We’re in the final days before training camp opens, and there’s actually a decent amount of drama going on around the NBA. The Ben Simmons trade saga is still hanging over the Sixers, the Timberwolves just fired president Gersson Rosas for “performance reasons” (and some, ahem, extracurricular activity) and we found out that David Griffin tried to bond with Zion Williamson by playing the piano.
This month has been pleasantly quiet for the Bulls since they filled out their roster. We’ve gotten some nice shots from the team’s Twitter account of guys working out #InTheBuilding and throwing out first pitches at a White Sox game, so that’s always fun.
Then, of course, there are the NBA player rankings that always come out around this time. I’m not a biggest fan of rankings and try not to get too worked up over them, but given the Bulls actually have some talent now, I was intrigued to see where their top guys wound up on these lists.
If you recall, the Bulls had five players show up on Seth Partnow’s player tiers project over at The Athletic, with Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso making the cut among 125 players. This week, ESPN and Sports Illustrated released their Top 100 lists. Caruso unsurprisingly didn’t make either of these, but the other four all did.
LaVine took a major leap and comes in at No. 33 at ESPN (up from No. 56) and No. 29 on Sports Illustrated (up from 75). I’d argue LaVine should be a bit higher given just how prolific he was offensively and how he’s finally in position to shine on a decent-to-good team, but it’s not a big surprise that he’s still being underrated because of the Bulls’ lack of success during his tenure.
Looking at the guys immediately ahead of him on the ESPN list (Klay Thompson, Ja Morant, CJ McCollum, Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram), you can make a case for LaVine over all of them. He does need to prove he can sustain the high level he played at last season, but he has gotten better every season and there’s little reason to think he regresses.
The thing that really stood out the most to me was seeing Bradley Beal (No. 11 on ESPN, No. 15 on SI) compared to LaVine. I have no issues with Beal being over LaVine because of track record, but there’s just no way the gap between them (especially the ESPN gap) is that large at this point. In fact, LaVine arguably had a better individual season in 2020-21. The same could be said of players like Devin Booker (No. 15 on ESPN, No. 16 on SI) and Donovan Mitchell (No. 18 on ESPN, No. 24 on SI). Check out this comparison featuring a few different metrics:
The only real difference between LaVine, Beal, Booker, and Mitchell is that Zach hasn't really been surrounded by talent yet, until this coming season. They are all very similar level of players that belong in the same tier. #BullsNation pic.twitter.com/YXDgY3MqFl— Salim (@Salim_BGhoops) September 23, 2021
I have zero issue with LaVine being behind these guys, but the gap is small. If the Bulls win in 2021-22, the respect will come and he’ll rise up to these levels in the rankings.
Vucevic is No. 39 on ESPN (up from No. 42) and ... No. 39 on SI (up from No. 43). Honestly, this seems about right. He has made two All-Star Games in the last three seasons, but there’s a lot of context that goes into that and I’m not going to argue he’s a top-25 guy.
DeRozan is an interesting one. He was all the way down at No. 82 on ESPN’s list last season (he wasn’t happy about it), but now he’s back up to No. 45. Meanwhile, SI had him at No. 39 last season and now has him at No. 42.
42 feels a little high based on the shortcomings he has, but he really did have a nice offensive season with the Spurs in 2020-21. Right around the top 50 seems right, so it’s not like this is egregious.
Ball has by far the biggest discrepancy among Bulls players. ESPN has him at No. 57 (down from No. 54), while SI has him at No. 76 (he was unranked last season). 57 is a bit aggressive, though his advanced metrics from this past season put him in that ballpark, so it’s not too crazy. Firmly in the top 75 makes sense, and then perhaps he could push close to top 50 with a big season.
Furthermore, Tom Ziller ranked the top 28 players under 25 earlier this week on his Substack and put Ball and No. 20, right behind Jarrett Allen, OG Anunoby and Tyrese Haliburton. Seems fair.
Lauri Markkanen is at No. 82 on the ESPN list. I got nothing.