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NBA Daily: Analyzing First Returns Of All-Star Voting

This week, the NBA released the first returns for All-Star Game voting and, surprises aside, there are plenty of intriguing narratives to watch moving forward, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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On Thursday, the NBA released the first returns of voting for next month’s All-Star Game. Within the hour, people everywhere — both fans and media members alike — were sharing their thoughts. Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon and, more often than not, the shakier results end up smoothing out by the final count. Still, there are some extremely interesting storylines and narratives to dig into, even if most of them won’t come to fruition come February. It’s early, no doubt — but that’s half the fun in revealing these numbers so far ahead of time.

If you need a refresher, through a combination of fan, player and media voting, five players from each conference will be chosen as starters. The remaining roster spots are then voted upon by the league’s head coaches. Ultimately, these fan votes will only account for 50 percent of a potential starter’s resume — so it’s pointless to get too wound up just yet. In any case, the early results give onlookers a healthy indication of where the pulse and lifeblood of the sport currently lies. So with that in mind, here’s what to watch out for as the voting steamrolls on toward the Jan. 21 deadline.

The Current Captains:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James

Last year, the NBA shook All-Star Weekend up by adopting a draft system — led during its inaugural attempt by Stephen Curry and LeBron James, two of the league’s most charismatic stars. The only problem? The league held that draft behind closed doors. This time around, however, everybody will get to see and react to the captain’s picks live. Beyond the potential for perfect television, it’ll offer a unique glance into the mind of two unarguable superstars as they mold their own versions of a juggernaut. When voting closes, the highest vote-getters from each conference will take the drafting reins and, as of now, those two captains would be James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While many will hope to see the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid — the wise-cracking, social media superstar — making the choices on-air, it’d be difficult to find fault in putting these two in charge. James, who made waves this week by potentially declaring himself the greatest of all-time, crafted a salivating squad in Los Angeles in the draft debut that featured DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. As he looks to tie Bob Pettit and Kobe Bryant as the only players in NBA history with four All-Star MVPs, how could James possibly follow that success as a captain in year two?

Elsewhere, Antetokounmpo is clearly loved across the board — both domestically and internationally — and seeing the NBA’s next torchbearer in such a prominent position would only further his growing stature. Players like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Irving could make a run at the respective crowns in remaining weeks, but it’d be a safe bet to start preparing for James and Antetokounmpo as the captains. In the end, those are win-win pair however you choose to slice it.

The Retirement Tour Stays Winning:

Dwyane Wade, Vince Carter

Heading into their twilight seasons — or what is assumed to be for Carter — it originally seemed unlikely that either of these former superstars would be notably involved in the proceedings. No matter what happens in the coming weeks, both Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter will appreciate the love from supporters nonetheless.

Although Wade has been a mid-season staple since he was drafted back in 2003, the last time Vince Carter finished in the top ten for his conference was 2010-11, when he was traded from Orlando to Pheonix in December. Carter has been chosen for the contest eight times in his illustrious career but not since 2007, so it’d be a fantastic send-off for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. But at just 76,022 votes, Carter’s status here is a mere footnote as he’s already behind Kawhi Leonard by 700k and Giannis Antetokounmpo by nearly one million. Beyond that, the necessary player, media and or coach votes won’t be there for Carter either.

Wade, on the other hand, has a serious chance of turning his retirement tour into an instant classic. The Miami HEAT legend trails Kyrie Irving by about 500k votes but remains up on the Hornets’ Kemba Walker by a decent margin for backcourt votes in the conference. It’s hard to predict whether the other avenues of voting will reward Wade with the curtain call opportunity, but the 36-year-old is well-liked across the league. Wade is a 12-time All-Star selectee, but he hasn’t played in the exhibition classic in three years — so the magic of one final ride in Charlotte may too much for all parties involved to pass up.

The Warrior Fatigue Sets In:

Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant

Nobody truly expects the back-to-back champions to slump through the Western Conference much longer, but the quartet of dominant Warriors isn’t leading the pack in votes as usual. Obviously, some of this can be chalked up to Curry’s time on the injured list and Draymond Green and Klay Thompson’s unexpected struggles, but perhaps some Warrior-related fatigue has finally set in for voters. Green finished as the conference’s second-best vote-getter in the frontcourt for 2017-18, only trailing Durant but beating out Paul George, Davis and Cousins. After the first round of results, Green is holding onto the top ten at all by a slim margin.

