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The 2018-19 Bulls have no clear direction, but that could be part of the fun

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It’s media day! Are we building or still rebuilding?

NBA: Chicago Bulls-Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s merely year two of this new rebuilding path, where the Bulls made a clear designation that they were going with a younger and less expensive team, heading backwards before moving forwards, and then towards being a successful franchise again. It’s not exactly clear what the Bulls determine to be ‘success’, but by any standard they have a ways to go.

But after another high-turnover offseason (though this is just the way the NBA is now, given the shorter contracts and rising cap space), it’s not really clear at what point in this path the Bulls currently see themselves. Because while it’s only been one year of this particular strategy, it’s the same guys in charge for the past several iterations spanning 15 years, a rope afforded to only executives with championship pedigree and Ernie Grunfeld. And you’d think that kind of consistency would allow us to better figure their moves, but the consistency has only manifested as sporadic direction and half-measures.

Last season was more easy to figure if you believed in the tank, but even then it was not messaged well nor executed fully. The Bulls seemingly valued current (over future) assets on draft night 2017* and the rest of that offseason, yet were leaking that they were also expecting a top-5 selection in that draft. As a result of not committing either way, they not only failed in getting that selection but in the process only hindered development of their players in a total ham-fisted sham of a season that actually induced a notice from the league. It really sucked and was mostly a waste of time!

*(this designation includes Zach LaVine, who they boxed themselves in for when acquiring and that culminated in matching the massive offer sheet by the Kings. They knew - or should’ve - that LaVine’s pending restricted free agency status meant they weren’t going to get enough useful information in a rehab season to determine a proper contract, and that it only takes one belligerent team to inflate the cost. I don’t think they should’ve let him walk but also wouldn’t have acquired him in the first place due to that crummy list of outcomes.)

Bulls management has insisted they’re not going to do that again (‘ultra-competitor John Paxson couldn’t allow it in good conscience!), though it’s still somewhat mysterious what they are doing instead.

One indication in their point of the path could’ve been to more fully embrace being young and inexpensive. Figure that such a label means you are not going to be a competitor in free agency not only this year but next, and use the cap space available in both years (scrap the 20XX plan for another 20XX plan) to keep gaining assets. This means going beyond taking a low 1st rounder for an expiring deal (which they didn’t even do) but taking on multi-year obligations to better your chances at acquiring a star. All rumors around draft time indicated that the Bulls were not interested in making that commitment to move up or get additional picks.

So instead the plan to get a star hinges more heavily on 2019 free agency, and then you can use this season to build up ‘the core’ as motivation for an All-Star level player (or two!) to join. A young group playing well, plus hoping that the might of the Chicago market obscures the reputation of poor management that’s trying to sell their situation. Essentially, perform reasonably well this year and thus get into countless articles and blog posts talking about you being an ‘attractive destination’...like what’s happening in Philadelphia...though they have a way better situation and it still hasn’t landed them that free agent yet.

But if that’s the case, and they want to build with this group, then what is with this roster construction? It doesn’t look to be one that will win, or even look good while being competitive:

  • They made their two highest-paid players - LaVine and Jabari Parker - ones that historically have shown to be able to score and do little else to produce victories (and are actively harming the winning if looking at other aspects of their games), and will likely both require a high usage to get their numbers.
  • Last year’s team had an even worse statistical profile than their record - 28th in offense and 24th in defense - and have lost two of their most productive players (Nikola Mirotic and David Nwaba)
  • No backup point guard. If Kris Dunn gets hurt (again) or underachieves/stagnates, they’re either going to see Cameron Payne break his foot or - worse - Cameron Payne doesn’t break his foot and is playing a lot.
  • A lopsided frontcourt that sees an exciting prospect in Wendell Carter Jr. as the 4th big man at best, and maybe 5th considering Parker’s best deployment. This was a similar situation to what Lauri Markkanen would’ve found himself in last year if not for Bulls culture engendering a face-breaking + suspension to that frontcourt rotation.
  • A head coach in Fred Hoiberg that hasn’t shown to be able to get a team to perform beyond the sum of their parts, who runs a system on offense that is heavily reliant on the players making read/react decisions, and doesn’t really care to have a system for defense. So while it’s been said that this is more of a Hoiberg-style roster due to the athleticism and shooting, it’s alsor full of guys who won’t take their own initiative on defense, and/or haven’t shown to have the aptitude to play smart ‘free-flowing’ offense.

When looking at that, the projections for a low win total and not sniffing the playoffs even in this dredge of a conference make sense. I do wonder if it makes sense to management. If they think instead that just having a bunch of lottery picks makes them like their ‘04-’05 squad, that group was 2nd in the entire league on defense. And as Zach Lowe said over the summer, just because you project to be bad at one side of the ball doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be good at the other. It’s really difficult to see an outcome where - though with more ‘scorers’ and edict to push the pace - the Bulls have even a top-ten offensive unit.

So if GarPax haven’t fully committed to being asset accumulators, nor trying to immediately build a good 2018-19 team, what are they doing? That’s not meant to be a rhetorical question, instead something worth trying to figure out.

It looks like they’re embracing what’s been called (I can’t find the original source) a ‘second draft’, where they take busted talents with pedigree and hope to strike gold. With LaVine and Parker especially, there is high variance in their projections due to their age and injury history. It could mean their productivity so far is just how it’s going to be, even trending downwards. But it also means a massive leap in production (on both sides of the ball) shouldn’t be entirely unexpected.

Typically you don’t have to pay $20m a season for these types. But it can still work to where either LaVine or Parker break out, we see a more gradual progression from Markkanen and Carter, and that perpetuates Kris Dunn into a more steady contributor with other veterans remaining doing the same.

That is not a great chance, but it is a non-zero one. And thus, at the very least, the Bulls offseason deserves some buzz heading into this season. It’ll be intriguing to see if things can come together like that, playing a style that is aesthetically pleasing...though they didn’t change the telecast so aesthetics still won’t be too great.

Or it’ll be interesting the other way too: the team will be such a disaster defensively, and incoherent offensively, that it forces discussion on the coach up towards the path-setters in the front office. Do GarPax really expect more from Hoiberg this season and feel they gave him the tools to succeed? Or will it be like last year where they declared a nebulous goal of ‘development’, and that nearly-absolutely didn’t occur, and it didn’t matter because they admitted they were trying to lose?

Or maybe the 2018-19 Bulls is just a big attention-grabbing grift...John Paxson was right (in a self-own) that scorers get the money. They bring the attention too. Parker is a Chicago guy and did you know Zach LaVine won the dunk contest? This team can be marketed as ‘younger and more athletic’ and not have it as a total lie this time.

But will they be any good, and is management facilitating them to be good? Or did they just look to make splashes to become merely interesting? The greatest scam GarPax pulled off was using a rebuild as job cover, and pushing a narrative that this is a new squad even if the management is the same low-output group as ever. Their second greatest scam is not paying players (except when they do) and that being seen as prudent, flexible in perpetuity.

That doesn’t mean they can’t turn out correct and have this work - they’ve done some good things, notably in their recent top-10 selections - but a rebuild needs aggression and risk and being smarter than your competitors. Or instead a crap-ton of luck like what netted the Bulls their last competitive team.

Because as this season starts, while I do think this team is potentially fun and worth a watch, it’s not a franchise that’s positioned to be full-on interesting...because if they’re bad, interest will go too. And it won’t be any ‘attractive destination’ talk, but a pivot towards another tank (and coaching change?) that GarPax claim they don’t want to do again.