The Bulls had quite the eventful first “half” (we’re way past the season’s midway point) of their 2017-18 season. The year started with a bang, er, punch, and the Bulls looked like a historically bad squad for the first 23 games of the season.
Then Nikola Mirotic came back from that Bobby Portis punch and flipped the script. The Bulls won seven games in a row and some optimistic people were thinking playoffs, while others lamented the tank running off course.
Mirotic may have momentarily derailed the tank, but his resurgence helped the Bulls snag an extra first-round draft pick before the trade deadline. And while Zach LaVine recently returned from his ACL injury, the Bulls have settled back into being a pretty standard bad team. They’re 20-37 and eighth in the lottery standings as a long list of teams battle it out at the bottom.
As we enter the home stretch of the season, the Bulls are going to focus more on developing certain young guys at the expense of veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, who weren’t traded at the deadline. This includes starting Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba, as well as giving Cameron Payne the backup point guard minutes. Given the play of Felicio and Payne this could be a tanking maneuver, though the Bulls may still have enough other talent in place to have modest success against a closing schedule that features plenty of bottom-feeders.
All told, the Bulls’ young core has shown a lot of promise this season, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to be a consistent contender. I’d like to take a quick look at the performance of each player on the current roster this season and forecast their future in Chicago.
I’m buying the Markkanen hype. The youngster has had bouts of streakiness with his 3-point shooting (35.2 percent on the year), but I’m so impressed by his overall skill set at a young age. His shot is smooth and his percentages should only get better. He has shown the ability to take defenders off the dribble and finish with authority. He has been solid on the glass (Robin Lopez helps here) and looks like he can be a passable defender. He still has to round out his offensive game and show he can be a consistent go-to guy when teams are game-planning against him, but the future is bright for The Finnisher. I see him as a future All-Star.
LaVine is a fun player. His athleticism is mesmerizing and his jumper is pretty. The guy can flat-out get buckets, and his recent performance against the Timberwolves was one of the high points of the season. But I do still have questions about him being a “winning” player. His shot selection has been spotty and he has struggled at times being the primary ballhandler against good defense. The Bulls’ defense has been a complete train wreck with him on the floor (114.4 defensive rating). We should cut him some slack because of the injury and his age (turns 23 in March), but the Bulls are in line to commit a substantial amount of money to him this summer. I’m hoping the lack of cap space around the league leads to the Bulls getting him at a “discount,” though all it takes is one team to make a big offer. I’m assuming the Bulls would match any offer sheet if it goes that direction, because they’re not letting their “prize” of the Jimmy Butler trade get away.
I was very low on Dunn after an awful rookie season in Minnesota. He looked totally out of sorts, which wasn’t promising given his advanced age. I’m happy to admit being wrong about the point guard, even though he still has a lot of room for improvement. Dunn has played at the pace Fred Hoiberg prefers. His defense is disruptive. He’s able to get almost anywhere on the court he wants and has shown plenty of confidence in the clutch (sometimes TOO confident). Still, his jumper is erratic, he struggles to finish, he’s turnover-prone, he doesn’t get to the free-throw line, and he remains an inefficient scorer overall (48.2 TS%). I’m still not ready to say Dunn is the sure-fire Point Guard Of The Future, but it’s still a positive that he’s at worst a competent option at the position who could wind up being pretty darn good.
Lopez has been a rock all year for the Bulls. His averages of 12.3 points and two assists per game are both career-high marks. His defensive rebounding numbers are rather paltry, but he has long been known as a guy who boxes out and clears space for teammates to get rebounds. New hustle stats just came out on NBA.com, and he’s fourth in the league in boxouts per game. The Bulls also have a huge 82.9 defensive rebound percentage with him on the court. I was hoping the Bulls were going to trade Lopez to a contender, but they determined what was being offered wasn’t enough to make up for a potential leadership void. Now he’s seeing a role reduction, which is unfortunate for him, but he’s a pro who will surely take it in stride. Expect the Bulls to try to find him a new home again in the summer as his contract becomes a $14.36 million expiring deal for next year.
