Chris Bosh is reportedly being held out of training camp because Miami HEAT doctors won’t clear him to play due to his blood clotting issues. Because of this news, I wanted to re-post this story that I wrote in 2013 when Anderson Varejao was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Here is my story:
Anderson Varejao was on pace to have the best year of his career. However, in January of 2013, he suffered a quad injury that forced him to have routine surgery. That’s when things went downhill. Varejao developed a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in his lung), which kept him sidelined for the entire season.
A pulmonary embolism isn’t a typical injury, one that heals on a specific timetable like a broken bone. This is a strange injury and one that can be difficult to bounce back from, as I learned from personal experience several years ago.
In August of 2012, I was flipping through television channels late at night when I noticed a deep pain that was shooting down my right shoulder. Shortly after, while watching ESPN, I started experiencing tightening in my lower back.
At first, I didn’t think much of these aches. After all, I had been horizontal in a hospital bed for six days so some soreness was somewhat expected. I had just undergone surgery due to Crohn’s Disease, which I’ve been battling for the last 13 years, and I was immobilized because a portion of my intestines had been removed along with part of my colon and appendix. Overall, my recovery was going well and I was set to be discharged soon, barring any complications. I told my nurse about the discomfort in my shoulder and lower back, but they chalked it up to the uncomfortable bed as well.
Throughout the next day, my pain worsened to the point that I wasn’t able to function. I had literally wrapped my shoulder and torso in heating pads and was trying to move my body in every possible position to get comfortable. No matter what I did, the pain persisted. By that night, I was in excruciating pain that I could no longer tolerate.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when I was 12 years old. I’ve been dealing with flare-ups for over a decade and I’ve been hospitalized many times. I’ve had a wide array of ailments and complications due to my medical condition, so I have a relatively high pain tolerance (even dating back to my childhood). But this was by far the worst pain that I had ever experienced. Nurses often tell me that I’m one of their easiest patients because I’m calm, cool and collected, even when things are at their worst. I can typically tough out stomach cramping and sharp abdominal pain.
However, this was different. On this night, I was a mess. I was crying, punching the thin mattress and begging my nurse to page the doctor who was on call. After about an hour of this torture, the nurse returned to inform me that the doctor didn’t want to change my orders. Because I had been on pain medicine for the six days following my surgery and had just been taken off of it to prepare for discharge, he believed I was just trying to get some more pain medicine. The nurse, who felt terrible, said that she could only offer me Tylenol. Needless to say, it didn’t help. At this point, I was absolutely livid and in uncontrollable pain.
While I understand that there are addicts out there who will lie and deceive to get their hands on pain medicine, doctors shouldn’t automatically assume that they’re being duped. Some patients deserve the benefit of the doubt or, at the very least, a visit from the doctor. The message that I would have to continue suffering was told to the nurse over the phone and then relayed to me. I wouldn’t see a doctor for another 10 hours, which could’ve been the difference between me living or dying in hindsight.
The most painful night of my life continued, with seconds feeling like hours and hours feeling like days.
Eventually, my surgeon came in for his daily check-in at 7 a.m. and saw the state that I was in. He immediately knew that something was wrong, and ordered a chest x-ray as well as a CT scan. He also ordered a dose of IV pain medicine to be administered before these tests, which was one of the strangest experiences of my life. I went from one end of the pain spectrum all the way to the other. At one moment, my shoulder felt like it was being stabbed, my back was locked up and my body was convulsing. The next moment, I felt nothing and was smiling. It was such a weird sensations – going from perhaps the worst feeling of my entire life to one of the best feelings (complete relief) in several seconds.
The x-ray and scan showed that my pain wasn’t just from an uncomfortable bed (which would’ve been awfully embarrassing given the amount of agony I was in). It turns out I had developed a large pulmonary embolism (blood clot) in each lung. The larger of the two clots was so severe that a portion of my lung tissue died, which is called a pulmonary infarction. The infarction is what caused the bulk of my pain. According to my surgeon, the lung doesn’t have pain sensors so when something is going wrong such as a blood clot develops or lung tissue dies, the body starts to alert pain sensors in other body parts. This is why my shoulder and back hurt so badly; it was essentially my lung begging for help.
Not to sound dramatic, but I truly felt like I was going to die that night. That was unprecedented pain for me. Not to mention, pulmonary emboli usually cause patients to have anxiety and a feeling of doom. That perfectly sums up how I felt as I watched the clock tick slowly as my pain got worse and my mind raced. At that point, all I wanted was relief and answers, and I was genuinely scared that I wouldn’t get them soon enough. When I called my girlfriend in the morning and told her that I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, she immediately started to cry. Apparently she had already known the severity of a blood clot to the lung; I was pretty much learning on the fly from my surgeon while in a pain medicine fog.
My doctor immediately started me on blood thinning injections called Lovenox, which is a shot I had to give myself in my stomach every morning and night. He also continued my pain medicine, since the excruciating pain wouldn’t persist until the clots eventually broke up and the lung tissue regenerated.
Later in the day, my gastroenterologist came in to check on me. She was almost in tears as she explained just how close I had come to dying. Considering she’s a gastroenterologist who specializes in young adults, she clearly wasn’t accustomed to losing patients and was visibly affected. Not to mention, she had known me for 10 years so she was understandably distraught, just like my family and friends.
“Had your surgeon come in any later, who knows if you’d still be alive?” she said, shaking her head. “It’s a good thing he does morning rounds. Otherwise, who knows? Thank God he came when he did, and recognized what was wrong almost immediately.”
