What Are the 10 Biggest Questions Facing the Bulls this Season?

Sam Shares His Thoughts On the 10 Biggest Questions Likely Facing the Bulls Ahead of Media Day
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later


The 2019-20 NBA regular season seven-month marathon begins for the Bulls Monday with the "media day" official opening of training camp. For the players, it means interviews and posing for their yearbook photos, and for management the hope is no one gets injured by a photo light.

The last two seasons have mostly been a marathon for the training staff as the rebuilding core of Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine missed a combined total of 187 games primarily due to injury, an average of more than 60 games for each player over the last two years.

Thus "assuming good health" becomes the Bulls' leitmotif if the team intends to play some sweet string music with the nets this season.

There's actually reason for hope, if not also optimism, despite the third fewest wins in the league during the last two seasons.

Good health is not a given for anyone, so that goes into the luck category.

Though quietly — which these days generally means not having been seriously involved in tampering — the Bulls have assembled a competitive roster with depth and experience that in a diminished Eastern Conference could prove to be among the competitors for the playoffs. The Bulls generally are not regarded among that group, and true, this is the team's web site. But the team's web site did not suggest playoffs the last two seasons.

Nothing personal, but there's no more Cameron Payne, Quincy Pondexter, Sean Kilpatrick, Kay Felder, Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser, Wayne Selden, Rawle Alkins and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot. Most were high character people, but still part of an audition process.

Rehearsals are over; Madison Street may become Broadway again.

The Bulls were not primary participants in the summer free agency madness. It started for the Bulls in February with the acquisition of Washington's Otto Porter, the 6-8 forward who would have been a top second tier free agent if he were available in the summer. Then came the furtive additions of veterans like forward Thaddeus Young and point guard Tomas Satoransky. So suddenly without the big name addition or the so called winning the press conference signing, the Bulls replaced tryouts with tried and true. Maybe not great, but parts that could fill the gaps.

The enhancements provide depth, playoff experience, potential leadership, shooting and perhaps a neat fit with the efficient Porter, the versatile Young and the unselfish Satoransky.

Still, LaVine and Markkanen represent the team's aspirations.

The high scoring LaVine and long distance shooting seven-foot Markkanen project as possible All-Stars, and perhaps even this season with the annual All-Star game coming to Chicago in February for the first time since 1988. Though there are exceptions, like the 2004 Pistons, 2011 Mavericks and last season's Toronto Raptors (hey, that's a lot for being exceptions), elite teams usually require multiple stars.

LaVine was among the league's leading scorers last season, a group that includes the league's poorest defenders like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. And Markkanen can be almost a matchup impossibility with his size and skills. They could evolve to stardom. It's the team's hope, if not certain promise.

Especially in a modest Eastern Conference in which All Stars Kawhi Leonard and D'Angelo Russell went to the Western Conference, two others in Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker changed teams, and another, Victor Oladipo, remains injured going into the season. Plus, players like Kyle Lowry seemed to benefit by playing next to an All-Star like Leonard. The East All-Star roster seems wide open as does the conference and the Bulls possibilities for this season.

Though this is Year 3 of the latest construction project, it's really the first season when the goal is less about who else to add and how much you can achieve.

Still there are questions; here's 10 to consider for the next several months.


Can the Bulls make the playoffs?

Yes. Will they? That's not as certain. But with the veteran acquisitions and the experience of LaVine and Markkanen, the Bulls should be in the mix for at least the last four playoff spots. Along with perhaps six other teams. Which will leave out three who on media day didn't see why they couldn't have been one of them.

Fans and players floor the UC floor after the Bulls win the 1997 championship


Will Kris Dunn be traded?

