Languishing in the middle of the pack is known as being in the NBA’s version of purgatory. The Charlotte Hornets have been residents here since 2014. Being just good enough to remain in the playoff chase the past five seasons, but nowhere strong enough to seriously contend among the league’s elite.
Back to back 36-46 finishes led to the ouster of veteran head coach Steve Clifford during the offseason. The team also offloaded future Hall of Fame center Dwight Howard. Enter new general manager Mitch Kupchak and new head coach James Borrego with a mission to aid Charlotte’s ascent up the league’s hierarchy.
The Hornets will enter the 2018-19 season with major contributors up and down the roster that could hit free agency next summer. Adding this to a new front office regime while also incorporating a new coach could lead to some early turbulence and uncertainty.
Charlotte has an interesting mix of young prospects, a stockpile of draft picks and could have up to $51 million in cap space next summer. There are three ways to improve in the NBA – the draft, trade market and free agency. The Hornets are strongly positioned to take advantage in all three areas and could finally free itself from the grips of purgatory.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
There are specific things to like about the Hornets. Kemba Walker has turned himself into a lethal point guard despite being undersized. Malik Monk and Miles Bridges have upside and could become foundational players for Charlotte. They have experienced veterans who should make the team competitive on just about any given night in the Eastern Conference. But the ceiling is very limited for this roster. It’s hard to imagine Charlotte making it past the Celtics, Raptors or 76ers in the postseason and there isn’t much reason to believe this team can make any deals that substantively change this dynamic. This is an expensive roster that doesn’t have the upside to justify such a hefty price tag. This may be the season where the front office decides to start selling off its top players, even Kemba Walker, for prospects and other assets. To be clear, this team could easily be in the playoff mix this season, but making it past the first round seems less than likely.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Will we look back on the summer of 2018 as the one that signaled a changing of the tides in Charlotte? The outlines are certainly there, but there are also some contrary signs. The Hornets found new names for both their coach and GM positions, bringing in James Borrego and Mitch Kupchak, respectively. They became the latest team to move on from Dwight Howard. They also nabbed Miles Bridges in a draft day trade with the Clippers, plus are very high on early second-rounder Devonte’ Graham as a future piece. By the same token, the Hornets still have several pricey veterans on the roster, plus signed Tony Parker as a new backup point guard. All of which leads us to the elephant in the room, actually one of the team’s smallest players: Star Kemba Walker. Walker is in the final year of his contract before hitting the unrestricted market in 2019, and whether the Hornets will be able – or even willing, for that matter – to lock him up at his market price is the biggest question in Charlotte. If they get the idea the answer is no, will they look to shop Walker before the trade deadline? All eyes are on Kemba for a franchise that tops out as a middling playoff contender in the East.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
In his first year as a head coach in Charlotte, James Borrego has an opportunity to take the Hornets to the next level, which they haven’t been able to reach in the past two years. There is always playoff potential when you’re in the Eastern Conference, and with Kemba Walker entering the prime of his career, it’s more than plausible for it to happen this season. Promising upstart Willy Hernangomez is poised to have a breakout year, which will push Cody Zeller to step it up in order to keep his starting spot. Sophomore guard Malik Monk could be in for a big season himself. Veterans like Nic Batum and newcomer Tony Parker will help in the locker room. It’s only year one, but they’ll be hovering around the postseason race.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
Here’s how to describe the Hornets: To determine whether a team is good, all they have to do is compare themselves to Charlotte. If the team is better than the Hornets, then that team is good. If it’s worse, then that team is bad. That’s what the Charlotte Hornets are. The living embodiment of mediocre. Even if they wind up snagging a playoff spot, what would be the point? Outside of Kemba Walker, the roster is nothing special. The best-case scenario for them would be a competitive first-round series, and that’s if everything goes their way. Even with their coaching change and some intriguing young talent, don’t expect too much from Charlotte this season.
