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NBA PM: Chicago Bulls 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls ahead of what could be a long season.

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After stubbornly avoiding a rebuild a year ago, holding white-knuckled to All-Star Jimmy Butler like a toddler with their lifelong comfort blanky, the Chicago Bulls finally actually did get “younger and more athletic” this past summer, if a year late, and the team now looks toward life after the playoffs. It’s a place they appear destined to reside for the foreseeable future as they attempt to rebuild the roster from the ground up, and while things are off to a slow start, the first years of rebuilds never are easy. This particular rebuild is going to be really ugly, though. Fans already are irate with team’s front office, and a dismal year in the league won’t do much to turn those frowns upside down.

It’s going to be a long season, but onward and upward, as they say. The Bulls literally have no other direction to go.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

There isn’t much good to say about the upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls. From the looks of it, their best bet may be to set their sights on the highest possible chance they can secure at winning the draft lottery.

After shipping off star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and with talks of Dwyane Wade eventually being bought out, the shift to the future has now become the present for a Bulls team that just a few months ago had a 2-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

With all eyes on the return of Zach LaVine and the growth of Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are thinking long term as they enter this season. With the production results that are likely to follow, it’s probably best if fans do the same as well.

5th place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick Thursday night, which was used on Lauri Markkanen. Chicago better hope that Dunn’s rookie season was an aberration, that LaVine makes a full recovery from his ACL tear and that Markkanen can build off of his impressing offseason. The Bulls have finally moved away from their failed strategy of retooling on the fly and seem prepared for an actual rebuild, which is a step in the right direction. But now they need to figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who clearly wants to play elsewhere.

5th Place — Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The Bulls are the latest reminder that, in the NBA, life comes at you fast. Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson all find themselves elsewhere, while Dwyane Wade doesn’t seem too far behind. Nikola Mirotic, one of the few bright spots for the franchise, enters mid-September without a new contract and the playoffs seem about as far away from Chicago as sunny South Beach in Miami.

The good news for the Bulls is that they are in possession of all of their first round picks and only currently have one pick debited, which is their 2019 second rounder. In terms of their payroll, the Bulls are one of the few teams that will enter the 2017-18 season with substantial cap room and only currently have $31 million and $8 million in commitments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Between now and then, the franchise will have to make a number of decisions on some of their young players, but let’s make no mistake about it; this team is in full rebuild mode.

I would go as far as to say that the Bulls may be the Eastern Conference team to experience the most dramatic drop off in win total—last season’s 41-41 campaign is a pipe dream. The best the Bulls can hope for over the next year or two is to lure one or two impact free agents, hitting a home run in the draft and that someone from the current crop—perhaps Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine or Bobby Portis—can fulfill their potential.

In the Central, it’ll certainly be them pulling up the rear, with the Pacers somewhere near. I favor the Pacers, though, mainly because they have at least four or five pieces that we know will be productive. I’m not sure what Chicago has at this point.

5th Place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

This is not going to be fun. Jimmy Butler was traded away for guys who can’t play, either because they are injured or because they just flat-out are not good at basketball, and the team’s only remaining “big name” is Dwyane Wade, a veteran who absolutely does not want to be there. Rookie Lauri Markannen had a promising summer, and Zach LaVine should be a 20+ point-per-game scorer when he finally makes his return from ACL surgery, but outside of that there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Chicago this year. No team looks likely to lose more games than the Bulls.

5th Place — Central Division

— Joel Brigham

The Bulls were only .500 last season, but they could be in for one of the most precipitous year-to-year drops of any team in the league nonetheless. Moving on from Jimmy Butler and clearly emphasizing a rebuild has left this group enormously thin on proven NBA talent, especially with Dwyane Wade expected to be bought out and off the roster in short order. Guys like Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Kris Dunn and even newly drafted Lauri Markkanen will be asked to play big roles, and the team will not be expected to do a whole lot of winning. This year is all about seeing which of the young guys fit best and who will be a major part of the core moving forward.