Not yet, at least. Or so it seems. Dunn was the third part of the 2017 trade for Jimmy Butler, and truth be told, he was the primary target at the time. The Bulls had been enamored of and seriously scouting Dunn for at least two years. His injuries from his first Bulls training camp were devastating when it looked like he was about to become an elite guard. And then amidst the personnel parade and coaching change, he seemed to fall out of favor. Coaches love to say coming into camp that all positions are open to competition. Dunn likely will have a chance to retain the starting point guard spot. Remember, he had to win it from Grant two years ago. And the Bulls certainly could use a force at the point of the defense. Perhaps only Dunn could supply that. He's talented and almost 6-5. He should be motivated in a contact season. The starting point guard competition between Dunn and Satoransky should be the best — and maybe truly the only — in training camp.

Kris Dunn Dunks the Ball at the UC


Who's the Man?

Zach. Though there's a difference with this Bulls team between the best talent and the leader. The presumption usually is the best player should be the leader. Ideally, that would be the case, like with LeBron with the Lakers or Giannis with the Bucks. Though there's also sentiment for Markkanen to be that figure, his personality is subdued and he too often has lacked enough physical component in his game to challenge the defense and get to the free throw line. He seems to be more comfortable in the skilled aspects of the game and being a support player. LaVine is better at seeking out contact, and he seems more driven to be a star. Though with this Bulls team, you get the sense it will be driven more by players like Young, especially, as well as Satoransky and perhaps Porter. Young is vocal with playoff experience and an outgoing personality. Satoransky clearly was the leader of his national team. Those three are serious competitors who seem capable of dominating a locker room. Zach's likely to be the main scorer. If those guys can help the team get the victories, it should give Zach and Lauri a chance to be the All Stars they want to be.

Zach Lavine at the UC


Is Wendell Carter Jr. a center?

No, though it probably won't matter enough to be fatal. After all, this isn't the title-or-bust season. Carter could be the unexpected breakout player while more eyes are on LaVine and Markkanen. True, he's more Al Horford-as-center size. Horford often played with a center in Boston, and certainly now in Philadelphia. And Carter did have difficulties with the active seven footers, like the Nets' Jarrett Allen and the Pistons' Andre Drummond. Carter, before missing the second half of last season injured, was unusually deferential. He's an especially high character person, and he clearly wanted to set a first impression as an unselfish, quality teammate. He should have looked around and decided he better shoot. He's surrounded by better teammates this season, but he also should take more initiative on offense to offset his lack of size. He figures, like Markkanen, to be another matchup conundrum for defenses. The Bulls still need an athletic seven footer, at least for defense. Though it's still premature for the contending portrait to be complete.

Wendell Carter Jr. On NBA Draft 2018 Night


How much impact will the rookies make?

Not that much, it seems to me. That could change depending on the status, circumstances and use of Kris Dunn. Though with four point guards and Ryan Arcidiacono seemingly the most comfortable in the offense, it might not be a high usage season for Coby White. I believe he'd be better served taking advantage of the G-league, where he could practice being a point guard and gain confidence. I don't know what plans the Bulls have for him. But coming in to play the game's most difficult position against the game's best talent for a kid who doesn't turn 20 until late this season is asking way too much, especially with a team that should have playoff aspirations. If things don't go well, sure, play him. But if the Bulls are competing for a playoff spot into April, it will be difficult — and unfair — to be patient with the mistakes of a natural scorer being asked to run a team with so many young veterans. Second round pick Daniel Gafford might fit in more quickly for spot minutes given fewer offensive expectations.

Coby White & Daniel Gafford Walking Around the Advocate Center


Who are the biggest question marks?

Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison. If those two are hale and hearty, especially because they are wing players where the Bulls are thin, the Bulls could be one of the league's deepest teams. Though neither has been healthy. Valentine seemed to be just breaking through in 2017-18 averaging about 10 points and shooting 39 percent on threes when he missed last season with ankle surgery. Similarly, Hutchison, also a four-year collegian, seemed to be getting comfortable last January when he went out for the rest of his rookie season. He was on a minutes limit in Summer League, and then was injured again, a hamstring strain in workouts earlier this month. Porter lines up to start at small forward. Young probably can play some small forward. Satoransky can play off the ball and Dunn probably can play some at guard and small forward. But it's straining their regular positions if Valentine and Hutchison cannot contribute. If they can, they give the Bulls a sophisticated and deep reserve unit.