The Holiday signing was a bargain at two years and $9 million, though he was a real tough watch to start the year. With multiple key players injured, Holiday was a complete chucker as the Bulls got off to their horrendous start. His overall field goal percentage is still bad now (37.9 percent), but he’s at over 37 percent from 3 on high volume and has had a few scorching-hot stretches. I thought a lot of contending teams could’ve used him as a 3-and-D type for the stretch run, but he too wasn’t moved and is now in line to play much less. He should be easy to move in the summer, although it wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep him around next season.
I still am not totally sure what to make of Portis. He has undoubtedly been productive this year. He’s averaging 12 and 6 in only 21 minutes a game. His PER is nearly 21 and the Bulls are scoring almost 109 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. This is all good! But the Mirotic mauling was not great and Bobby Portis Time is often annoying in its lack of self-awareness. His defense also isn’t any good. Ultimately, energy guy who can score off the bench appears to be what he’s best-suited to do. He has one year left on his rookie deal ($2.49 million) and will likely be back next season.
Valentine has shown improvement this year, though a recent cold shooting streak has hurt his cause (under 15 percent from 3 in February). He has increased his true shooting percentage, assist percentage and rebounding percentage while decreasing his turnover percentage. He has developed a nifty floater that goes in way more than it seems like it should. Unfortunately, his lack of athleticism will always limit his ceiling, and his decision-making is questionable at times. He’s already 24 despite being just a second-year player, and he looks like a seventh or eighth man on a good team.
Grant has been a punching bag pretty much all year. He began the year as the starting point guard and immediately showed his limitations at that spot. While his numbers don’t look all that bad, he clearly isn’t a starting-caliber lead guard. He dribbles too much, misses open guys too often and struggles against pressure. He’s not a bad option off the bench and still has one year left on his rookie deal ($2.64 million), but I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bulls move on from him.
Nwaba has been a pleasant surprise as a spark plug off the bench. He brings instant energy and a defensive presence. He can’t shoot worth a damn, but he’s adept at finishing around the basket. While the 25-year-old has been quiet lately, he’s now entering the starting lineup and will get a bigger opportunity. This makes sense given he’s set to become a restricted free agent this summer. I hope the Bulls bring him back.
Once a fan favorite, Felicio has been an enormous disappointment this season after signing a four-year deal in the summer. He has basically been at unplayable levels. The Bulls have been outscored by nearly 24 points per 100 possessions in his minutes. This should mean good news for the tank now that he’ll be starting, but I really do hope he shows signs of a turnaround. If not, the Bulls will likely be stuck with a bad deal for the next few years.
Zipser’s 3-point shooting has ticked up after an atrocious start, but he doesn’t look like an NBA player. He’s 486th out of 488 players in RPM. He doesn’t do anything consistently well. He has a $1.54 million non-guaranteed deal for next season, and I see no reason to keep him around.
Payne hasn’t played yet this season thanks to another foot surgery, but he’s ready to play now and will get another opportunity after a disastrous stint last season. He looked like one of the worst players in the league, and that carried over to summer league before he got hurt again. The Bulls strangely picked up his $3.26 million option for next year, so, uh, hopefully he shows even a modicum of competence?
Vonleh never earned a significant opportunity in Portland, and my expectations are low here as he heads into restricted free agency this summer. He’s still just 22 and has some nice tools, so hopefully the Bulls give him a look down the stretch to see if there’s anything to work with.
Asik obviously isn’t in the Bulls’ long-term plans on the court, but I’m curious to see what they do with him after this season. He’s set to make $11.29 million next year and then he has a $3 million guarantee for 2019-20. The Bulls could stretch his cap hit for under $3 million a year for the next five years, though maybe they don’t want that money on the books that far in the future. They could look to flip him elsewhere, or he could just hang out on the roster as dead weight for a while.
Ryan Arcidiacono (two-way deal)
I don’t want to sound too harsh here, but Arcidiacono should be saying Arrivederci to the NBA in the near future. He’s not aggressively bad or anything, but he just doesn’t do anything.
Antonio Blakeney (two-way deal)
Blakeney has posted some absurd stat lines in the G League, but in his limited time with the big club he has been a rather unapologetic gunner. While the scoring potential is intriguing, I’m not sure he’s an NBA guy.