5th place — Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine

Coming off an ACL injury, there still is no definitive return date for the prize jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade, but once LaVine does start suiting up for the Bulls, there won’t be any doubt who the team’s best offensive player is. Before his injury last year, LaVine was having a career season, averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting .387 from deep, and as good as Minnesota is going to be with Butler this year, they will miss LaVine’s ability to space an offense. Conversely, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t had consistent three-point shooters to play with yet in his tenure as Bulls coach, which admittedly has tarnished his “legacy” in Chicago thus far. Adding LaVine and rookie Lauri Markannen should help with that, however dismal the season may be for the team as a whole.

Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez

Easily much too old and much too good to remain on this team too deep into the season, Lopez will serve as the Bulls’ stalwart in the paint for however much time he spends in Chicago between October and February’s trade deadline. Defensively, he does everything a traditional five is supposed to do—swatting away shots, punishing driving guards, anchoring the defensive rotations in the paint—and it shows in the advanced stats. Chicago gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor last season. He’s not quick enough to lock down the pick-and-roll, especially when the roller is a nimbler big man, but he still is far and away the best defender the Bulls have. For now.

Top Playmaker: Kris Dunn

The Chicago Bulls don’t really have any playmakers this season. Dwyane Wade would have to be considered the closest thing to that, but he seems likely to be bought out closer to sooner than later, while the point guard corps is as dismal as any team’s in the league. The best hope for a point guard to break out at this point is Dunn, a player who did average over six assists per game as a junior at Providence a couple of years ago. He only averaged 2.1 assists per game as a reserve in Minnesota last season, so asking for a big bump may not be fair, but if he isn’t the one forcing defenses to collapse and finding open shooters, who is?

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

Someday this will be LaVine, but in the interim it’s hard to bet against the ball going into Wade’s hands when the clock is ticking down. He has hit 15 game winners over the course of his career, and even with his athleticism waning, you can’t teach chilly veins in the clutch. As long as he’s a Bull, he’s taking the last shot.

The Unheralded Player: Paul Zipser

As a former second-round pick, nobody really expected much out of Zipser, but he showed in his rookie season in Chicago that’s he much more valuable than just about anybody expected. His 5.5 points per game average in the regular season doesn’t look like much, until compared to his 7.3 points per game in the playoffs. In fact, when Chicago upset the Boston Celtics for a second straight game in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Zipser even had a game where he poured in 16 points. He quietly started 18 games last year and should start even more this season, using his scoring ability and deep shot to carve out one of the more understated roles on the team. Goodness knows the Bulls sure could use a sophomore leap from him.

Best New Addition: Zach LaVine

If the Jimmy Butler trade is going to look at all defensible in retrospect, LaVine is going to have to find himself back on the All-Star track he appeared to be on before his injury last year. He’s a Vince Carter-level athlete who should be the Bulls best overall player before the season wraps, unquestionably, in mid-April. Being the Bulls best overall player and being good in the context of the entire league are two entirely different things, however. Chicago needs LaVine to be the latter.

— Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Lauri Markannen

What Markannen has done in EuroBasket this season has gotten sports fans in Chicago about 60 percent as excited as they are for rookie Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which really is saying something when we’re talking about 60 percent of infinite enthusiasm. Markannen, whose draft-day photographs are maybe the happiest draft-day photographs in the history of photographs, averaged 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in EuroBasket’s group phase, donning #23 in his Finnish team jersey and puttin’ a hurtin’ on defenders from all over the world. He looked great, frankly, somewhat justifying Chicago having picked him ahead of inevitable Rookie of the Year Dennis Smith, Jr. this past June. But we have yet to see how all those skills transfer to the NBA. They didn’t look great at Summer League, but he’ll have plenty of time to adjust. At the very least, it’s heartwarming to see anyone as excited as Markannen is to play for the Chicago Bulls.

