The Memphis Grizzlies enter the 2018 NBA season with something they were sorely lacking last year: health. The Grit-n-Grind squad returns Mike Conley, among others, to a team that won just 21 games last season.
But that’s not all.
Memphis has been busy this offseason, preparing for a Western Conference that has improved from top-to-bottom. After letting go of David Fizdale midseason the Grizzlies brought in J.B. Bickerstaff as the interim head coach and have since retained his services. Then, in June, Memphis made Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the more intriguing prospects in this year’s rookie class, the No. 4 overall pick. Since then, they have brought in veterans such as Kyle Anderson and Garret Temple to fill out the roster and hopefully add some depth should the injury bug strike them again next season.
So, how will the team look next season? Let’s take a look.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
After finally missing the playoffs for the first time all decade, the Grizzlies will be looking to turn things around quickly. That starts with the return of Mike Conley, who missed all but 12 games last season – health from Conley and Marc Gasol will obviously be vital for Memphis. They quietly did very well around the margins over the summer as well, drafting potential franchise defender Jaren Jackson Jr. and nabbing underrated Garrett Temple in a deal with the Kings. They also pried Kyle Anderson away from the Spurs with a restricted free agent offer, and suddenly you’re looking at a roster with a little depth. If they can get even small bits of strong performance from Chandler Parsons and some decent health for some of their main pieces, the Grizzlies could be a dark horse threat in the West. That’s a lot of if’s, though, and this conference didn’t get any easier.
4th Place – Southwest Division
The good news for Memphis: They had one of the all-around savvier off-seasons this summer. Memphis made smart additions as their new players should fit in perfectly. The bad news for Memphis: They’re in the tough-as-nails Western Conference. Even tougher, they have to play in the NBA’s tightest division — the Southwest. The Grizzlies, however, are not to be taken lightly. Mike Conley will presumably be back at 100 percent health this season, and Marc Gasol hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. Now that the team has depth to surround those two, the Grizzlies should firmly be back in the playoff conversation.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Matt John
Last season’s version of the Grizzlies was a discombobulated mess. There was a controversial coach firing, a slew of injuries and a roster reminiscent of a revolving door. Luckily this time around, their leader will be present and playing. Mike Conley Jr. was sorely missed for nearly the entirety of the 2017-18 campaign with injury, leaving Marc Gasol with the burden of carrying an inconsistent team alongside Tyreke Evans. Now that Conley and Gasol can get back to playing again, it will be intriguing to see how highly touted rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. fits into the mix. While Memphis likely won’t finish last for the second straight year, it’s going to be difficult to break into the postseason—especially being in the Western Conference.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Grizzlies are easy to dismiss, mainly because injuries have ravaged the roster for the better part of the last two years. However, what gets lost in the injury report is the Grizzlies have two elite level players when healthy in Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, and if both can return to their all-star’ish form, the Grizz have enough talent to compete for the eighth seed in the West. The Grizzlies are facing a tough question as to when to blow things up and start over, but it doesn’t seem like this will be that season, unless the injury bug sets in for a third year, then all bets are off.
3rd Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Memphis Grizzlies had a solid offseason, adding Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi to the roster. However, this team’s ability to keep pace in the Western Conference this season will come down to the health and play of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. When healthy, Conley and Gasol are two of the better two-way players in the league and set the tone for the rest of the team. If everything breaks right for the Grizzlies, I believe they can make it back to the playoffs this season. But, should the Grizzlies lose pace in the playoff race, the front office should keep an open mind toward moving on from its top veterans if the right deals come along. Jackson Jr. appears to be the future of the franchise and I would start molding the roster around him if it becomes clear that Conley and Gasol are no longer able to guide this team comfortably into the postseason.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Mike Conley
There were obvious problems with the Grizzlies last season, Mike Conley’s absence paramount among them.
Conley played in just 12 games last season and, after he went down with a serious heel injury, the offense went into a permanent funk. Without a high-level guard or ballhandler behind him on the depth chart, Memphis struggled to create offense and ultimately, it played a major role in their 22-60 record.
Conley’s return should work wonders for the Grizzlies; not only will he force defenses to focus on more than just Marc Gasol, but Conley’s ability to generate his own offense should open things up for others both inside and outside the three-point line.
Conley averaged 20.5 points and shot 40.8 percent from three in 2016, his last healthy season. Health permitting, Conley is capable of producing similar numbers.
Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol
The former Defensive Player of the Year was the Grizzlies’ best defender last season, and, going into his age 33 season, Gasol figures to hold that title once again in 2018.
The Spanish big man was tops in defensive rating among Grizzlies who played in more than 30 contests. Gasol led the team in blocks (101) and was fourth on the team in steals (54). Gasol ranked 12th in the NBA in blocks per game (1.4), 14th in total blocks (101) and 15th in block percentage (3.9 percent) as well.
Top Playmaker: Mike Conley
For his career, Mike Conley has averaged 5.7 assists per game and 6.3 per 36 minutes. In his last healthy season, he averaged 6.3 per game.
While that number may seem low, Conley had actually led the Grizzlies in assists per game every season dating back to 2007, his rookie season. He managed to average 4.1 per game last season, which would’ve ranked fourth on the team, despite playing in just 12 games.
Conley, with his career 28.5 assist percentage, is still the best passer on the roster. Assuming his injury hasn’t zapped his passing skills, Conley is a good bet to lead the team in assists per game once again.
Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley
As much as I’d like to talk about a non-Conley player, no one else on the Grizzlies roster fits the bill like Conley does. Still, Conley’s repeated appearances on this list should make it easy to see why the Grizzlies did so poorly last season without him.
Especially in the clutch.
In 2016, Conley led the team in the clutch, shooting 41.9 percent during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and the game within five points. Vacating those possessions obviously hurt the Grizzlies in close game situations and, ultimately, led to many more loses than there may have been with Conley on the floor.
Also, while Conley may not have the flash and handles of certain players like Kyrie Irving or Steph Curry, he has one of the NBA’s signature moves; his right-handed floater. Conley’s floater is almost a guaranteed bucket, and its return to the Memphis repertoire could have a major impact on the team next season.
The Unheralded Player: Dillon Brooks
Brooks was one of the more impressive second-tier rookies last season – as a second-round pick (45th overall), that success is even more impressive.
In 82 games (74 starts), Brooks averaged 11 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 44 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three. The 6-foot-6 forward can guard multiple positions and can be a serious asset on both sides of the floor.
If the Grizzlies are able to rebound next season, Brooks’ progression as a player could be a major reason as to why.
Best New Addition: Jaren Jackson Jr.
The Grizzlies made Jaren Jackson Jr. the fourth overall pick back in June, and for good reason.
The former Michigan State Spartan was one of the most versatile players in the draft class. His sheer size (6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) coupled with his ability to somewhat handle the ball made him one of the more intriguing prospects as well.
Jackson averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and three blocks per game while shooting 39.6 percent on 2.7 three-pointers per game. The Grizzlies are hoping he can bring that play and some major energy to their squad next season.
– Shane Rhodes
WHO WE LIKE
1. Mike Conley
Conley’s return to the lineup will be big for Memphis on both sides of the ball. With the Western Conference expected to be even tougher this season, the Grizzlies will need all the help they can get if they want to return to the postseason.
2. Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jackson is an athletic freak and he could potentially flourish under the tutelage of Gasol, one of the better, more consistent big men over the last decade. And, as the heir apparent to the 33-year-old Gasol, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the coaching staff give Jackson a sizeable number of minutes from the get-go to get him accustomed to the NBA.
3. J.B. Bickerstaff
The David Fizdale train had run its course in Memphis; after a spat with Gasol, the face of the franchise, and a poor start to last season, the Grizzlies let Fizdale go in November.
Enter J.B. Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff led the injury-riddled Grizz to a 15-48 record for the remainder of the season, but Memphis saw enough to warrant a three-year deal. Bickerstaff has NBA experience – he had worked as an assistant coach from 2004 to 2015 and was the head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2015 before latching on in Memphis in 2016.
It was time for a change in Memphis, and Bickerstaff may just be the man the Grizzlies need at the helm in order to bounce back.
4. Kyle Anderson
The Grizzlies brought in Kyle Anderson this offseason to the tune of a 4-year, $37.2 million contract.
Anderson not only adds more size to the team, but can handle the ball in a pinch should Conley need a break or be dealing with an injury. Last season with the San Antonio Spurs, Anderson averaged 7.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor.
5. Dillon Brooks
Brooks impressed as a rookie and can be a major player on the wing for Memphis. With his unique blend of size and athleticism, Brooks can keep up with smaller wings while still keeping heavier forwards in front of him down low.
Another plus for Brooks is his efficiency; he shot well both inside and beyond the three-point line last season and has done so dating back to his time at Oregon. Any extra offense he can provide behind Conley and Gasol will be welcome after the team struggled to produce on that end of the floor last season.
– Shane Rhodes
Between Gasol, Jackson, Anderson, JaMychal Green and others, the Grizzlies have the size to smother the paint on both offense and defense. The team has more than nine players 6-foot-9 or taller.
With the addition of Jackson and the return of Conley, the Grizzlies have a good number of shooters. Gasol and Anderson are capable from beyond the arc – that, along with expected improvements from the likes of Green and Brooks as well as the additions of Garrett Temple and others should boost the Grizzlies three-point percentage that ranked just 25th in the NBA last season.
– Shane Rhodes
Despite the additions of Brooks and Jackson in back-to-back seasons, the majority of the Grizzlies’ core is up there in age. Gasol, 33, Conley, 30, have both been in the league for more than a decade. A large portion of Memphis’ cap space is tied up in those players as well as Temple, 30, Chandler Parsons, 29, and JaMychal Green, 28.
The Grizzlies dealt with plenty of health-related issues last season. While Conley was the team’s biggest loss, role players and backups lost to injury only complicated things. The Grizzlies will go into next season hoping the likes of Ben McLemore, Kobi Simmons and others aren’t forced to start games.
– Shane Rhodes
The Burning Question
Can Memphis Make a Playoff Push?
The Western Conference has improved tremendously with the addition of LeBron James as well as others over the course of the offseason. With at least ten teams, not including Memphis, vying for just eight playoff spots, are the Grizzlies capable of making a playoff push?
It will be difficult, but, if Mike Conley and the Grizzlies’ major role players can stay healthy, the Grizzlies are still capable of being a top eight team out West. While they don’t have some of the high-end talent other rosters possess, they are consistent – the Grizzlies had made the postseason for seven straight years before 2017 – and, while the likes of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are no longer on the roster, Memphis’ patented grit-and-grind playstyle can still carry the day when it matters most. They may not have a shot at a top seed, but sneaking into the playoffs could be in the cards for Memphis.
– Shane Rhodes
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.