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On the Chicago Bulls’ present and future, the ghost of Nikola Mirotic and promise of Wendell Carter

11 thoughts on Wendell Carter and how he impacts the Chicago Bulls’ long-term plan for success.

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Before we can talk about Wendell Carter and Chandler Hutchison and how each affects the Bulls’ present and future, we first have to discuss the player that led the franchise to both, even if he’s long gone now. That’s Nikola Mirotic, who continues to hang over this franchise like a ghost months after he was traded.

The Bulls were 3-20 and proud owners of the worst record in the NBA when Mirotic mercifully recovered from his broken face. The Bulls immediately reeled off seven straight wins upon his return, and didn’t stop there. Niko played 25 games in total and the Bulls won 14 of them. The tank was dead on contact, and the Bulls’ reward for spending an entire season trying to lose on purpose was merely the seventh pick in the draft.

The Bulls never had any idea how good Nikola Mirotic was, something they proved time and time again. I cannot remember one team misevaluating its own player to such a significant degree for so many years. Behind every major fuck up, there was Mirotic standing off in the distance.

There is no greater monument to the incompetence of the Bulls’ front office than the signing of Dwyane Wade. The move was ostensibly made to give Jimmy Butler a true co-headliner with Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah finally out of the picture. The Bulls believed in this so much that they wildly overbid against themselves, essentially paying Wade $39 million for one season of work.

The irony here is that the Bulls had a great co-star for Butler already on the roster. That was Mirotic. The Bulls should have empowered Niko by using his shooting to space the floor around Butler and his ball handling to alleviate Jimmy’s massive creation burden. Instead, they eliminated all the agency from his role, reducing Mirotic to spot-ups in the corner as Butler and Wade dribbled for 18 consecutive seconds and Rajon Rondo ran around in circles.

Rondo got hurt, the prophecy of Bulls in six never happened, and the front office decided it was better to trade Butler than pay him the extension he rightfully earned two summers from now. From the moment the Bulls traded Butler, their plan was clear: lose, lose, lose and lose some more, with the ultimate goal being getting the first pick in the draft.

The Bulls blew it badly this time too, and it was all because of Mirotic.

The Bulls’ undervalued Niko so much that they never even considered the possibility he’d ruin the tank. For three years, he was maddeningly inconsistent, a fever dream of pump fakes and poor shot selection, always better in theory than in reality. But when given real agency for the first time in his career, Mirotic turned into a star. With him in the lineup, the team that was 3-20 started winning at a pace that would have equaled 46 victories and the No. 5 seed in the East if spread out over the course of the entire season.

Mirotic is a top-50 player in this league, but the Bulls never realized it until Wade’s check had cleared and their draft pick was ruined. Yes, he fetched the Bulls the No. 22 pick that would eventually turn into Hutchison, but even that only happened after the Bulls ate another $16 million.

Mirotic will go down as one of the most frustrating players in franchise history, someone who was never good enough until the exact moment they stopped needing him to be good. Was that the Bulls’ fault or Mirotic’s? Regardless of how you answer that, the front office’s complete inability to properly evaluate their own player is going to impact this franchise for longer than anyone anticipated.

This is the context with which Wendell Carter and Chandler Hutchison arrive in Chicago.

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
  1. We’ll never know who the Bulls actually would have taken had they come up with the No. 1 pick. Though basically every smart person agreed that Luka Doncic and Jaren Jackson Jr. were the two best players in the draft, it appears that most NBA teams did not believe this. The Bulls may have taken Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba over Doncic and Jackson. In that sense, winding up with No. 7 could be a blessing in disguise.
  2. Wendell Carter is going to be really, really good, a fact that may get lost in the talk about him being a “safe” pick. This isn’t “safe” the way the Bulls normally do “safe”. He is not a senior like Denzel Valentine who took four years to dominant college basketball. He was a top-five, blue chip recruit in a strong class whose success was a no-brainer from the very start.
  3. What separates Carter is his intelligence. The main storyline in his recruitment was if he would chose Harvard over Duke. That was no publicity stunt: Carter is a whip-smart kid who was very seriously considering being the first elite recruit to ever go to an Ivy. This showed up when I flew out to USA Basketball Junior Minicamp in 2016 to do a feature on him. It also shows up on the court. He had as many assists this season as Bamba and Bagley combined. While Ayton talked about how NBA success is defined by making it to his second contract, Carter talked about his selfless attitude towards winning. I love everything about this Ayton tweet, but it also comforts me in knowing Wendell Carter would never, ever make this mistake:

4. There will be more to Carter’s game than meets the eye. Fans will see his solid rebounding, money mid-range jump shot and lack of elite athleticism and wonder what makes him so different from a center the Bulls already have, Robin Lopez. Look deeper and Carter will be capable of things Lopez could never do. He’ll be a greater deterrent at the rim and a more aggressive two-way rebounder. His jumper will have more range. He’ll pass as well, or better, than Lopez, just another part of his high-IQ two-way game. By any measure, Carter was one of college basketball’s best players last season. He was No. 3 in the country in BPM, which might be the best all-in-one stat the sport has. He was top-15 in win shares per 40 minutes, and top-20 in PER. That his advanced numbers will likely be more impressive than his traditional ones only shows off the depth to his game.