2. Bobby Portis

We’ve seen flashes of what Portis can be. Game 1 of the Bulls’ playoff series against Boston last season saw Portis knock down everything in the Garden on his way to 19 points. He can potentially be a double-double guy, even though he tends to either score in double figures or rebound in double figures without doing both on the same night. To say this is a make-or-break year for him would be stating the obvious, but he’s going to get bigger minutes this year. It’s time for him to do something with them.

3. Cristiano Felicio

After getting paid $32 million this past offseason, Felicio had better be ready to make a leap of his own this year. He has averaged just 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game over the course of his first two seasons, but now he is being paid like someone who can do more. He does shoot 57.3 percent from the field and has the ability and strength to improve upon those numbers, especially if Lopez ultimately is traded and Felicio becomes the team’s new full-time center and defensive cornerstone. Not everybody loved the contract, but whatever he’s getting paid, he’s in for a much bigger role this season.

4. The 2018 First-Round Draft Pick

We don’t know who this young man will be, but the dire struggles of the forthcoming season will be swallowed like a bitter pill, with this pick serving as the sweet applesauce into which that pill has been hidden for consumption. For now, Bulls fans still sleep well at night only because visions of Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter, Jr. dance in their heads like sugar plums. All this suffering will be for naught if the result isn’t a franchise-altering draft selection. Thankfully, there are four or five of those coming in the summer of 2018, and the Bulls will end up with one of them.

— Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Bulls are in an interesting position in that they’re over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap but only have $78.4 million in actual contracts on their books. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic takes up $11 million. Chicago also has a trade exception worth $11.5 million for Jimmy Butler, which they partially used to acquire Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls can still get under the cap if they choose, although they cannot rescind their offer to Mirotic without his permission.

Next summer, the Bulls could near $50 million in cap room – although a multi-year deal with Mirotic could subtract from that figure. Chicago can also offer Zach LaVine an extension before the start of the current season. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Denzel Washington, Jerian Grant and Bobby Portis, with an October 31 deadline.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Chicago has been an elite defensive team for years at this point. Even two years after Tom Thibodeau left town, Chicago still was among the best in the league last season in team defense despite everything (at least until Taj Gibson was traded), but this is an entirely new team. Chicago’s new lottery pick, Markannen, is as bad defensively as he is gifted offensively, and outside of Dunn, Felicio and Lopez, there just aren’t a lot of players who a.) like playing defense and/or b.) are any good at it. In other words, the team’s greatest strength in years past probably will not be again, which is to say the Bulls probably aren’t going to have a whole lot of strengths this year. They likely no longer are in the league’s basement in terms of three-point shooting, and they seem to put more butts in seats than another team in the league year after year, but outside of that, the only thing that will be strong after this season is the team’s draft pick.

WEAKNESSES

The other side of the coin is quite a bit larger. Point guard is, far and away, the team’s biggest weakness, with Jerian Grant already having proven he’s no more than a reserve NBA guard and Cameron Payne showing his bust inevitability within two practices of having been acquired by Chicago last winter. There are big questions about Dunn, too, and while he’s the team’s only real hope at that position, even he has more than his fair share of shortcomings, especially on the offensive end. This team is incredibly young and devoid of the talent to compete with so many quality NBA teams every night, especially in their division.

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Chicago Set Dwyane Wade Free?

The Bulls are tanking to land a big fish in the draft next season. Unfortunately, Wade is caught up in this swirling hurricane of awfulness and wants to find his way to a new team as badly as just about any player in the league this side of Carmelo Anthony. Chicago owes him almost $24 million this year, and since nobody is trading $24 million worth of assets to bring in D-Wade on a rental, that means the only way Wade gets his freedom is via buyout. Just about anybody would suffer through just about any job for six months if it paid $24 million, but Wade still has eyes on more playoff-focused teams. Rumblings exist suggesting Chicago will let him go, but why would they pay him all that cash to go play for someone else?

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