The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.
Last season: 41-41 getting the eight seed, lost to Boston in the first round.
I know what you did last summer: Chicago traded away Jimmy Butler for a
handful of magic beans Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and they swapped first round picks with the Timberwolves (that they gave up their No. 16 pick in that trade is inconceivable). The Bulls used that draft pick on Lauri Markkanen They let Rajon Rondo walk, re-signed Nikola Mirotic and Cristiano Felicio, picked up Quincy Pondexter and Justin Holiday.
THREE QUESTIONS THE BULLS MUST ANSWER:
1) When does Zach LaVine return and how does he look? LaVine is an explosive athlete — remember the dunk contest? — who scored 18.9 points per game last season because of that gift. Then he tore his ACL. There is legitimate reason for concern. LaVine is young, he could well bounce all the way back, but traditionally this is not a fast process.
The latest projections are LaVine will start contact in practice in mid-November, which could have him back around Thanksgiving if there are no setbacks. However, expect the Bulls to be cautious with him, and restrict his minutes when he does return. Usually with ACLs it takes players time — like months, maybe a year — after returning to the court to really truly trust the knee again, not think about it, and play like their former selves.
LaVine is a restricted free agent next summer, so how he looks when he does bounce back will directly impact his paycheck next season. The Bulls will want to keep him after getting him for Butler, the only questions are at what cost, and can he continue his upward trajectory after his return.
2) Who plays point guard? This is the worst point guard rotation in the NBA. (I see you waiving your hands Knicks fans, but Ramon Sessions and the promise of Frank Ntilikina is a clear step better than anything in Chicago.) All three of their current options are poor.
The Bulls front office wanted Cameron Payne as part of the Taj Gibson trade with OKC, but he is going to miss at least the first month of the season with his third injury to the same foot in a couple of years. He hasn’t been terribly impressive when on the court and may not be in the NBA next season.
That leaves Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant as the Bulls point guards. Dunn probably gets the first crack at the job, but he was terrible this past season — he shot 37.7 percent overall and 28.8 percent from three, turned the ball over on 21 percent of his possessions, didn’t run the offense well or get to the foul line. His PER of 8.1 last season suggests guy who should be bouncing between the NBA and G-League. He also didn’t look good in very limited Summer League action, either. On the upside, he can defend a little. Fred Hoiberg has a lot of development work to do here, but after last season I wonder if Dunn is as explosive as advertised. Look at it this way: Tom Thibodeau used the No. 5 pick on Dunn, then after one season was willing to trade him away. Dunn is going to get his chance, but he’s going to have to be a lot better for this to work out to the Bulls.
My guess is, like last season, eventually Hoiberg will be Forced to turn to Grant. He played respectably for the Bulls last season in tandem with Rondo (a little below NBA average, but he shot 37 percent from three), at least until the playoffs when Rondo went down and Grant was so bad Hoiberg had to turn to Isaiah Canaan (who Chicago didn’t even bring back). Grant struggles on defense. Bottom line, there are no good options at the point for the Bulls, and that is going to drag their team down.
3) Can Fred Hoiberg develop young talent? The Gar/Pax front office hand-picked Hoiberg out of college as a guy they could work with, who cared about analytics, and a guy who would bring a more modern style of play to Chicago. That hasn’t gone smoothly. To be kind. Now Hoiberg sees his job change to one more about developing players for the future rather than trying everything to win now. He comes out of the college ranks where he did develop players — he still serves as the Bulls’ shooting coach — but can he translate all of that to the NBA level? He’s got a couple a season to prove he can. (Whether Bulls fans should fear Gar/Pax as the architects of this rebuild is another question.)
Outside of LaVine and Markkanen, how much can any of them grow? They may be rotation players.
Markkanen was a controversial pick, a European big man who can shoot the three, those kinds of players have a mixed history of adapting to the NBA game. Markkanen was unimpressive in Summer League in Las Vegas (he averaged 14 points and 9 boards a game, but shot 29.3 percent and was pushed around by the likes of Ryan Kelly), but the challenge for Hoiberg is to get him in spaces where he can be confident with his shot, then develop his all around game. It’s going to take time. Markkanen did play well in EuroBasket, if you want some silver lining.
The Bulls are tanking this season, they are going to be one of the handful of worst teams in the NBA, and in the final season before lottery reform they should have a very high pick in a draft expected to have serious talent at the top. (The Bulls second-round pick goes to the Knicks via the Thunder.) Starting this season with LaVine (when healthy) and Markkanen, Portis, and Washington, we’ll see if Hoiberg is up to this new developmental. He’s not on the hot seat (yet), but if these players don’t grow it will get warm.