Today is October 20, 2018.
The newest NBA season has been a thing officially for four days. On Monday, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies penned a piece with pointers on how to enjoy the 2018-19 campaign. Naturally, Davies urges that it’s important to not overreact to sample sizes after just two games. It’s sound advice but, on the other hand, it’s definitely not as fun either. Sports were tailor-made for grandiose overreactions, particularly in the volatile realm of professional basketball, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.
In game No. 1 last year, the Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo dropped 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in a nine-point win over the hapless Nets. Interesting, we thought, but small sample sizes, right? Two games later, Oladipo tossed out 28 points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and four three-pointers — then 28-, 35- and 23-point lines quickly followed. When the season was all done and dusted, Oladipo’s blisteringly hot start ultimately finished with the guard hoisting the award for Most Improved Player. So, sure, some of this might be hollow, but there’s also a decent chance it isn’t either.
And if it isn’t just a momentary flash in the pan, here’s your cheat sheet for getting ahead of the rest of your friends, family and fantasy leagues.
Luka Dončić and Deandre Ayton: Special Already
It took about 30 seconds to realize that the NBA was blessed with at least two remarkably special rookies this season in Dončić and Ayton. The pair kicked off their respective careers against each other on Wednesday and, generally speaking, neither disappointed. Dončić brought his smooth operating style — the same style that helped him take home EuroLeague MVP last year — right from the opening tip. The Slovenian sensation tallied 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists, including a fantastic behind-the-back dime to a cutting DeAndre Jordan. It wasn’t exactly a coming out party, per se, but this 19-year-old may just meet all of our massive expectations and then some before long.
Then there’s Ayton, the reigning No. 1 overall pick and presumed future star as well. While everybody rightfully gushed over Dončić on opening night, Ayton went and showed out himself. With 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a block, Ayton went toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Jordan — a center 10 years his senior and an excellent rim protector in his own right — and shot 72.7 percent in his debut. The 7-foot-1 prospect will need to overcome some defensive hurdles, but he’ll put up some serious numbers in this Suns offense — that is nearly guaranteed. The last few years have brought some incredibly talented classes to the league lately and this one, headlined by Dončić and Ayton, appears as if it could be just as good.
Caris LeVert is LeGit
All summer, it was LeVert this and LeVert that. His coaches showered effusive praise on the third-year wing, while teammates — both new and old — touted LeVert as a breakout candidate this fall. Well, so far, it looks like his admirers were right on the money. LeVert, a slasher at heart, talked throughout last season about maturing and growing into his body — now, we’re getting an important taste of that comfort he’s long sought after. Dropping 27 points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 34 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, LeVert carefully used every herky-jerky step to mince his opposition to shreds. When the Nets were floundering in another infamously poor third quarter — a tradition like no other, at this point — it was LeVert that helped to claw them out of their self-made deficit. Most of the attention in Brooklyn has been focused on D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen, but perhaps it’s now LeVert’s time to shine.
On Friday, he did exactly that. The Nets called on him time and time again against the Knicks and the budding star delivered in spades. Not only did LeVert set a new career-high of 28 points, but 15 of them came in the final 12 minutes, including a tough, game-winning finish with just a second left on the clock. If people simply assumed that Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie would seamlessly resume duties as the crunch-time operators, they’d be dead wrong so far. The Nets have gone to LeVert with the game on the line twice in a row already and there’s a fair chance a star is being born in front of our very eyes.
The Knicks Are Probably Bad… But Absolutely Fun
In the Knicks’ season opener, jokes were flying around social media early about their potential ineptitude, particularly so without Kristaps Porzingis to save the day. Of course, New York then went and dropped 49 points on Hawks’ heads in the second quarter and never looked back. The Hawks are likely destined to be in the cellar this season and the Knicks won’t get 31 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. each night out. Having said all of that, this is an honest-to-goodness fun basketball team and, all of a sudden, there’s a nice collection of youngsters New York can develop moving forward. Kevin Knox, who surprisingly lost his starting spot just before the season began, tossed in 17 points versus Brooklyn on Friday; with newcomer and the perpetually-breaking-out Mario Hezonja helping with 15 points of his own in the opener.
Led by the ever-charismatic Enes Kanter (cue the nipple clip) and Hardaway Jr., it’s way too early to think about the postseason for the Knicks, but there will be plenty of reasons to tune in. Former G-League castaway Trey Burke is still here too, playing side-by-side with the defensive-minded Frank Ntilikina, while preseason standout Allonzo Trier is looking right at home in the rotation. The cherry on the top? Mitchell Robinson, the uber-athletic mystery man from June’s draft, has played just one minute in their first two games — his time will come soon enough. Even if head coach David Fizdale can’t transform the Knicks immediately, they will play hard and stay competitive on most nights — that alone is a better fate than half of the league’s lottery-bound franchises. The Knicks might be bad, but they’ll be a fascinating puzzle to watch come together over the coming months.
