An Optimistic Outlook on the 2019-20 Chicago Bulls



When I first started writing about basketball for Burbs, I focused quite a bit on the Chicago Bulls, my hometown team. I got to enjoy every single one of Derrick Rose's prime years in the Windy City, but now I've gotten to wallow in a state of despondency for the last two seasons ever since management hit the "reset" button. My coverage of the Bulls dropped off fast, as my bold prediction that they'd make the playoffs was proven wrong about 72 hours into the season. I had high hopes last season but part of me thinks it's because I didn't want to accept that we'd (yes, we, I've been in it for the long haul) be competing for a lottery pick in back-to-back years. I'd never really had to worry about missing the playoffs; D-Rose and Joakim would lead us to glory. I don't know, this year feels different. You can tell by the title that I'm optimistic about this season, and maybe my hopes are unfounded, but it feels like things are starting to fall into place for the first time in the post-Rose era. The Jimmy Butler years were fun, but it never actually felt like a championship was on the horizon.


LAST SEASON


Yeah, last year was tough. The Bulls entered the 2018-19 season with Wendell Carter, Jr. as the next young piece added, Fred Hoiberg as their head coach, and Jabari Parker was the coveted signing of the offseason. At the time, it didn't seem like a bad deal (two-years/$40 million with a team option on the second year). Before sustaining two ACL injuries to the same knee, Parker was a highly touted prospect out of Duke who was expected to be a dominant scorer at the pro level, and at times, he fulfilled that destiny. In the 2016-17 season, it seemed as if Jabari was on his way to his first career All-Star appearance for the Milwaukee Bucks (20.1 points per game on 49% shooting) before ultimately going down with an ACL injury. When he came home to Chicago, it felt as if he was a "risk" worth taking on. The cap space was there and Jabari could put the ball in the basket, what could go wrong?


A lot, apparently. Hoiberg, who had been at the helm since 2015, was fired in December following a 5-19 start to the season. Jim Boylen was picked as his replacement and his tenure started off on a terrible note. It honestly couldn't have been worse. He ran practices like Navy SEAL boot camp, which eventually led to a complaint from the Players Association and a near coup from players to overthrow him. Some of the veterans stuck by Boylen's side, but a majority of the young players weren't having any of it. It was a divided locker room plagued by injuries and Jabari had fallen out of favor (and the rotation) with the new brass; it felt like departures were inevitable. In February, Jabari and Bobby Portis were traded to the Washington Wizards for Otto Porter, a move I was pissed about at the time, mostly because I'm a huge Bobby Portis fan. He's going to be the second-coming of Patrick Ewing for the Knicks this year, wait and see. The acquisition of Porter brought in much-needed veteran leadership to a team that was full of young, albeit often injured, talent who seemed to lack direction from their elder teammates. Aside from Robin Lopez. He was a great leader and I'm excited to see him team up with Brook in Milwaukee. I saw a report that they want to turn Robin into a three-point shooter, too, which would be hilarious.



Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Jr. All eyes were on this core heading into the season as they'd been designated as the group that would develop alongside one another and lead the Bulls back to the playoffs. There was one problem, however: they had a lot of trouble staying healthy. As a young player in the NBA, one of the only ways to improve is to actually play, and when you're coming back sporadically while your teammates are simultaneously sidelined with injuries, it's tough to build camaraderie and gain beneficial playing time. Probably, my knees hurt after I play pickup so I can't really speak on it. In total, six young Bulls missed a combined 238 games with Denzel Valentine leading the way with 82 DNPS, followed by Wendell Carter, Jr. (38); Chandler Hutchinson (38); Kris Dunn (36); Lauri Markkanen (30); and Zach LaVine (19). Valentine is still yet to be cleared for full practice and Wendell is recovering from an offseason core muscle surgery (he's expected to be ready for training camp), but everyone else is heading into the season healthy, providing an opportunity for the young guys to actually play together on a nightly basis. With the inconsistent health of key players, wins were few and far between. Their longest winning streak was three games and the feat was only accomplished once. Chicago finished 22-60, good for 13th in the East. Falling into the lottery yet again, the Bulls landed the seventh pick in the draft for the third year in a row.