3rd Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
The Hornets are middling at best. That’s tough to say because the hiring of James Borrego was solid. They have some promising young guys, and there is enough talent on the roster to think they are good enough for the post-season in the East. The problem is there isn’t anything about the Hornets worth believing in. You want to believe Kemba Walker will break out (again), but historically he’s been injured. You want to believe the guys they invested huge contracts into are going to bounce back, but they too have either been injured or not playing to the level that got them paid. The Hornets are a mess, and it’s hard to put a lot of stock into a team that’s a mess. Maybe they bounce back … Maybe.
4th Place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Kemba Walker
First things first, Walker is the Hornets’ career leading scorer. The 28-year-old guard has missed only six games the past three seasons, has recorded back to back All-Star appearances and notched three consecutive campaigns averaging more than 20 points per contest. Walker, an unrestricted free agent next summer, is entering his prime and will be in high demand if he hits the open market. Trade rumors have been swirling around Walker for a year and it remains to be seen if the former UCONN product is truly in Charlotte’s long-term plans under Kupchak.
Walker will enter the season as Charlotte’s number one offensive option. Walker shot 31 percent from three-point range as a rookie in 2012, but hasn’t shot below 37 percent from distance the last three seasons, which is a testament of his offensive growth. The Hornets’ next leading returning scorer from last season behind Walker is guard Jeremy Lamb and he averaged nine points less in 2018. It’s safe to say as Walker goes, the Hornets go offensively.
Top Defensive Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
While their respective offensive games leave much to be desired, Kidd-Gilchrist and veteran center Bismack Biyombo have the raw talent to be defensive stalwarts. However, Kidd-Gilchrist ranked 32nd among small forwards last season in defensive real plus minus. Biyombo didn’t fare much better, landing at 73rd overall for qualifying centers.
Still, Kidd-Gilchrist is a very reliable wing defender with the ability to guard at least three positions. To put it simply, defense is Kidd-Gilchrist’s calling card and it remains his primary role with the Hornets.
Top Playmaker: Nicolas Batum
Batum remains one of the most versatile players in the league. The 10-year veteran consistently contributes all over the nightly box score, but his ability to facilitate Charlotte’s offense also allows backcourt mate Kemba Walker to shoulder a heavier scoring workload. Heading into the season, Batum currently sits 10th all-time on the Hornets’ career assist list.
There has been talk of Batum moving back to his natural small forward position under Borrego and this could impact his playmaking, so it is a situation to watch heading into training camp.
Top Clutch Player: Kemba Walker
When the lead is five points or less with less than five minutes to go in regulation, the ball will be in the hands of Walker. Period. Walker averaged 3.4 points in these situations last season. The next returning Hornets player, Nicolas Batum, averaged 1.2 points.
The Unheralded Player: Marvin Williams
Williams will never live up to the expectations of being the guy selected before point guard Chris Paul in the 2005 draft, but Williams has become one of the most consistent players in the league during his tenure. With Williams you know exactly what you’re going to get; a pinch of double-digit scoring, solid rebounding for his position and decent defense. In two of the past three years, Williams has posted 40 percent shooting seasons from three-point range, further showing his versatility. This season, assuming good health, Williams should surpass the 1,000 regular season games played mark and the 10,000 career points milestone.
Best New Addition: Tony Parker
Finals MVP. Four-time NBA champ. Six-time All-Star. Four-time All-NBA performer. What’s not to like about the signing of veteran guard Tony Parker this past summer? Sure, the Hornets aren’t getting a prime Parker and he has showed signs of aging in recent years. But Parker is very familiar with Borrego from their time in San Antonio together, which is exactly the type of safety blanket a new coach could use while getting fully acclimated.
With Walker’s impending free agency, Parker could also be used as a stopgap option if Charlotte elects to trade him before the deadline or loses him in free agency next summer. Unlike some other aging future Hall of Fame talents around the league, Parker has seemingly embraced his role as the old graybeard.