Devin Booker: Still Divisive, Still Very Good
Long before Booker brought home a five-year extension worth $158 million, fans and pundits alike were arguing about the sharpshooter’s true impact on the game. Between the Suns’ losing record since his arrival and an open discussion on empty stat-padding, many scorned the Phoenix front office for giving the 21-year-old a max deal. But if the next 81 games are anything like his first outing, Booker will be torching any defender that comes near him. Even a semi-alarming hand surgery in early September couldn’t slow down Booker in the opener. Against Dallas, Booker poured in 35 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-for-10 from three-point range — well, then. New head coach Igor Kokoškov promptly called Booker their “anchor” and noted that he will only continue to improve.
In the midst of Booker’s 19-point fourth quarter explosion, he showed off the full arsenal. Certainly, Booker is known from his long-range skills, but the talented scorer is proficient at taking defenders off the dribble as well. Booker has only played once — he’ll face off against the Denver Nuggets later on today — but he just continues to chug along, picking up right where he left off in March of last year. Through injury, rehab and a big money contract, it may just be time to admit that Booker is every bit ready to become a star. With potential-laden assets like Josh Jackson and Ayton surrounding him now, we’re about to find out how good this former Wildcat can be.
For now, the shaken-up Magic Eight Ball says this: “Signs point to yes.”
Kemba Walker: Setting Charlotte Ablaze
It feels like an eternity has gone by since the Walker trade rumors initially began — running the full gamut between certain availability, cautious denial and the point guard’s steadfast desire to stay right at home. Still, Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and Charlotte has their work cut out to even make the postseason in the weaker Eastern Conference at all. While destinations like Cleveland and Phoenix have popped up in accordance, Walker has gone on record that he wants to “create something special” with the Hornets. But when push comes to shove, will Charlotte be willing to take the risk of their star walking away for nothing? As of now, February is a lightyear away, however, and Walker himself has helped the Hornets off to a positive start through two games.
Albeit in a slim one-point loss to Milwaukee, Walker erupted for 41 points, four assists and two steals on 7-for-13 from three-point range. On Friday, the Hornets took home their first win of the campaign on the back of Walker’s 26 points, five assists and five three-pointers. Flanked by standout rookie Miles Bridges, a more confident Malik Monk, plus healthy versions of Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller to boot, Walker looks poised to record his best season yet. Walker, 27, has always been a big-game killer and more than happy to talk down those pesky trade rumors — but this will be an extremely interesting case to check in on in a few months. Walker can’t keep up a 34.5-point per game pace, obviously, but it certainly appears as if a special, fire-breathing effort is brewing down the coastline. Don’t sleep on Kemba, he’ll make you pay.
Julius Randle: Unleashed?
And then there’s Randle: New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins replacement, the formerly renounced Los Angeles Laker and criminally underpaid big man. Under the never-well-hidden guise of LeBron James’ inevitable arrival, Randle seemed like a bit of an afterthought this summer for the purple and gold. Despite improving in every successive season, Randle’s trip to unrestricted free agency was a bit of a dud too, eventually landing him in a fantastic situation alongside Anthony Davis on a two-year deal worth $18 million. Randle is no stranger to impressive performances — his 36-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist onslaught last year against the Cavaliers instantly comes to mind — but he’s been undoubtedly key to the Pelicans’ red-hot start.
Randle is currently stepping confidently into three-pointers — he’s already at three through two games and his career-high in a season is just 17 — and the 6-foot-9 big man has shot 55 percent during their blowout victories over the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. But what’s been most impressive so far is his continued versatility on the offensive end; smooth enough to stroke from deep, but more than able to post up, spin past a defender and then throw it down. Needless to say, the list of players capable of such flexibility, particularly those at the age of 23, is a short one. For now, he’ll continue to come off the bench behind the floor-stretching Nikola Mirotic — off to an even hotter start than Randle, somehow — but these minutes aren’t going anywhere.
The season is still in its early infancy stages but these storylines seem like sure-fire bets to continue well into the future. Whether these players compete for postseason hopefuls or lottery-bound rebuilders, it’d be wise to watch these storylines unwind and take shape. Most would agree that Dončić and Ayton are special — but how quickly can they find consistent success at the top level? LeVert and Randle are poised for their biggest respective seasons yet, while Walker and Booker look to ready to smash their detractors once again. Tiny sample sizes are admittedly dangerous, that goes without saying, but they can also offer helpful glimpses through the crystal ball at some of the league’s brightest stars. Feel free to sleep on these entries here — but if Oladipo taught us anything last season, it’s that these type of starts can turn into year-long heat checks and a renewed status across the entire league.
Who here has called next?
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.