Denzel Valentine


Who'll have the most impact of the new guys?

Probably Satoransky even as he's not considered a starter, at least not yet. Though Dunn figures to get a chance to win the starting job, Satoransky seems to be a better backcourt fit with Zach LaVine. There didn't seem to be any personal issues, but LaVine and Dunn have been an uneasy playing fit. Dunn seemed to be his most aggressive when LaVine was out. And then he'd often defer too much playing with LaVine. Satoransky is more of an old style facilitating guard. He's an excellent shooter who looks more to set up the offense and pass. Young could have substantial impact, though perhaps more so as a locker room leader and hustling inspiration to drive the players through those fallow periods during games that have stymied the team the last two seasons and led to long losing streaks. His voice may be the most prominent with this group.

Satoransky high-fiving Czech Republic fans


What's the first priority?

A fast start. Coming off two sub-30 wins seasons, not much is going be expected of the Bulls. The basketball world has mostly been positive about the team's offseason additions and the gambling sites generally have projected a 50 percent win improvement. Which would be impressive, except it gets the Bulls to 32 wins. Most of the prediction sites have the Bulls winning 30-35 games. That's far from playoff contention. The aberration, however, is the surfeit of injuries and, let's say, interest in the draft process the last two years. No more. This season's Bulls schedule is heavily weighted in the second half with the longest road trip in April and many of the top teams in the last two months. Half the opponents the first month were not playoff teams last season. With so many new players, this may be a hit-the-ground-running type season for the Bulls in which they could gain substantial confidence with a good start and while quieting the doubters. The first two months could be crucial.

Jim Boylen smiling during a Bulls game


Who represents the Bulls at the All-Star game in Chicago?

Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. They just don't want it to be in the dunk contest for two-time champion Zach and in the three-point contest for marksman Lauri. Either or perhaps both given the exoduses in the conference could be All-Stars if the Bulls have a winning first half season. With Victor Oladipo, John Wall and Kevin Durant injured and Kawhi Leonard, D'Angelo Russell and LeBron having gone west, the East All-Star team is open for some new arrivals. Here's a guess at the starters from the combined voting: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal and Joel Embiid. It will be tough to unseat that five. There's seven more spots (eight if Dwyane announces another farewell tour). The most likely reserves figure to be Blake Griffin, Kemba Walker and Ben Simmons. So that should be four open spots for which LaVine and Markkanen would compete most likely with Khris Middleton, Trae Young, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Rose, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, John Collins and Julius Randle. The tiebreakers will be wins.

Lauri & Zach High-five underneath the basket


Is the East a beast or the least?

The least in a very long time. The talk about reseeding the playoffs to the best 16 records from both conferences is going to be on a fast track this season with maybe eight Western Conference teams better than everyone in the East other than the 76ers and perhaps the Bucks. Commissioner Adam Silver likes to innovate and has been looking for something to get fans debating more about the playoffs. I prefer the geographical divisions and don't care for the All-Star game pickup teams concept, either. Some will complain about travel and uneven schedules. And then the league may say so what and give it a try. Silver likes outside the box. But this East this season bodes well for a more competitive Bulls team. There will be assumptions about the Raptors because they are defending champions, but without Leonard they seem ordinary. Gasol and Lowry are slowing and Siakam will find leading without Leonard is difficult. No way Khris Middleton is an All-Star without Giannis. Those Jaylens and Jaysons have come back to earth in Boston. A .500 record wins the Southeast Division. Let's see Kyrie without Durant. The 76ers and Bucks, assuming Giannis for the later remain healthy, look good for the top two spots. But three through eight seems available to 10 teams, including the Bulls. Though, as it's said, that's why they play the games. It's time.

The Raptors celebrate winning the NBA eastern conference finals last season

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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