– Lang Greene
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego
The Hornets have received criticism over the years for playing it safe when it comes to front office and head coaching hires. But Charlotte swung for the fences with their latest additions. Kupchak won four titles as a general manager for the Los Angeles Lakers and three titles as a player. Borrego broke the barrier by becoming the first Hispanic full-time head coach. Borrego served on the San Antonio Spurs’ staff the past three seasons but also was an interim head coach for the Orlando Magic in 2015. Both hires signal a new direction for Charlotte and it will be interesting to see if the franchise elects for a true rebuilding project or more of a retooling effort on the fly.
2. Stockpile of second round draft picks
The Hornets will enter the season with a payroll exceeding $120 million. With the team up against the salary cap, Charlotte has been stockpiling additional draft picks for leverage to acquire new talent. The team has six second round picks through 2021 and the needed flexibility to acquire younger and less expensive talent until the cap situation improves.
3. Malik Monk
Monk averaged 19.8 points per game in his lone collegiate season at the University of Kentucky. The guard, only 20 years old, had an uneven rookie campaign but showed flashes of potential. Monk’s upside is the most intriguing. In the Hornet’s final five games of the season, Monk averaged over 20 points per game. During this stretch, the guard shot 48 percent from the field. For the entire season, Monk’s field goal accuracy was just 36 percent. Monk has the potential to become a high volume scorer in the league. With incumbent starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb headed to free agency next summer, Monk may have more runway this season to perform.
4. Miles Bridges
In a draft night trade, the Hornets acquired Bridges from the Los Angeles Clippers. In recent years, Charlotte’s draft history has been questionable. While Monk shows upside, forward Frank Kaminsky hasn’t panned out as the team once hoped.
Bridges holds the distinction of being one of the most explosive athletes from this year’s draft class and he has shown the ability to score, facilitate and rebound. With Lamb on his way to free agency and Batum’s past health issues, Bridges could be in line to receive extended minutes at some point during his rookie campaign.
– Lang Greene
Point guard and the wing positions are areas of strength for the Hornets. Walker is poised for another 20-plus point per game campaign and his third consecutive All-Star appearance. The addition of Parker gives the team much needed depth behind Walker and is an immediate upgrade over the departed Michael Carter-Williams. The trio of Batum, Bridges and Kidd-Gilchrist should also be productive and provides head coach Borrego flexibility in his nightly lineups.
– Lang Greene
Interior play and rebounding will be a struggle for Charlotte this season. Say what you will about departed center Dwight Howard, but he has always been a glass cleaner – averaging 12.5 in his lone season with the Hornets. The next returning rebounder in Charlotte is Cody Zeller who pulled down 5.4 boards per game in 2018. The next three rebounders were Willy Hernangomez, Batum and Williams. Kaminsky averaged 24 minutes per game and pulled down just 3.6 per outing.
The hope here may be to leverage the newly acquired Biyombo to assist on the boards, but offensively the team will struggle at times with him on the floor compared to Zeller. Biyombo has never averaged more than six points per game in his seven year career.
– Lang Greene
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling?
The Kupchak-Borrego era begins. But are the Hornets rebuilding or retooling? The answer to this question remains unclear heading into training camp. The team has enough talent to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but they aren’t contenders by any stretch of the imagination.
The next few months will shed light on what direction Kupchak envisions for the franchise. Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The team could potentially lose their all-time leading scorer for nothing in return at the end of the season. This makes the prospect of a trade before the deadline feasible – at the very least.
Outside of Walker there are other free agency concerns brewing. Biyombo ($17M), Williams ($15M) and Kidd-Gilchrist ($13M) all have player options for the 2019-20 season and could become free agents. Parker, Hernangomez and Dwayne Bacon all have non-guaranteed deals for next season while Kaminsky could enter restricted free agency.
Charlotte has the luxury to pursue either path, but the team is up against the salary cap and another middle of the pack finish will result in another late lottery pick.
– Lang Greene
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.