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These young Bulls can fit, even if they don’t win

Zach Lowe outlines the Bulls’ strategy and goals for 2018-19

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Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Bulls have an intriguing group of young talent, and the additions of Wendell Carter Jr. and Jabari Parker have some people thinking playoffs in 2018-19, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes in Thursday’s mega-column about the team.

But Lowe himself is bearish on those expectations largely because of how bad the Bulls’ defense profiles to be, and he outlines what really matters about the upcoming campaign: “This season should not be about winning. It should be about discovering how the young players fit, and whom to keep long term.”

This is a notion I’ve been echoing of late. I’m not thinking much about making a run to the postseason. I’m more looking forward to how this young core meshes together and whether they can take tangible steps forward. If that actually means making a surprise playoff run in the weak East, great, but the Bulls can have a successful season without making the postseason, or even coming particularly close.

While the Bulls have raw talent, there are concerns about how it’ll come together on both sides of the ball. Lowe immediately broaches a key offensive concern in his lede, which is how the Bulls will find touches for all their “score-first young guys,” especially with Parker now in the fold. This is something The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry also harped on in a recent column about the risks Parker’s signing brings to the table:

How are these guys going to avoid agenda-driven basketball?

A clunky core that already was set to walk into next season confronting justifiable questions about its ability to mesh suddenly has become messier. With Parker’s arrival, the Bulls now have 10 players 24 or younger. Seven of those players have something to prove, individual objectives that could trump team aspirations.

Lowe discusses how the Bulls can make their offense work. They may not have a true alpha dog as of now, but the versatile frontcourt of Carter and Lauri Markkanen can make things easier for Parker, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, ball-dominant types who don’t profile as legit No. 1 guys:

Markkanen and Carter are young, but they have the outlines of an ideal modern NBA frontcourt. Markkanen is the surest thing on the roster. He showed the ability late last season to run unconventional big-big pick-and-rolls, and grew more comfortable dragging small defenders into the post on switches -- a must-have skill for any screen-setter.

”My personal goal is that whenever you switch, you will regret it,” he says.

Markkanen has been putting on weight in order to play more center, and he’ll have to exploit mismatches to take his offensive game to the next level. But even then, “how Dunn, LaVine, and Parker look on offense is paramount,” says Lowe.

All three of these players have shown flashes of greatness but are also flawed. Dunn is already 24 with a “bricky” jumper, below-average finishing and just acceptable vision/feel. LaVine is a bit of a chucker, and Lowe is comfortable enough to say that the “ship has sailed” on the young guard as a lead dog. Parker can score relatively efficiently, but he has been “scattershot as a creator” and doesn’t have a good feel for the game. Not to mention the latter two have dealt with recent ACL tears.

Nevertheless, the Bulls’ talent level should make the offense decent almost no matter what, and Hoiberg has plans to make up for their weaknesses:

They will have good spacing. They have enough guys who can generate shots for themselves, so no possession will totally bog down. Hoiberg hopes to compensate for playmaking deficiencies by running like hell.

In the half court, the Bulls will have to pass and cut their way into the sort of open looks a superstar generates on his own. This is what Hoiberg means by “hitting singles.” He has instituted San Antonio’s rule that no one is allowed to hold the ball for longer than half a second before shooting, passing or driving. Hoiberg runs a lot of prelude screening action to loosen the defense before the real action starts.

The Bulls probably don’t have the right personnel to run this kind of system at an elite level. However, they could be fun to watch and perhaps even good on the offensive end if there’s buy-in and a player or two makes a considerable leap.

Defensively, the Bulls are almost sure to be toward the bottom of the league. Dunn is good and Carter could be an anchor some day, but it’s tough for young bigs to make a positive impact early in their careers (Markkanen is okay, at best). LaVine and Parker project to be a disastrous defensive wing duo.

To try and make the scheme simpler, Hoiberg will have the Bulls switching a lot more. We saw them doing it in Summer League, and that shift in philosophy will continue moving forward. Theoretically, the Bulls have the athletes to be better defensively, but they need a big jump in awareness and overall basketball IQ.

But again, the Bulls being bad on defense in 2018-19 doesn’t really matter. It’ll matter in the future, but not next season. What matters next season is these young players showing development and an ability to fit together in a coherent fashion. What happens in 2018-19 should have a big impact on which direction this rebuild goes, and which players will remain a part of it.