As the Bulls begin their second-half quest for a playoff berth, Sam Smith has questions for these young Bulls.
It finally seems like they're coming out of it.
It didn't feel that way last March, and as uncertain as it was you also sense there were gloomier times to come. There had been concerns and warnings, but when it happens it's just shock. And so darkness set in. There now seems a light at the end of that tunnel of despair.
The Pandemic? Yeah, that, too.
But so it also has been for the Bulls. Nobody died, so no one is likening it to Covid's severity. Though many lost their jobs, also.
And now as the Bulls open the second half of the delayed 2020-21 NBA season, there appears legitimate reasons for optimism and on-court success for the first time since the 2017 draft.
The Bulls are just 16-18 and effectively tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls are two games behind fourth place Boston and four games ahead of 14th place Orlando. So more than a half dozen teams continue to dream about a first round playoff home court for whatever that's worth in this era. This season the NBA will inaugurate a play-in tournament for the teams finishing seventh through 10th, thus expanding the chances to at least make the playoffs.
For the first time in four years since the Bulls finished 41-41 and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs after missing the playoffs the previous season, the Bulls are among those teams again seriously competing for playoff validation.
Statistically, the Bulls finally look like a playoff team.
Overall for offensive and defensive efficiency, they're in the middle of the league and similarly in point differential at almost zero, which historically translates to a .500 record. It's where the Bulls were four years ago making the playoffs, though with an older team with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo.
A closer look reveals the Bulls in the top 10 in the NBA in shooting, assists, pace and defending the three point shot. They're 12th in rebounding rate. But they're near the bottom in turnovers and have a losing record closing close games, having played among the most in the NBA.
Several of those close losses were devastating, last shot wins by Golden State and Portland, a huge blown lead against the Thunder. But there were many positive wins, sweeping the Pelicans, Mavericks and Rockets and barely missing a Trailblazers sweep on those six points in the last seconds. There also have been wins against playoff rivals/hopefuls like the Knicks, Hornets and Pacers.
So with new coach Billy Donovan and new basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas, this Bulls turnaround is showing progress in its first season.
But is it too soon to let down their guard? Or their guards? The Bulls have gone slowly, adhering to caution as they climb out of that deep, dark hole of defeat that's been a constant companion these last three seasons. They surely could use a shot in the arm to end that pain. But is this the time? And what would it require. More than one?
Here are some of the questions and concerns the Bulls face beginning the second half Thursday against Philadelphia and then Friday against Miami:
What about Lauri Markkanen?
Is this the finale for the Finn? These last 38 games, assuming Markkanen is healthy enough to play them, likely will determine his Bulls future. It was perhaps the No. 1 question heading into this season. And it still is. Is Markkanen part of the Bulls future? Or is it time to pass?
The fourth-year forward after rejecting a Bulls contract offer became a restricted free agent. Before being hurt he was having an excellent season, averaging career highs of 19.1 points for second on the team, 39.6 percent on threes and leading the team in effective field goal percentage. But this time he went out with a shoulder sprain. Perhaps the larger concern is it's the fourth consecutive season the seven-foot Markkanen has been injured without needing surgery. Can his body endure in the NBA? Michael Jordan used to call Horace Grant a slacker for injury absences. Grant played in 95 percent of the Bulls games his seven seasons. Markkanen has played in 70 percent of the Bulls games in his four years. But you also don't give up on a seven footer who shoots 40 percent from three and in his second season was on the verge of being a 20/10 player and outplaying versatile big men like Kristaps Porzingis.
Markkanen is still just 23 years old and sometimes players' bodies adjust to the physical force as they get older considering they generally come into the NBA too young these days. Grant was 23 before he began his second NBA season and became a regular starter. Markkanen has been a starter from his first NBA game at 20. Sign, trade? Power forward? Center? Bull?
Trade Thad Young?
The Bulls are not trading Zach LaVine, and it would seem with his All-Star selection many fans and media members finally may be accepting that. So what about the second best Bulls player this season? Young's reemergence as the glue guy for the Bulls has been one of the best stories of the season. Young despite not starting a game is among the team leaders in scoring and assists and first in steals, shooting and charges taken. Which perhaps makes the 32-year-old, 14-year veteran valuable to a potential championship team. He's not fully guaranteed yet for next season, so the question is why not if Young probably isn't long term with the young team. Get something, perhaps a young player if not Young. Or a draft pick? I certainly hope not.
