NBA fans, rejoice — summer basketball is officially underway! After two stops in Utah and Sacramento, the granddaddy event of them all kicked off in Las Vegas on Friday. While the NBA Draft’s top prospects like DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. have all made their formal debuts already, there’s little reason to be concerned or worried about anything they do over the next week or so.
However, there are plenty of players worth keeping an eye on as this tournament progresses between now and July 17. Whether you’re examing potential franchise cornerstones taking the next step or watching previously drafted newcomers just trying to get their feet wet, there are some incredible storylines running throughout Vegas. It was difficult to narrow the list down to just six names, but look for these standouts in the box scores and on your televisions — they’ll be ones with the most to gain from a strong summer session.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets have always loved Caris LeVert, the multi-positional slasher that’s now headed into his third NBA season. As the Nets suffered through another injury-riddled campaign — including long-term maladies to both Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell — it was LeVert who helped steady the ship at the point guard position. Last year, LeVert averaged 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists on 34.7 percent from three-point range — which was an improvement, sure, but perhaps not as large a leap as many expected. Brooklyn brought a young roster with little NBA experience outside of former rookie Jarrett Allen to Las Vegas, so the onus will be on LeVert to be aggressive, control the tempo and, more or less, dominate.
Although he’s still looking to be more consistent, LeVert can absolutely (and efficiently) torch teams on any given night. In one breakout performance in 2017-18, LeVert dropped 19 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and block in a narrow victory against the Miami HEAT. The Nets have plenty of intriguing pieces — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Spencer Dinwiddie come to mind as well — but LeVert is the type of do-it-all glue guy that the franchise desperately needs to pan out.
If LeVert is ready to take that third-year leap, we’ll likely see him take Las Vegas by storm… well, once he plays. LeVert did not log time during Friday’s loss to the Orlando Magic — but he’ll lead the way soon enough.
Malik Beasley, Denver Nuggets
There’s no time like the present and it would behoove Malik Beasley to make some big-time waves out west. Beasley, the No. 19 overall pick in 2016, has played minimally over his first two seasons, typically stuck behind veteran stalwart Wilson Chandler. With Chandler moving to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier this week, Beasley should get his long-awaited chance to bloom in Denver — unfortunately, it may be the best and only shot he’ll ever get. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged just 3.2 points over 9.4 minutes per game in 2017-18, but he flat-out knows how to score.
During his one season at Florida State, Beasley pulled down 15.6 points and 5.3 rebounds on 47.1 percent from the floor — so there’s some scoring precedence on his resume already. He’ll turn 22 years-old shortly after Thanksgiving and there are minutes to be had with Will Barton joining the starting five as well. Flanked by Monte Morris and Tyler Lydon in Vegas, it’ll be up to Beasley to assert himself and prove that he deserves a place in head coach Mike Malone’s young, athletic rotation. During Friday’s win over the Timberwolves, Beasley registered 10 points, five rebounds, threes assists and one block on 30 percent shooting.
Willy Hernangomez, Charlotte Hornets
Last season, Willy Hernangomez was freed from the metaphorical jail cell of the Knicks’ bench… and went right into another tough situation behind future Hall of Famer Dwight Howard.
But with the center’s recent trade to the Nets, Hernangomez will only have to deal with Cody Zeller, theoretically, on his long, winding quest for consistent playing time once again. His second-half numbers with the Hornets were both promising and underwhelming at times — but if you rewind to his rookie year with New York, it reveals a far more talented prospect. Over 22 starts to end the 2016-17 campaign, Hernangomez averaged 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, capable numbers that would propel the Spaniard into the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
Now, Hernangomez has the fortune to start his first full season in Charlotte off on the right foot by bossing these summer games. At 24 years-old, there’s plenty of basketball left for the former second-rounder, but the Hornets would love to get a taste of the new Hernangomez in Vegas over the next week. There’s no reason why the 6-foot-11 center can’t use his energetic, reliable skill set to truly breakout in 2018-19 and beyond — particularly so if he keeps trying to expand his range as well.
He got the fresh start that he so badly wanted last season, but this is his biggest opportunity to make good on the Hornets’ front office faith. In Charlotte’s one-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, Hernangomez starred with 16 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 28 minutes — an ideal takeoff for the promising center.
