There’s an elephant in the Bulls locker room named Zion. Actually, the Bulls—and most every other NBA team—would love for the mammoth Duke forward to be in their locker room. He’ll certainly be in someone’s next season as the 6-7, 285-pound collegiate sensation likely will be the first pick in this June’s NBA draft.
And while much of the NBA this week begins the post All-Star break sprint to the regular season close and playoffs, teams like the Bulls can talk about all those intangibles like development and competition while looming is the specter of perhaps a generational player. No one yet knows the impact Zion Williamson might have, but the primary formula for success in the NBA is a transformative talent like LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
Williamson, at least for now, projects as perhaps the next one, which means getting the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s based in part on luck for the teams with the poorest records in the NBA, the Bulls at 14-44 now with the fourth poorest. The odds for the No. 1 pick this year are the same, 14 percent, for the teams with the three worst records, and then slightly less for the teams at four and five.
So while the ethic in sports is to win, the reality looming over the teams at the bottom of the standings is practically it may be preferable to lose games to increase the chances for the No. 1 draft pick as well as maintaining the order for the better selections.
So what to do for the last 24 games?
Win because that’s what sports and the game is about? Lose because it may benefit the team in the long run in the NBA draft?
"My marching orders are to continue to coach and develop and demand good basketball and better play and honor the things we’ve talked about, playing for Bulls across their chest, competing at a high level, playing the right way," Bulls coach Jim Boylen said Wednesday night after the Bulls convened following the weeklong All-Star break. "That’s what I’m focused on and what I’ve been asked to do. As far as the other stuff, I’m worried about our guys learning, growing and every day getting better. Continue to build our culture of competitiveness and that the team is first and we care for each other and the franchise.
"That’s what I’m paid to do and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability until they tell me differently," Boylen said. "We’ve got a young crew that needs to be held accountable and developed. And that’s what I’m going to do."
It’s truly a difficult position for any coach.
Obviously, the players are not going to be interested in losing since it only leads to perhaps a replacement player for them and lesser individual production, which impacts their future.
But for a coach and by extension the organization, the goal is to continue to add better players.
It’s become common in sports in recent years to, if not intentionally lose, to employ lesser talent. That leads to more losses and better draft picks, the theory then being the team will be improved enough after a few seasons to contend and perhaps compete for a title.
The Bulls are in a difficult middle position, in part, because of the circumstances of the early season injuries. After the major trade of Jimmy Butler, the Bulls followed that path of lesser competition last year. They ended up with the No. 7 pick in the draft and Wendell Carter Jr. A coin flip and bounce of one of 1,000 balls in the process kept them from gaining the No. 2 pick. The difference often is that little.
But now that the team is healthy with Kris Dunn back practicing after missing a game last week and the trade for starting small forward Otto Porter, the Bulls talent transcends their record.
Plus, the organization appears morally opposed to sacrificing wins and their best efforts for the few losses that may be the difference in the draft lottery. Many suggest otherwise, that the team needs to lose to enhance its odds.
That will be the daily paradox of the next two months, whether winning is appropriate for momentum toward next season and player improvement. Or whether it’s doing long term damage to the team’s prospects.
That debate undoubtedly will play out following every Bulls game.
Because with Porter, Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine, the Bulls present an effective, all round offensive threesome who can match up with many of the top teams in the NBA. And LaVine has no doubt about their mission.
"That’s for the fan base and the people above my pay grade to make those decisions," LaVine said about the winning/losing formula. "I don’t think the fan base wants a team to go out there and lose on purpose. I think they want players who are competitive and want to win. I want to win every game, so I understand what some people may think. But to be honest I am going out there and playing for myself and my teammates not to lose. I’m not going out there to lose. I’ll let the chips fall where they may and at the end of the season we’ll see what we are doing."