Thompson’s 247,618 votes are well off his 1.23 million total from last season as well. Durant and Curry are nearly impeachable in these popularity contests and both will end up as starters again anyway — but it’s worth noting that they may not reach voting highs from before either. Unfortunately for Green and Thompson competition for the reserve spots remains fierce and the Warriors’ non-historic rate of winning won’t be there to save them a spot this time around. Green and Thompson have both made the All-Star game in consecutive seasons and in three of the last four years — but those streaks are most certainly in jeopardy as things stand now.

The International Votes Remain Key:

Jeremy Lin, Derrick Rose, Luka Dončić

Over the years, some fairly consistent patterns have revealed themselves in All-Star Game voting. Superstars will always garner votes, even if they’re hurt — James, Curry, Harden. Then there are the fringe stars that will always dot the periphery, sometimes with an outside chance at snagging a coveted starting spot — for example, Damian Lillard, Cousins, Walker. After that, the list generally consists of exciting, potential-laden players that have little chance of making the cut, but their national recognition is often a step in the right direction — a group that includes Jayson Tatum, Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Devin Booker this season.

But every year, there are a few extra names that spark conversation and this campaign is no different. Entering the ring, last but not least, are your 2018-19 international favorites.

Jeremy Lin, the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, has always fared well in All-Star Game voting. Lin’s passionate fanbase, both in the states and abroad, have consistently kept the guard in the top ten for backcourt voting, no matter what conference he found himself in. After his popularity erupted in 2012, Lin has stayed in the top ten voting at his position — topping out at 883,809 in 2012-13, the third-highest mark for a guard in the West that season — in every season but last year. Traded to Atlanta during the offseason, Lin has played in a career-low 18.6 minutes per game over 33 games for the Hawks, but his return to the top ten backcourt vote-getters in the East also coincides with his comeback following 81 missed games with the Nets in 2017-18.

Next, there’s the complicated case of Derrick Rose, who appears as a man reborn in Minnesota. His off-the-court issues have raised some deserved red flags recently — but Rose may ride his fan- and media-given redemption arc to his first All-Star appearance since 2012. Naturally, Rose reaching the exhibition classic would be an undoubted success for his once all-but-dead basketball career. But it would also go down as another disappointing case study in rewarding an athlete with a spotty-at-best legal past. Of course, Rose’s current standing in the voting process absolutely has to do with his statistical resurgence (18.9 points, 4.8 assists), that’s without question, but the point guard also still remains massively popular in China.

In an offseason article by ESPN’s Nick DePaula from August, 70 percent of sales from Rose’s Adidas line of gear come from China. Despite the nearly career-ending lows, Rose’s jersey still frequently reached the top ten in sales there as well. That overseas love combined with the redemption narrative and his highest points per game average since 2011-12 has Rose in a surprising position for now. From here on out, Rose will have his hands full holding off Harden and Westbrook, but he’d still need a strong showing from the player and media voting to lock down a starting role. If he doesn’t, it’s tough to envision the coaches keeping him in the mix given the competitive, overfilled nature of the Western Conference player pool.

Finally, the league has been blessed with the breath of the fresh air that is Luka Dončić — everybody’s favorite rookie. Dončić, the super-refined 19-year-old, has taken the NBA by storm so far and the votes have quickly followed suit. After the first returns, Dončić is the Western Conference’s fourth-leading vote-getter, only trailing James, Curry and Rose. Dončić, Slovenian-born but loved in Spain (and all over the rest of Europe), was expected to do well in voting — but could anybody have reasonably seen this coming? There will be stiff competition for Dončić’s high-ranking spot in the coming weeks — notably Durant, Davis and George in particular — but it’s an incredible honor after just three months in the league.

Even with the ballooning number of fans behind him, the player and media votes might leave him out — if he misses out there, Dončić will need to hope that the coaches take him over plenty of more veteran-established options. In the event that Dončić misses out on the festivities as a rookie, he’s still averaging a stellar 19.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, five assists and 1.1 steals over 32 minutes per game.

He might not make the All-Star Game in 2018-19, but his potential here as a shoo-in for the next decade-plus seems almost certain.

Nevertheless, it remains incredibly early in All-Star Game voting and most of these narratives could be flipped on their head by the next time the returns are revealed. Still, it’s always interesting to see how things have panned out over the few months of the season. Whether that’s future Hall of Famers getting some well-deserved shine or impressive youngsters making their mid-season cases, the popularity contest always brings some exciting surprises along the way. But knowing the NBA, there’s still plenty of drama left to be had here before voting ends on Jan. 21 — so get to it!

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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.

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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?

Ben Nadeau

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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.

Utah Jazz

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.

Brooklyn Nets

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.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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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.

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