Cedi Osman, Cleveland Cavaliers
With the Cavaliers potentially poised to hit the reset button, there’s a golden ticket chance for Cedi Osman to own this upcoming revamp. Understandably, there’s a bit of hyperbole in that statement — but the gifted athlete could be a true building block in a post-LeBron era. Naturally, most casual onlookers will find themselves enamored with Collin Sexton this week, but Osman’s physicality will turn heads undoubtedly. With an innate scoring prowess and high basketball IQ, Osman could be head coach Tyronn Lue’s starting small forward moving ahead — with or without a total blowup of the roster.
While his per game statistics aren’t noteworthy just yet, the 23-year-old turned in a handful of incredible one-off performances. The most impressive single-game output came when Osman tallied 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals on 2-for-5 from three-point range in a 16-point victory. After expecting to ride the bench for much of the season in 2017-18, Osman competed in a remarkable 61 games for the Cavaliers and even earned some postseason minutes as well.
During their Vegas opener, Osman finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and four steals to lead the current Eastern Conference champions to a win over the Washington Wizards. Needless to say, if Osman can bring that bucket-getting tenacity all summer, he’ll be a fan favorite just about everywhere before long.
Jonah Bolden, Philadelphia 76ers
Although he was asked to spend a season overseas, Jonah Bolden — one of the most anticipated sleepers from the 2017 NBA Draft — is finally here and ready to play. Not only will he exhibit his skills in Vegas, but Bolden himself plans to stay with the 76ers through the season, no matter what happens during these summer exhibitions.
On Friday, Bolden tallied six points and six rebounds on 2-for-6 from the field, stating afterward that he felt the excitement, nerves and butterflies — “everything, all in one.” Over 29 EuroLeague contests in 2017-18, the playmaking Bolden notched 6.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals in just 21.1 minutes per game. If he can provide those hustle-worthy numbers for a well-built Philadelphia squad, he’ll be the perfect fit.
At 6-foot-10, the Australian big man joins a crowded rotation under head coach Brett Brown, but his high-ceiling skill set remains evident. He’s got some distance to go on his three-point shooting (31.9 percent), still, Bolden appears to be molded for the modern NBA landscape. Although he won’t be usurping Joel Embiid or Dario Saric’s minutes anytime soon, Bolden could feasibly surpass Amir Johnson or Nemanja Bjelica by year’s end.
For this rookie, the road to that long-term reality starts in Las Vegas.
Harry Giles, Sacramento Kings
Last but not least, there’s Harry Giles — an uber-athletic competitor just itching to begin his NBA career. Giles, a once top-rated high school prospect, underwent surgery on his left knee in 2013 and on his right is 2015, even adding another procedure to the former in the fall of 2016 — a necessary move that would cut his single collegiate season in half. After a cautious freshman season at Duke, the mysterious and risky Giles slipped to No. 20 overall, where the Sacramento Kings were more than happy to trade for his rights on draft night.
With the Kings in the Western Conference basement — and as more franchises decide to be more forward-thinking in regards to long-term rehab — Giles would eventually sit out the entire 2017-18 season. Despite playing in 26 games for Duke, there’s not much of a statistical backlog to go off for Giles — 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds per game — but the 6-foot-11 challenger has the chance to a play an important role in Sacramento this season. In three California Classic matchups, Giles averaged 9.3 points, six rebounds and a block over 33 minutes per game — not earth-shattering by any means, but a certainly respectable start nonetheless.
Expectations should be tempered following more than a full calendar year without serious in-game action, but Giles has all the tools to be a difference-maker right away. Alongside Marvin Bagley III, the Kings will hope they’ve finally found their frontcourt centerpieces of the future — now it’s just up to Giles to run with the opportunity.
Of course, it’s difficult to make any quantifiable conclusions off of summer basketball without any real stakes, but context is everything. From third-year grinders to rookie-season debuts, each player on this list is at a defining point in their career. At the end of the day, these six competitors likely won’t be the headline-grabbers in Las Vegas, but they’ve definitely earned the right to some extra eyeballs as well — but now that they have our attention, what will these blossoming contributors do with it?
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.