desire to be one. Dunn made his bones in college for his defense, but has had difficulty transitioning that to the professional level without grabbing frequently.
Parker, for his part, told Chicago radio station 670 The Score that “they don’t pay players to play defense.
“I’m not gonna say that I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. I’ve scored 30s and 20s off of guys who say they try to play defense.”
At least he’s honest.
Looking at this Bulls roster, they appear to be in Bruno Caboclo territory — two years away from being two years away. It could be a long, cold winter in the Windy City.
Projected Record: 28-54