Checking in on the Bulls’ Plodding Rebuild

Featured Image By Dylan Buell / Getty Images

By Andrew Lawlor

On draft night in 2017, the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the pick that would become Lauri Markkanen, kick-starting a rebuild for a squad that had made the playoffs as the eighth seed the previous season. Three years later, Butler just led the Miami Heat to the NBA Finals, while the Bulls do not have much progress to show for their efforts.

The Bulls have not won more than 27 games in any of the past three seasons, and have not come close to the playoffs. This past season, they went 22–43 and were one of the eight teams to be left out of the Orlando bubble. In response, Chicago made big changes, bringing in a new GM (Arturas Karnisovas), assistant GM (Marc Eversley), and head coach (Billy Donovan).

Donovan has a respectable history, a stark contrast to Jim Boylen, the man he is replacing. After a long and successful career in college basketball at the University of Florida, he went 243–157 in four seasons with the Thunder, reaching the Conference Finals in his first season in 2016 before famously losing in seven games to the 73–9 Warriors. Granted, that team had Kevin Durant, and Donovan never won a playoff series after Durant left. But Donovan has managed to keep Oklahoma City afloat in the regular season despite many personnel changes; without Durant, he ran everything through Russell Westbrook in his MVP season, then incorporated Paul George, then embraced a youth movement around Chris Paul.

Donovan has issues; his offensive sets in Oklahoma City have long inspired criticism for a lack of ball movement. But he managed to go 44–28 this season with a young core even after Westbrook and George left in the offseason. He has overseen the development of countless young players, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and Luguentz Dort. He may not be perfect, but he can get the job done. (Also, he won’t do anything that will cause his players to visibly shake their heads in disgust on the court.)

Despite the Bulls’ lack of success over the past few seasons, the roster Donovan inherits in Chicago has talent. It starts with a promising young core. Zach LaVine has progressed every season in the NBA, and just averaged 25.5 points per game on 45/38/80 shooting splits. He even plays some defense now! Coby White is another guard who can fill it up, and just averaged 13.2 points per game on 39 (okay, that one’s not so great)/35/79 shooting splits in his rookie season. In the frontcourt, Wendell Carter Jr. has shown a lot of promise, particularly on defense, and Lauri Markkanen is a seven-footer with a good three-point shot, though his game has stagnated in other areas.

The Bulls also have some solid veterans surrounding their young core, including a high-quality three-and-D wing in Otto Porter Jr., plus guard Tomas Satoransky and big man Thaddeus Young. They also have two absolute bulldog defenders in Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison (though both are restricted free agents). All in all, the roster is not bad!

So why hasn’t it worked? Part of it is certainly poor coaching. Boylen put the team in bad spots on offense, and everyone struggled as a result. But part of it is also an unbalanced roster. Of the players listed above, only Satoransky and Dunn displayed any sort of passing acumen last season, and neither of them had the ball in their hands much.

 If the Bulls don’t blow it all up (and it seems like they won’t after they hired Donovan, who allegedly did not want to stick around for a rebuild in Oklahoma City), they need to add more playmaking and wings to help this squad fit better.

The solution to the playmaking issue could already be on the roster. White was just a rookie last year, so he could grow into a passer, even if he was in the 14th percentile of Cleaning the Glass’ assist-to-usage ratio for guards (LaVine was better, clocking in at the 65th percentile for wings, but was not good enough to lead the offense and is less likely to get better). Carter Jr. also provides an interesting possibility. Playmaking centers dominated the playoffs this year, and Carter Jr. projected as one coming out of college, drawing pre-draft comparisons to Al Horford. He has not been used in this way so far, but putting some playmaking responsibility on Carter Jr.’s shoulders could help juice the Bulls’ offense.

Donovan had the Thunder bigs pass more than the Bulls’ did last season

Outside of the current roster, the Bulls also possess the fourth pick in this year’s draft. They could look to add a pass-first point guard like LaMelo Ball (if he’s still available) or Killian Hayes. Among other options, Deni Avdija intrigues as a possible point forward-type player.

The Bulls should also be looking to add wings. The best teams in the NBA are full of forwards who can defend and shoot threes. Just in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward; the Raptors have Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Norman Powell; the Heat have Butler, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson; even the Bucks have Khris Middleton, Donte Divincenzo, and Wes Matthews. The Bulls have Porter Jr. and…Chandler Hutchison? Denzel Valentine? It’s bleak.

Porter Jr. is good, but the Bulls don’t have anyone else who can capably play the wing. Plus, Porter Jr. has missed large portions of the last two seasons due to injuries. The Bulls desperately need to add depth at the wings. Devin Vassell is an option for a three-and-D wing in the first round of the draft, especially if they trade down, and they should also be looking at wings in the early second round. There are also plenty of guys who can help in free agency; guys like Moe Harkless, Jae Crowder, or Alec Burks could be very helpful at reasonable prices.

If these options are not good enough, the Bulls could look to make a big trade. They probably are not going to trade LaVine for picks, but they may trade a lesser piece for a better roster fit. Many of the Bulls’ most interesting trades center around Markkanen. He has not meshed well with Carter Jr. so far in his career (they had a -0.5 net rating on the court together this season), but still carries value around the league due to his three-point shooting. The Bulls would be selling low on him, but perhaps they could ship Markkanen to a team in need of immediate frontcourt shooting (Celtics? 76ers? Suns?) for a first-rounder.

The Chicago Bulls are going to improve this season, simply because they have a huge upgrade in coaching. They should be a popular pick to increase their win total significantly, and are likely to make a run at the playoffs. But the Bulls need to make changes to turn this roster into a true contender. This offseason, they should be looking to add playmakers and wings.

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