[Welcome to Mark, long-time guy, who will be contributing to BlogABull -yfbb]
Many predicted the Bulls would be one of the worst teams in the league. For the first 23 games, that looked true enough. Winning 20 games all season seemed implausible. Yet here we are: exiting the All-Star break with 25 games to play, Chicago already has collected 20 wins.
Separating from the field, the Bulls have built a three game cushion between themselves and the worst record in the league. That may not seem like much. Tinkering with the rotation and giving below-replacement level players more minutes than warranted should help bridge any gap.
That is until you look at the upcoming schedule.
Of the 25 games left on the season, the Bulls will play 14 against teams with a losing record. Six of these games will be against tank rivals: Memphis (twice), Dallas, Atlanta, New York and Orlando. In nine games against these cellar-dwellers so far this season, the Bulls have won them all.
There will also be matchups against teams who have no incentive to lose. Three games against Brooklyn and Detroit, and two against Charlotte, may present an opportunity to stockpile some important losses. But losing may not be an easy against these teams, either. Chicago has yet to play the Nets this season, but has defeated both the Hornets and Pistons in all their meetings to date.
The Bulls have won 35 percent of their games to date. If that held for the remainder of the season, they will nine of their last 25 games, finishing 2017-18 with 29 wins. Given the favorable schedule, 29 wins is also what’s being predicted by FiveThirtyEight.
Forcing coach Fred Hoiberg to manipulate his rotations is an obvious way to creatively add more losses. Gifting development minutes to Paul Zipser, Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio can accelerate the tanking pursuit. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson has alluded to as much.
But is that enough?
As much as they try to dictate the result of upcoming games, previous wins can’t be erased. Nor can the intent of other teams to follow suit, playing their own bad players heavy minutes in the race toward the bottom.
The Sacramento Kings have already made a start of resting veteran players. The New York Knicks have cratered since Kristaps Porzingis went down with a knee injury. The Memphis Grizzlies have already shutdown guard Mike Conley for the season. It’s not inconceivable to think they will soon do the same with center Marc Gasol.
Apply a similar logic to all teams vying for the best possible pick come June. Everyone has their own way of influencing results. Rotations can be altered. Resting valuable players will happen. Try as they might, the Bulls aren’t the only team capable of implementing such a strategy.
The reality of player development
It’s theoretically possible to manufacture a scenario where Chicago only win three- to-five more games. Playing junk lineups will help achieve this, but belies the problem of the Bulls having mutually exclusive goals. Tanking is the right decision, but so too is player development. How they balance these ideals will ultimately decide where Chicago will pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Unlike many other horrid teams, the Bulls have exceeded expectations this season, in part because of the surprising growth of Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. As good as they have been, one does have to wonder if these players would have been as individually effective if they hadn’t been supported by the veterans around them.
Center Robin Lopez has been the perfect frontcourt partner to help assimilate Markkanen into professional basketball. Rookie life is made much easier when you have a hulking center boxing out his and your man, leaving a path to collect easy rebounds. He has also frequently served as a safety valve for Dunn as a way to be a playmaker after an initial action fails. Playing Lopez less, whilst that could prove advantageous to the tank, will adversely impact the Bulls young players like Markkanen and Dunn.
The right solution is one Bulls management should be comfortable with: Hedging their bets.
Finding a way to be so much worse than their opponents, whilst possible, is unlikely if Chicago want to invest significant minutes into Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen. Replacing veterans with lesser players should happen, even if it does negatively impact rotations. But it shouldn’t be drastic or unreasonable. Lopez and Holiday can accept lessened roles, but they should still play. LaVine should continue to be rested on back-to-backs, perhaps even on certain road trips. Give minutes to Payne, Felicio and Zipser, but do so where it is beneficial for their development and those around them.
Doing so will help both objectives. It may cost the Bulls a lottery-lucked top-3 selection, but that isn’t really a plausible scenario that exists given the favorable schedule and wins already amassed.
The outsized importance of this draft
Trading Jimmy Butler and opting into a rebuild, landing the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft mattered more than anything else. In a comprising mood, one could settle for a top-three pick. As a worst case scenario, we could talk ourselves into believing there was still a franchise-changing talent available with the No. 5 pick.
But facing the current reality, one that suggests the Bulls will have a difficult time securing a top pick in the upcoming draft, it’s hard to not feel some level of disappointment.