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Trying to process what could be yet another wasted season

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the problem with waiting to make moves

2020 Chicago Bulls Team Operations Room Photo by Joe Pinchin/NBAE via Getty Images

I fear I may have uttered the dreaded ‘freezing cold take’ when initially assessing the first half of the Bulls schedule and calling it “a bit soft, early”.

Because I read a lot in other places suggesting that this schedule is actually really tough! Dare I say I was more in the mindset of KC Johnson when seeing the schedule, figuring a team that was outright terrible last season and made no meaningful roster improvements has very few ‘gimme’ wins, so seeing the Hawks and Wizards as 50/50 matchups made things seem better.

(in ESPN’s attempt to do a strength of schedule analysis, it wasn’t just that there aren’t a lot of teams worse than the Bulls that doesn’t do them favors. Between that, travel, and back-to-backs, the Bulls have the 3rd toughest schedule in the league while the surely-worse Knicks have 8th easiest)

Maybe it was actually seeing scheduled games that drove home the point that we should have seen coming after an offseason of roster inertia: this Bulls team is likely going to have a really bad year.

Just to pull a subjective rankings out of the internet, The Ringer this week had the Bulls in the second-lowest tier of teams, in the bottom-5 overall. Four of those teams are in the East: the Knicks, Cavs, Pistons and Bulls with the OKC Thunder rounding out that turd-pile. Given a cursory glance, this seems more-or-less accurate. The Bulls won 11 fewer games than Orlando last year. Charlotte, Atlanta, and the Wizards all made significant additions. The Bulls added Garrett Temple.

It’s kind of a shock, honestly, and maybe because I was so focused on the Bulls doing so little that it lowered my attention towards other teams actually trying. Maybe it’s activity being confused for accomplishment, as the Bulls did make some moves last summer that were widely praised and yet the team was a disaster. Clearly a new coach will help: not only can they negate the damage Jim Boylen did by merely getting to a level of competence, perhaps Billy Donovan actually adds wins over a replacement-level coach.

But perhaps it shouldn’t be that shocking: despite protestations to the contrary, given that Arturas Karnisovas didn’t even try around the margins to improve the roster for more wins and better development, maybe that’s indication enough he’s willing to throw away this season. (we know ownership will be willing!)

There is a hope that the Bulls are merely biding their time for a big trade deadline move. But inactivity during the offseason, when teams have cap space and roster spots and a vast majority of transactions are done, means it’s only more likely they’ll also do nothing at the deadline.

  1. A lot of player value will only go down as you go deeper in the season: there are fewer games for the acquiring team to have that player make an impact, and/or their contracts are shorter. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen would have to make big improvements to raise their value commiserate with that contract reality. The only other players I could see increasing their value after a half-season of improvement under a real coach are Otto Porter, Wendell Carter, and Coby White. All the rest are pretty much what they are in terms of how the league would value them.
  2. In this weird season, there’s ~35 games until the trade deadline, and the 10th-best record in the conference will get a pseudo-playoff berth. How is that enough ‘thorough evaluation’ for Karnisovas to know about his roster that he doesn’t already? If they are bad enough to not even be sniffing 10th place, that likely means the core players sucked and their value only went down. If they reach the very low bar of being ‘in the hunt’, will Karnisovas really sell? Especially when there isn’t much value to be had for the veterans then or now, I could easily see a stand-pat deadline and ‘well what could he do???’ responses (again).
  3. Buyers’ significance in trade deadline moves have gone down in recent years. The openness of these playoffs may make it less active: a lot of teams will be ‘in the hunt’ and not see a need to use future capital. And expiring contracts are only worth something if you will take on multi-year money in return. The Bulls have said, and made non-moves, indicating that they value 2021 cap space.

The Bulls did significantly improve the coaching and player development staff, but there are very few players who need this development to where it was good they weren’t moved. But so many other roster spots could’ve been used to add more developmental players, and/or balance out the roster to help the actual basketball team (which helps foster that development!).

So, altogether: I’m not even sure what to root for this year, which after the optimism engendered by shitcanning Gar Forman and (eventually) Boylen, is a real bummer! They are just letting this same roster hang out there with the same clear vulnerabilities (good PG play, depth at wing). So, like, it will be potentially fun to see if Coby White can be the point guard of the future, but that there is so much on him that his growing pains could negatively impact the bigs’ development and have a projected loss on the schedule most nights is depressing.

And I don’t think this season or trade deadline is going to tell us much. They won’t be bad enough to do a mid-season sell-off to improve their asset base much, nor good enough to get that ‘desirable destination’ label heading into free agency 2021.

So maybe I’m slow on the uptake: this season, given COVID and its impact on ownership, was always going to go right in the trash. Nearly every other team didn’t behave this way and at least had a direction, but the Bulls are just running in place until 2021. Then, they’ll have cap space and likely a lottery pick, but hell: it would’ve been nice to not give up on a NBA season, even a truncated one, before it even begins.