It wasn’t until this point that I realized just how close I came to death, and just how pissed off I was at the doctor who was on call the night before and completely ignored me.
The next few months were brutal, as I dealt with complications related to the clot. From August to November, I was admitted into the hospital six times for a total of 53 days. I also had to go to the emergency room 15 times during that span. The mindset is ‘better safe than sorry’ when dealing with a potential clot. Every pain in my shoulder, back or chest had to be checked to ensure it wasn’t going to kill me.
These days, both clots are completely gone, but even a year afterward I still occasionally felt side effects. If I exerted myself, I would have chest pain and shortness of breath. Every now and then, my shoulder and back would start to hurt.
Not only did the clot affect me physically, it definitely affected my mental state. I went from feeling like an invincible kid to realizing that the painful moments in that hospital bed could’ve been my last. I was forced to confront my mortality and deal with some anxiety every time similar symptoms surfaced. To have something so serious come out of nowhere is terrifying. It did strengthen my relationships and taught me not to take life for granted, but there’s no question that the experience messed with my head a bit. Still, I know it could be so much worse I’m thankful every day that I’m still alive.
Let’s get back to Varejao. He developed the clot in his lower right lung as he was recovering from the quad surgery. He had trouble sleeping, pain in his back and discomfort in his chest. He informed someone from the Cavaliers’ medical staff (who I assume was much more attentive than my doctor), and a scan revealed the clot.
Much like myself, Varejao didn’t realize the gravity of the situation until hearing from others just how common death is in these types of cases.
“They told me stories like, ‘Oh my God, I had a friend who died of a blood clot in their lung,’” Varejao told Yahoo! Sports. “And then somebody else tells me the same thing. Then you start to think about it and realize that this is more serious than I thought. A week after the surgery I was at home thinking about how I could be gone right now.”
“I was having my best season, the best time of my life, and a week later I’m in the hospital and I could be dead,” Varejao added. “It’s crazy. I’m very lucky.”
The clotting issue required him to miss the remainder of the season because he would be on anticoagulants. It would be impossible for a basketball player to take the court while on blood-thinning medicine. When I get blood drawn, it looks like someone just amputated my arm. I can’t even imagine how bloody things would get on the court with some of the physical play that Varejao endures in the paint. It remains to be seen how Varejao will respond in his first season back since the pulmonary embolism. All cases are unique and everybody responds differently to physical exertion.
He says he has been pain free for months and was able to stop taking the blood-thinning medication in April, which is an excellent step since some patients – including myself – must remain on the medicine for a longer period of time. He has able to work out, but he’s the first to admit that he still doesn’t quite feel like himself, estimating that he’s at 70 percent heading into the starting of training camp.
He’ll have to be careful on long flights throughout the season, as that’s when most clots are developed. Once a person has developed a pulmonary embolism, they become more susceptible to future clots. A professional athlete who is constantly traveling the country must be extra diligent.
With all of that said, Varejao isn’t the first professional athlete to experience a pulmonary embolism. It’s not like this is uncharted territory.
Back in 2011, tennis superstar Serena Williams developed the same kind of clot in her lung. Unlike Varejao, she was extremely limited for over one year. In fact, at one point, thought she might die.
“I was on my death bed at one point – quite literally,” Williams said in a press conference. “It got to the stage where it felt like I could hardly breathe. Some days I didn’t get out of bed at all. I just laid on a couch thinking why has this happened to me? … This has given me a whole new perspective on life and my career – and not taking anything for granted. I’m just taking one day at a time.”
After taking a year off, Williams was eventually able to return to form and duplicate her pre-injury success. However, that’s not always the case.
Two offensive linemen – Cleveland Browns guard Jason Pinkston and New York Giants tackle Stacy Andrews – were hospitalized with pulmonary emboli in recent year. Neither player has returned to the field since the diagnosis, despite being starters prior to the injuries.
Varejao, Williams, Pinkston and Andrews were fortunate that their clots were detected early. Many athletes have died over the years from pulmonary emboli, including Mack Lee Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs, Harry Agganis of the Boston Red Sox and Derrick Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs among others.
Even if a pulmonary embolism isn’t career-ending, it can still greatly affect the individual’s life. Even after recovering from a blood clot in the lung, it’s not uncommon for a patient to experience shortness of breath or chest pain, especially when exerting themselves physically.
Sometimes, I would feel slightly fatigued and short of breath when I was sitting on the couch in the year following my clot. I can’t even imagine how an NBA player feels when he’s running up and down the court, banging with the best athletes in the world.
Varejao won’t know how his body will respond until he takes the court, but at the end of the day, the fact that he’s alive and in a position to resume his career at all is a blessing in itself.
NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation
D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.
In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.
Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.
His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?
The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.
Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.
Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.
Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.
First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.
If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.
Of course things are different now.
After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.
It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.
— D'Angelo Russell (@Dloading) March 23, 2019
This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.
It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.
What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.
Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.
Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.
More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.
In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.
Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.
This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.
It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.
So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.
NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home
Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?
There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.
And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.
Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.
At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.
See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.
Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.
While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?
This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.
Los Angeles Clippers
With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.
In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.
Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.
Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.
Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.
Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.
The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.
If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.
Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.
New Orleans Pelicans
Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.
This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.
Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.
With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.
And he did all that in New Orleans.
Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.
With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.
It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.
That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.
So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
What is Working
Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.
The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.
He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.
Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.
There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.
More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.
What Needs to Change
The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.
Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.
Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.
The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.
And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.
Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.
Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.
Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.
Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.
Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.
Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.
The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough
Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.