5. I think Carter can be an All-Star and one of the five best players to come out of this draft. He has a very real shot at being better than Bagley and Ayton, and I would easily take him over Bamba. Carter can beat you when he has the ball in his hands. He is more production than potential, which almost hurts him in the twisted ways NBA teams view the draft. The Bulls hit on Lauri Markkanen last year and they will hit on Carter, too. Keep doing that and eventually you’re going to have a damn good team.

6. The question is how good. Are the Bulls building another Deng-Gordon-Hinrich core or are they building another Rose-Noah-Deng one? Rose was always the rocket towards contention in that crew, and never forget that he was the No. 1 pick. The Bulls need to get the No. 1 pick — or as close to it as they can possibly be — next season. Unlike a year ago when they signed Justin Holiday as a free agent and held onto Mirotic for too long, the Bulls have to actually commit to their own badness this season.

7. It’s easy to look at a full season of Zach LaVine, Year III of Kris Dunn, and the continuing emergence of Lauri Markkanen and wonder how the Bulls will actually be so bad. Well: are we sure Dunn and LaVine are winning players? Not yet. LaVine’s offensive talent is obvious but he’s also a gunner who plays no defense. Dunn is a monster defender, but he’s a borderline low-IQ offensive point guard. Markkanen will be a beast. Carter will be solid too, but no 19-year-old is going to have that great of an impact on winning at the NBA level. What the Bulls need to do is strip the veterans, hopefully starting with a mid- or pre-season trade of Lopez and Holiday. I love David Nwaba, but man: if you’re giving those minutes to, like, Antonio Blakeney instead, this team is going to be so much worse. The Bulls might have to let Nwaba go on the count of being too good. The goal here is to let the young players play and fail on their own accord.

8. Remember: the NBA changed the lottery for next season, flattening the odds for the top-five teams. The Bulls don’t need to be theeee worst team in the league to get the best chance at the No. 1 pick. They only have to be the fifth worst. Keep in mind how awful they were without Mirotic last year — getting 14 of their 27 wins with him on the court — and it seems totally possible they could achieve that level of badness.

9. With Markkanen as the Bulls’ only cornerstone piece, they had so much flexibility in terms of team building. Let’s be honest: in this era of the league, when 6’4 P.J. Tucker is closing Western Conference Finals games at center for the Rockets, Markkanen probably is best at the five. Now the calculus of the Bulls’ roster is different, because their two foundational pieces are both front court guys. Do the Bulls do a thing where they have one of Carter and Markkanen on the floor at all times, and only play them together to start and close games? Will going big as the league downsizes eventually turn into an asset, especially when Carter stretches his shooting range out to three? These are the questions to think about, and it all ties back into the next draft and how this core can potentially go from good to great.

10. Here’s the one thing that worries me about Carter. Let’s say the Bulls get the No. 2 pick next year. Let’s say R.J. Barrett is off the board and Nas Little is the consensus No. 2 prospect. Little can play the three at 6’7 with a 7’1 wingspan and a powerfully-built body, but it’s likely that his best position is going to be the four, and maybe even the five given the way the game is trending. When you start your rebuild with two front court pieces, your lineup versatility becomes automatically limited. Now the Bulls need a pure wing who doesn’t need to be moved up the lineup to find his best spot. It’s not impossible, just another thing to consider as this rebuild moves forward.

11. For as much as I liked Miles Bridges, there was not a wing on Carter’s level as a prospect. I ranked him as my preferred pick for the Bulls coming into the draft. I think they made the right move. But the smart way — the only way — to view this pick is as another piece to the start of the puzzle, not anything close to the final one. The Bulls need to need to keep making good picks when they are selecting in the top-10. Ideally, they will get lucky enough to move into the top three or possibly even No. 1, which is the only real way to accelerate the rebuild. A free agent isn’t going to do it, at least not yet. When the Bulls decided to trade Butler, they should have made the decision to be bad more multiple years. Wendell Carter is going to be outstanding, but he won’t change that yet. This thing is just getting started.