In a season of darkness, there were a few glimmers of light. Zach LaVine showed that he has the potential to be the leader of the team and a serious offensive threat as he averaged 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game on 46.7/37.4/83.2 shooting. There are still question marks regarding his defense and overall efficiency, but as he gets more comfortable leading an offense and plays more with his teammates, an All-Star appearance isn't out of the question. He's also indicated that he's working on defense, which would be big for the Bulls' success. Before going down with season-ending thumb surgery, Wendell Carter, Jr. was indicating that he'd be able to anchor the defense while providing solid big man offense. He averaged 10.3 points and seven boards to go along with 1.3 blocks in only 25 minutes a night. Wendell is a few months younger than me, so as he gets more comfortable in a starting (and more expansive) role and gets better and stronger, he'll become a defensive-minded double-double machine. I'm really high on Wendell, I think he's going to be great. Lauri Markkanen made the All-Rookie First Team following a rookie campaign that exceeded expectations, but unfortunately suffered aforementioned injuries that limited him to 52 games. After putting up almost 19 points and nine boards a night as a 21-year-old, Lauri continues to be a source of hope moving forward. Much like my thoughts on LaVine, I think if Lauri takes the "next step", he could contend for an All-Star spot. Just gotta hope for the best. Not everyone showed signs of improvement, however. Kris Dunn, who showed flashes of defensive prowess in 2017-18, had a disappointing, injury-riddled season in which he proved that he might be better off the bench rather than being one of the first five on the court. It was widely considered that one of the main pieces Chicago was missing was a formidable, fast-playing point guard. That might've finally been addressed...


OFFSEASON


"With the seventh pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls select: Coby White from the University of North Carolina."


Chicago's "glaring" hole at point guard was potentially filled with the selection of Coby White. He averaged 16.1 points in his lone season at UNC, and while his shooting percentages are less-than-stellar (42.3% from the field), his ability to play quick and run the fast break will be useful alongside backcourt partner Zach LaVine, a notable high flyer. Jim Boylen has already announced Kris Dunn as his starting point guard into the season but we'll see how long that lasts. Hopefully the threat of competition from White and free agent signee Tomas Satoransky lights a fire under Dunn's ass, as I believe that he could be a solid, defense-first guard to compliment the talented offense. The Bulls also drafted Daniel Gafford out of Arkansas with the 38th pick and after a stellar Summer League, he's looking like an absolute steal. Gafford will fit nicely in a run-and-gun offense; the man can absolutely fly. For all the shit GarPax gets, and often deservedly so, they have done great in the last three drafts. Gotta give credit where it's due.


In addition to the drafting of two rookies, the front office went out and got a duo of solid veteran free agents that will help make the Bulls much more competitive faster. Forward Thaddeus Young agreed to a three-year/$41 million deal and he'll bring leadership and a hard-working mentality to the locker room. A 12-year veteran, Young is known for his hustle and consistency, and while he's been around the league for a while, he's still an ultra-competitive player that'll help form the Bulls culture. Mentioned above, Tomas Satoransky signed a three-year/$30 million contract, and at 6'7", he can play both guard spots and small forward which means he can be versatile and slide into a number of lineup combinations. Both are expected to come off the bench, but with all the question marks surrounding starters' health, they can slide into the starting lineup and provide value when needed.



With the latest acquisitions and (near) full-strength roster heading into training camp, the expectations are absolutely higher than last season's. The Bulls have been given a projected win total of 30.5 for 2019-20, but like I've said, if everything falls properly into place, I see no reason why they can't exceed that and get near the 40-win mark and compete for a playoff spot. It's easy to disregard the Bulls' potential because of the last two seasons, but if you really look at the roster makeup and do so with a positive outlook, the sky is the limit. OK, maybe that's a bit of a stretch but after everything Bulls fans have had to put up with lately, the eight-seed is basically a championship. The Bulls are one of the youngest teams in the league and with Jim Boylen's intense coaching style starting to resonate amongst the young core, as well as the near-perfect fits of Thad Young and Sato, Chicago might be a fun League Pass team that could make a top-seed a bit winded in a first-round series due to their fast paced style. I'm staying hopeful entering the season because I'm tired of getting exhausted whenever I think of the Bulls. I was spoiled for the majority of my fandom and after getting a taste of New York-style losing, I want to go back to contention. Although I'm heading into the year with playoffs engrained in my head, there could be a few ways the season plays out.


SCENARIOS


1. The drought ends


Everyone enters the season, and stays, healthy. Zach LaVine makes improvements on defense and becomes more efficient offensively. Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter, Jr. take leaps in their development and become even more solid. Who knows, maybe Lauri can make the All-Star team. Dark horse prediction: Wendell averages a little over two blocks per game. At the end of the regular season the Bulls fall in the 6-8 seed range and compete in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. Big name free agents, cough Anthony Davis cough, see the improvement happening from within and have interest in joining. We win the 2021 Finals.


2. Purgatory


Individual performances and the team record are better than the last two seasons, but injuries and a lack of cohesion lead to mediocrity, no playoffs, and an unappealing draft position.


3. Bulls fan have to admit themselves into an actual madhouse


Shit hits the fan. We're officially damned to basketball hell; another shitty, tanking season. GarPax make a stupid move (or two). For some reason, things don't work, everyone hates Boylen, and the young core either don't develop or get hurt a lot. This won't happen, though.


Playoffs or bust, baby.




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