2017-18 Kia Season Preview

2017-18 Season Preview: Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have gone Bearish on the 2017-18 season, and perhaps for another year or two beyond that. They went into punt formation on Draft Night, trading three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to Minnesota to assure that last season’s “Three Alphas” would be reduced to one (Rajon Rondo was bid adieu for the $3 million Chicago owed him for this season) and then to none (Dwyane Wade was sent packing via buyout with a lovely $16 million parting gift). Longtime fans might notice echoes of the post-Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen-era Bulls, when a couple of rebuilding schemes kept the Bulls in the lottery for six consecutive years.

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ICYMI

The Bulls established their new direction on Draft night when they traded All-Star Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick that night to Minnesota for guard Kris Dunn, F Zach LaVine and the No. 7 pick, which was used on 7-foot shooter Lauri Markkanen. … Significant as that move was, the one that rankled some fans more was drafting Jordan Bell in the second round, then sending a player in the mold of Draymond Green to Golden State for $3.5 million. Young prospects would seem more important than cash for a rebuilding team, but the Bulls disagreed. … Eight days later, Chicago got out from under Rondo’s deal by paying the $3 million guarantee and waiving him. … Re-upped raw center Cristiano Felicio and brought back guard Justin Holiday in July. … Most of the rest of the offseason was spent on adding quantity rather than quality to the roster for training camp. … Then the third shoe dropped just before camp opened, with Dwyane Wade bought out. That means his one season of work cost the Bulls about $39 million.

THREE POINTS

1. Who’s in charge here? That is, ‘here’ as in the Bulls locker room. Shedding three strong-willed veterans in Butler, Wade and Rondo leaves the roster bereft of any demonstrated leadership. That happens often with youth movements, but it’s something that teams realize they have to address. Zach LaVine might be the most talented player with NBA experience, but he’s still rehabbing from a torn ACL. Center Robin Lopez has been around the league but might be turned into trade bait by the February deadline. It doesn’t take all that much leadership to lose on a nightly basis, but these guys at least need a pecking order for when they make dinner plans on the road.

2. Fred Hoiberg gets a reset. Now what’s he going to do with it? The front office — which got a reset of its own, since there’s little pressure on anyone when a team sheds all expectations of winning — has Hoiberg’s back. He was, after all, GM Gar Forman’s hand-picked choice to succeed coach Tom Thibodeau. But Hoiberg will be expected to run an offense with the pace-and-space he spoke of upon arrival two years ago, while demonstrating his ability to lead a young roster. This is Year 3 of his big five-year, $25 million pact.

3. Can there be an urgency to lose? Of course, since the Bulls want to maximize their lottery chances and kick-start their rebuilding before the lottery percentages change in 2019. Under the current system, if they wind up with the league’s third-worst record, they might end up picking sixth. But if they bottom out completely, they’ll do no worse than fourth. That might explain some “bust or bust” bumper stickers in the Windy City.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Nikola Mirotic had a summer that was both sweaty and sobering. Heading into his fourth NBA season, Mirotic worked hard in the offseason, bulking up by 25 pounds or so for presumably a stronger post-up presence and ability to work from the paint. But he had to be disappointed by the lack of interest in him in the market of restricted free agency, since he wound up accepting a team-friendly, two-year deal with Chicago without generating any better outside offers. The 26-year-old from Montenegro dropped off in efficiency and dipped from 39 percent shooting from the arc to 34, but it was his inconsistency and lack of development that most disappointed the Bulls.

STARTING FIVE

Kris Dunn | 3.8 ppg | 2.1 rpg | 2.4 apg

Dunn didn’t come close to expectations even fellow rookies had for him.

Justin Holiday | 7.7 ppg | 2.7 rpg | 1.2 apg

“The Fireman” had a 52.3 eFG% in a chaotic Knicks season.

Robin Lopez | 10.4 ppg | 6.4 rpg | 1.0 apg

Lopez remained a passionate pro through Chicago’s bumpy season.

Paul Zipser | 5.5 ppg | 2.8 rpg | 0.8 apg

Unheralded rookie started 18 times despite limited foot speed and 39.8% shooting.

Nikola Mirotic | 10.6 ppg | 5.5 rpg | 1.1 apg

Mirotic’s overall slippage was most notice in reduced FTAs.

KEY RESERVES

Zach LaVine | 18.9 ppg | 3.4 rpg | 3.0 apg

The 2-time Slam Dunk Contest champ was thriving on raw skills before ACL tear.

Lauri Markkanen | 15.6 ppg | 7.2 rpg | 0.9 apg (at Arizona)

He’s been called “Porzingis Lite,” which the Bulls happily would take.

Denzel Valentine | 5.1 ppg | 2.6 rpg | 1.1 apg

Valentine’s anemic 35.4 FG% includes 36.3% on 2-pointers.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Management’s fortitude in taking lumps this season as the surest way to a high Draft pick might surpass the fans’ patience. Support at United Center, as measured by seats sold but unfilled, weakened last season and could dip considerably now that all pretense about contending has been stripped away. Folks might still cheer Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and others, but they’ll be rooting for guys wearing other teams’ colors.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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