I have exactly one regret about the Burn It Down, Fire Everyone take I wrote yesterday following the Bulls’ comically bad trade of Jimmy Butler. Please, it’s not that I went too hard on them. It’s that I didn’t talk enough about actual basketball.
That’s my bad. Sometimes I get too caught up in the history and the narratives, real and imagined, when discussing the Bulls and their current situation. At the same time, I do have some thoughts on Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen and how they fit this franchise going forward.
I’ve seen quite a bit of all three: as the college basketball editor and NBA Draft Guy (official title) here at SB Nation, I’ve followed each closely from their college days. I’ve written glowing things about all three in the past. I wanted to make this a sister post to yesterday’s column with some more basketball-centric thoughts.
Is Lauri Markkanen a 4 or a 5?
Let’s start with Markkanen. If this trade is going to be salvaged, Markkanen likely has the highest upside of any player the Bulls got back in the deal. I watched him a ton at Arizona, and had my dude JZ Mazlish write on him last July when he broke out in FIBA U20 Europe.
The history here you probably don’t care about, but: Markkanen ended up in Tucson after Pacers pick T.J. Leaf decommitted from Arizona and eventually flipped his commitment to UCLA. That was a big deal at the time — Leaf was a legit 5-star recruit and I openly wondered if he left because Sean Miller cut him from the USA U19 team earlier that summer. Months later, Arizona replaced him with Markkanen, a mysterious stretch big from Finland who was hyped as a bigger and better version of Leaf. That’s essentially what he turned into during his one year at the college level.
That Arizona team faced an incredible amount of adversity at the start of the season. Returning sophomore shooting guard Allonzo Trier was supposed to be the best player in the Pac-12, but he was hit with a mysterious suspension (it ended up being PEDs) that cost him the first 19 games of the season. The Wildcats also tragically lost 6’8 wing Ray Smith to early retirement after he tore his ACL for the third straight year in Arizona’s season-opening scrimmage.
If Arizona was going to be decent, it needed a freshman class with three five-star recruits (Markkenen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons) to carry them. That’s exactly what happened and I wrote about it at the time. Markkanen was easily the most impressive of the bunch.
Markkanen averaged 15.5 points per game mostly on the strength of his three-point shooting. He attempted 4.41 threes per game and canned 42.3 percent of them. For a freshman to hit 69 threes on the season at that type of clip is awfully impressive. In January, I wrote: Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen is the best shooting 7-footer college basketball has ever seen. Kevin Pittsnogle fans everywhere were outraged. Arizona would grab a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament before ultimately getting upset by Xavier in the Sweet 16 in a game where Trier basically froze out Markkanen for the last 11 minutes.
From a scouting perspective, Markkanen is one of those players who has clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. He’s a truly elite shooter with an ultra quick release at 7-feet tall. Arizona mostly used him in the pick-and-pop, but also ran him off some screens. He’s not just a guy who can hit an open jumper, he’s a shooter with gravity. When you put him on the floor, the defense bends with him. The fact that he’s so tall and gets off his shot so quickly means that not many players even at the NBA level are going to be able to contest it.
Just watch this highlight video and you’ll understand:
Defense and rebounding are the problem areas. Markkanen isn’t going to be a plus in either category. I find it unlikely he’ll even be average at either, but I hope I’m wrong. I think that sets up the biggest question facing the Bulls long term right now: Is Markkenen a power forward or a center?
Obviously, he’ll be a power forward to start with Robin Lopez manning the middle. That sounds good theoretically — Lopez is a bruiser and Markkanen is a sweet shooter -- but the problem is that front court will have zero foot speed. Lopez was getting ran off the court by the Celtics in the playoffs in high pick-and-rolls with Isaiah Thomas. In today’s NBA, you need a big man who can hedge that screen or even switch and stick with the guard. The Bulls need to figure out how they’re going to eventually build an elite defense with Markkanen on the floor. My guess is it won’t be easy.
Long term, I’d shoot to make Markkanen a center. I would surrounded him with two bulldog defenders at the four and three, which is easier said than done. Finding a four next to Markkenen who can protect the rim, rebound and shoot enough to keep teams honest is going to be really difficult. Someone like Jonathan Isaac, who the Magic drafted at No. 6 this year, would have been perfect. That’s why I was so high on Isaac in this draft.
If I’m the Bulls, finding Markkanen’s partner in the front court is my No. 1 objective. The only thing that would take precedent over that would be the opportunity to add a player with true superstar potential. You know, someone who might one day be as good as Jimmy Butler.
Long-term, I do like Markkanen. I think he can be a little better version of Ryan Anderson, an $80 million player who helped James Harden finish second in MVP voting. His front court shooting can be that special. The flip side is that it’s harder to hide a big man on defense than a guard. The Bulls are going to need some lockdown guys around Markkanen to have a chance to defend a title-winning level.
Can Kris Dunn be Marcus Smart?
Full disclosure: I loved Kris Dunn at Providence. I first wrote about him when he broke out during his junior year in the 2014-15 season. I wanted the Bulls to take him with the No. 22 pick in the 2015 draft before he made the shocking decision to return to school. The Bulls took Bobby Portis instead and Dunn grew into the No. 5 overall pick after another great season with the Friars.
Dunn is an easy player to root for. Similar to Butler, he has a backstory that is fit for Hollywood. I tried my best to tell it when he entered the 2016 draft.
Dunn is an awesome player to watch when he’s got it going: he’s super long and quick and just sort of glides all over the floor. Plays like this were common in the Big East:
The problem is the NBA isn’t the Big East. Dunn struggled so much offensively as a rookie that I had already chalked him up as a miss on my part. After spending four years in college, you shouldn’t be one of the worst offensive players in the league as a top-five pick. With that being said, his career can absolutely still be salvaged.
