Mercifully, this season is almost over. And so we can begin to asses whether this first season of the Bulls latest rebuild can be viewed as a success.
Finding a measurement of ‘success’ is a task almost as difficult as the rebuild itself. It’s ultimately subjective, likely based on how one feels about the respective ceilings of Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn. The development of those youthful prospects (and to a lesser extent, Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine) already on the team was certainly a priority for this season. Any objective viewpoint should include the work head coach Fred Hoiberg and his staff have done this season to improve the most important players on the roster. Just looking through that lens, it’s hard to be disillusioned with the outcome. All three players could prove to be significant pieces for the roster moving forward, though a lot of questions remain, especially with LaVine’s upcoming free agency.
But this season wasn’t just about player development, and parsing it as such wouldn’t be just. Securing a top pick in the 2018 draft, something the Bulls themselves ‘expected’, was part of the package in convincing the fan base that trading Butler was the correct decision to make. It’s the typical — if not logical — position to take after hitting the reset button.
So as it stands now, the Bulls are sole owners of the eighth position in the race towards the top pick in the draft. Whilst we shouldn’t shrug at thought of owning the No. 8 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, it’s hard to ignore the reality that the eighth pick is just as far from the first overall pick as it is No.15. Is a pick that low, though coupled with the development of those players already on the roster, enough to quantify this season a success?
You shouldn’t answer that question because you can’t. Truth is, we won’t know for sure. Not yet, at least. It’s been 10 years since the Bulls jumped up from No. 9 to land the top pick in the 2008 draft. Who knows, perhaps something similar happens again (thanks in advance, Silver) – that would change the success factor of this season. All likelihood is that doesn’t happen, and that may be fine, too. The Bulls could come away with a very capable player despite picking in the latter half of the top 10. One of more of the current crop of talent could also exceed expectations, too. Point is, we won’t realize the true prize of this season until a few years time.
But that’s logic isn’t good enough. Not after trading your franchise player and committing to a full-scale rebuild. There should be a more substantive way to evaluate the situation in real time. After all, we’re told accountability is important to the Bulls organisation…
In lieu of an ability to look ahead into the future, perhaps the better question to ask is this: Knowing what we know about the core pieces on this roster and the likelihood of picking outside of the top-five in the upcoming draft, has this season met your expectation?
Again, finding consensus to this question is likely impossible, as the same factors influencing the current state of the team still apply. If you see significant upside in the talent on the roster right now, you’re likely quite content with how things are progressing, even if the Bulls aren’t getting in the top 5 selections, let alone winning the lottery for a top 3 pick. But even so, we all wanted and expected more.
Such a desire appeared plausible given how the season started. But that’s all changed, and the Bulls haven’t done enough to mitigate against it. You can’t erase previous wins against other cellar-dwellers, and that could cost Chicago. We’ve finally seen the team embrace the necessary tactics to lose, most notably in the 110-92 loss to the New York Knicks. But it may be too late, and now done so drastically that it hurts the development goal of the season too.
Had the team done all they could earlier in the season, maybe things are different. Instead of clumsily removing Robin Lopez entirely from the rotation after the All-Star break only to get dinged by the league, a more proactive approach would’ve been using Cristiano Felicio in place of Lopez more frequently – instead of giving Felicio 15 DNP-CDs through the first 41 games – which would’ve simultaneously ticked the boxes of player development and aiding the tank. And I’ve yet to see a good explanation as to why Justin Holiday averaged 35 minutes per game in January. Had that number been scaled back his minutes to 26-28 a night, playing more of Paul Zipser and Jerian Grant on the perimeter, are the Bulls in a position to lose one or two extra games? Was it truly necessary to be playing your best five-man unit in the closing moments against the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks?
Maybe the Bulls still win those games, even after applying these measures. And if they do, at least you’ve explored several avenues in a timely manner. The rhetoric of “the Bulls are too good to tank” would be given more credence, too. Coasting along with half-measures for too long this season has held the Bulls back in the tank standings, and that should disappoint fans.
When a team engages in a rebuild, all we can really ask for is hope. Some may already have that. If you believe that LaVine will be fine next season, that Kris Dunn will find a steady jump shot, or Lauri Markkanen is on the cusp of stardom, you’re feeling confident right now. The upcoming pick is only a sweetener. And they have another first-rounder from the Nikola Mirotic trade that wasn’t on the radar early in the season.
That’s all well and good – and there’s still some time for things to change – but using such a logic requires abandoning previous expectations of a top pick in the draft, something that felt very real in December. For those left wanting more, enduring a horrible season only to be left with Miles Bridges (or someone similar) as the prize, and a decreased likelihood of a great pick in 2019, it does leave a hollow feeling.