Sure, if you can get a future rotation player or starter I assume the team needs to consider that. And losing Young, who's been the team's most effective center, power forward and small forward, almost would guarantee missing the playoffs and thus a spot in the lottery in a strong draft. One more lottery? One step back and three steps forward? It makes sense. But there's value in making the playoffs even if it were the play-in or a first round elimination. Young players need to be in games that matter. A losing team's profile changes when it finally returns to the playoffs. More credible for a free agent? The rumors have been the Bulls have declined to talk trade regarding Young. Which could be true or a way to increase his value with the trading deadline still more than two weeks away. But at 32 why can't Young be a part of the Bulls on his next contract? After all, you win with veterans. He needs to stay.
Buy out Otto Porter Jr.?
That's another of the most recent speculation with teams with playoff aspirations apparently floating interest in Porter for free. Hello, don't the Bulls have playoff aspirations? Porter's tenure with the Bulls, obviously, has been a disappointment since he's played in a third of the games since his February 2019 trade from Washington. But when Porter has played he's been very good. Though he's more a stretch power forward now given his body type, he still possesses some of the small forward abilities the team lacks with Chandler Hutchison out (he seems unlikely to return to the regular rotation with personal problems). It's the last season of Porter's contract with the Bulls. He's the team's highest paid player, which will open considerable salary cap space in free agency. So the Bulls aren't likely to make a trade unless a team wants to move a high salaried front line player. If so, make the deal. It would seem to otherwise make sense to play it out with Porter. If he returns and as close as the Eastern Conference playoff race is, a win or two could make the difference. Garrett Temple has played great. But Porter is an upgrade, and he could make that difference.
Can Wendell Carter Jr. handle center?
It's not true Joel Embiid is missing Thursday's game with the Bulls for fear that Carter is angry this time. There's no joking about what Embiid last month did to Carter and a lot of other Bulls with 50 points. Embiid and Ben Simmons are out for virus contact tracing, a post All-Star gift for the Bulls. Talk about your close shaves. Though Carter's play against Embiid—not that anyone has done great since Embiid is the leading MVP candidate this season—has raised questions about whether Carter is the center going forward.
Trade speculation in media has focused on Cleveland center Andre Drummond, who has been linked to about a dozen teams. That would require Porter for a matching salary and probably a draft pick. The consensus seems to be Drummond will move to a top team after a buyout. Carter is coming off a 15-rebound game against Steven Adams and New Orleans. But since returning from a quad contusion Feb. 15, Carter has had difficult games against taller centers like Denver's Nikola Jokic (sure, everyone does) and Phoenix's Deandre Ayton. Carter scored two points in 24 minutes against Ayton and eight in 22 minutes against Denver. Since double/doubles against the Timberwolves and Rockets, Carter is averaging 5.7 points and 7.7 points the last three games. Which also makes this closing stretch a career audition for Carter. New management supposedly has high hopes for Carter. Coach Billy Donovan has urged Carter to develop a longer shot to take advantage of his quickness against bigger centers. But Carter hasn't been comfortable shooting from three. He has just five attempts in his nine games back. He has been effective from the mid post area and in screen/roll play. As a third year player he becomes eligible for an extension before next season. Two positional questions for the Bulls are whether the team can move forward with Carter at center and Coby White at point guard. White is just completing his second season. The Bulls have to begin considering some decisions regarding Carter.
Is Patrick Williams Kawhi? Or is he Khryapa?
No, he's better than that, Khryapa, anyway. The Bulls see him as a Kirilenko-type, though maybe Kemp? He's just 19, so we don't do many positives or negatives. Heck, he still could be growing. The 19-year-old rookie has been likened to Kawhi Leonard with his sturdy build, large hands and stoic way of playing. He's got a surprisingly accurate shot for the rare high arc it takes, and Williams can make some powerful moves. And then spectate for long stretches. He's averaging 10 points. Which is more than he even averaged in college, where he didn't start. But he has in the NBA. Is Florida State that deep? The Bulls have placed (hoped) Williams at small forward, though he plays mostly out of the deep corner and doesn't handle the ball much. His body also more resembles a power forward along with his demeanor at times. His continuing evolution as a player is important as the Bulls assess needs going forward. It's often called a positionless game these days, though it helps to have a position to fall back on.
No more questions. He's a star.