Our friend Stephen Noh wrote a good thing at The Athletic today where he wondered if Dunn can turn into the Bulls’ version of Marcus Smart. By that he means: an elite defensive player who can check multiple positions, help turn defense into offense and ultimately set the tone for the entire unit.
Dunn is going to be a major plus on the defensive end. That’s something to get excited about. His offense remains a major work in progress, though. He just shot 37.7 percent from the field, 28.8 percent from three and 61 percent from the foul line. That’s not good.
Dunn’s best hope is to turn into someone who can get to and finish at the rim. He made 50 percent of his shots in the restricted area as a rookie, per NBA.com. That’s going to need to come up some more.
What I do like about Dunn offensively is I always thought he had a good sense of timing in the pick-and-roll. He has hesitation moves and quick crossovers that can keep defenses off balance. He should also have the length to finish near the basket.
What I can’t get past is this: Dunn’s ceiling just doesn’t seem like it’s that high. Realistically, a best case scenario for him looks like the No. 15-20 best point guard in the NBA. There’s so many great lead guards in this league and I would be shocked to even see him get to the level of Kemba Walker, Eric Bledsoe or Mike Conley, let alone the superstars at the top of the point guard pecking order.
Dunn will be fun to watch and easy to root. The dude has overcome so much just to get here — injuries and a crazy family situation — and he has a really smooth game that will draw fans in. I just don’t think his upside is all that high even if he reaches his potential.
Just how bad is Zach LaVine’s defense?
I’ve been on the LaVine bandwagon from the jump. Love watching him play. I remember when Steve Alford was playing his son Bryce over him when they were both freshmen at UCLA. I remember every college basketball reporter on the planet ripping him for his decision to enter the draft after one year of school. My profile of him from the 2014 draft combine was one of my favorite things I wrote that year. The Bulls should have just drafted him instead of Doug McDermott when they made that original trade up (LaVine went one pick after Doug).
LaVine has already grown into a really nice player: a 19 point per game scorer and elite shooter at just 22 years old. The ACL tear is troubling for a player who relies so much on athleticism, though. It’s honestly shocking to me the Bulls seem to be discounting that given that it’s the same injury that devastated their last great era.
My thing with LaVine: he’s an A+++ athlete (if he regains his previous form ....) with good scoring instincts and a sweet three-point stroke. When he was in the draft, my comparison for him was Jamal Crawford with Russell Westbrook’s athleticism. That ... doesn’t look that stupid? I’m gonna stand by it. I just wish he got to the foul line more and was a better creators for others. The real issue is that he’s horrible at defense.
He's also a horrific, spaced-out defender coming off an ACL tear.
I was on the Sam Vecenie podcast yesterday and Sam said LaVine’s defense is as bad as Dunn’s offense. That .... is not promising.
This brings me back from to my point from yesterday: the Bulls got three one-way players in this trade. Markkanen and LaVine will be really good offensive players. Dunn might be a stud on defense. But it’s hard to build a title-contending team with one-way guys. And that was the point of this Jimmy Butler trade, right? To put the Bulls closer to winning a title?
The Bulls are further away from winning a title today than they were last week
The Bulls told us they got three lottery picks for Jimmy Butler. That’s a stupid way of thinking about it, but OK. Whatever you say, John Paxson. Please don’t choke me.
Here’s the problem: in the NBA, you would rather have one total stud than three middling guys. Jimmy Butler was a stud. He was a top-10 player in this league with two super affordable years left on his contract. None of the three guys the Bulls got back for him will ever be top-10 players. They won’t even come close.
Even in an optimistic view, LaVine is probably a top-40 player at best. I’ll give Markkanen a top-40 ceiling as well because center is the one position where defense is more important than offense. Dunn .... at best, I’m saying he’s a fringe top-100 player.
Again, all of these guys can be pretty good! But if you’re an NBA team, wouldn’t you rather have Kawhi Leonard than, like, the combination of DeMar DeRozan, George Hill and Ryan Anderson? I would. The hardest thing to find is a true superstar. The Bulls had one with Butler and they just gave him away for no reason.
As I said originally: the best asset the Bulls got back is the value of their own pick. They better get No. 1. Luka Doncic is the future and I’ll write on him for SBNation.com later this week. I have seen Michael Porter Jr. live about 20 times, too. He’s also a great talent. I’m just going to call it right now, though: Miles Bridges is the player the Bulls will like. He’s from a big-time program, chose to spend two years in school and he fills a need on the wing. I like Bridges just fine but the Bulls need a true stud with this 2018 pick and I don’t think Bridges is that.
I expect most of next season to have a heavy focus on the draft for most fans. Is Mohamed Bamba the defensive stud the Bulls need next to Markkanen? Yes, but he might be nothing on offense. Could a DeAndre Ayton-Markkanen front line just torch everyone? Yeah, but who would they defend? Anyway, the 2018 draft looks pretty good so that will be fun to monitor.
In the end, I just think the Bulls are much further away from winning a title now than they were with Jimmy, and we all know they weren’t close at all with Jimmy. The rebuild is already off to a poor start in my opinion because the Bulls got three one-way players and zero future picks. Their best path to true success comes via getting the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, selecting Doncic and hoping he turns into an all-time great. Hey, it’s possible. Let’s do it in 2019 too and take Marvin Bagley III. Maybe his dad will forgive me for telling the truth by then.
I like Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen all in a vacuum. I’d love them around Jimmy Butler! But to give up Jimmy and only come away with this package is a huge disappointment to me. Bulls, you still suck, always and forever. Fire everyone.