Sam Smith takes a look ahead to the upcoming season and makes his predictions for who will be the Bulls' MVP, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year and more.
Americans loves awards. Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers, Nobels. Little League Sportsmanship, Sixth Place swimming. MVP, Most Improved. It's been a fallow recognition period for the Bulls, who last were honored by the NBA in 2015 when Jimmy Butler was the NBA's Most Improved Player and Joakim Noah won the Citizenship Award a year after he was named Defensive Player of the Year.
Bulls players coming off a third consecutive season missing the playoffs and fourth in the last five will have to surprise to get into the 2020-21 post season award voting.
So let's give them some love for the annual Bulls awards.
Most Valuable Player: Zach LaVine
LaVine may be the most underrated player in the NBA and with the most amazing story never told. The two-time slam dunk champion came back from the most serious of knee surgeries to regain the athletic ability he had previously. No one in NBA history has done so to that level. It's never mentioned. And then LaVine has basically gotten better every season, culminating with averaging more than 25 points per game last season to be among the top dozen scorers in the NBA. It's elite company, yet LaVine rarely is acknowledged for his excellence. So this is a big season for him to reverse course to winning games with his team, though the last two years he's mostly had to push forward singularly with so many teammates injured. New coach Billy Donovan already has recognized LaVine as the team's most consistent player, and certainly most talented. LaVine's defense has been improved in the preseason. It's his time to move into the NBA's talent penthouse.
Most Improved: Coby White
The second year point guard figures to combine with LaVine as one of the most potent backcourt scoring combinations in the NBA. Donovan has taken something of an equal opportunity approach to offense in encouraging White to be a playmaker to involve his teammates. Along with a transition game that's not quite the D'Antoni Seven Seconds or Less but emphasizes pace. Though we've heard that before. Always eager to please, White will attempt to do so. But he is mostly a natural and gifted scorer much like LaVine. White got his first start last season in the final game before the season interruption in March after going on a brilliant scoring binge with multiple 30-plus scoring games. It's his milieu. How White is able to blend his offense with his sacrifice will determine much of the Bulls success. He and LaVine are capable of averaging 50 points per game combined. If they do, it will make things easier all around.
Rookie of the Year: Patrick Williams
The No. 4 overall pick in the draft was considered somewhat of a surprise selection because he didn't start during his one collegiate season. But he looks as ready for the NBA as any of the rookies with his NBA size at 6-8 and at least 225 pounds with hands, as was said about Connie Hawkins, that could palm Sunday. Williams started two of the four preseason games, averaging 11.3 points and four rebounds as perhaps, already, the team's best individual defender. It should result in a starting role for the rookie since Donovan wants to limit the early season playing time of previously injured Otto Porter Jr. Also, Williams probably fits better with the starters since unlike Porter he won't fight the guards for shots. Though LaVine appears to have improved defensively, Williams can play an opponent's best scorer and also fits in better that Porter to give Lauri Markkanen more scoring opportunities. Williams even has the heft to alternate with center Wendell Carter Jr., whom Donovan has been encouraging to become more of a perimeter shooter to spread the floor for the penetrators. Williams appears positioned to be one of the league's most productive rookies with a nice mid range shooting touch with his physical component.
Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan
Donovan is going to really have to push to avoid his first losing season as an NBA coach. It's not inconceivable since many of us believe the Bulls have massively underachieved, especially last season, though injuries have been a contributor. Donovan isn't generally regarded among the elite NBA coaches because he doesn't have a charismatic personality. But he embodies the elements of coaching success with an organized and strategic approach to the game, and few will coach with more relentless purpose. He works like Tom Thibodeau, though not with as much publicity. Media, especially with the Covid restrictions, has not been permitted to see Donovan with players. But he's already demonstrated accountability in gently advising Carter to work harder given a poor shooting preseason. Donovan has emphasized a game predicated on movement and passing, general staples for all teams. But he's done so with a mandate to keep everyone involved in the offense and defense. His practices have seemed demanding but efficient in the Jerry Sloan model more than perhaps the Thibodeau lengths, though both produced excellent results. The Bulls seem more prepared for this season even with the pandemic as much as anytime in the last decade.
Sixth Man of the Year: Otto Porter Jr.
The oldest 27-year-old because he seems like he's been around so long also is facing a big prove-it season like Lauri Markkanen. Both are coming off disappointing setback seasons due to injury and uncertainty, and both will be free agents this summer, Markkanen restricted and Porter unrestricted. It's just part of the motivation that could produce enhanced play. Porter was envisioned as the small forward starter when the Bulls traded for him nearly two years ago. He perhaps fits more as a power forward the way many teams play now. He should benefit more if he is coming off the bench for this Bulls team as a leader and primary second unit scorer instead of perhaps tertiary or less with the starters. The Bulls have the potential for an excellent reserve group to back up the starters, which will be important with the uncertainties surrounding the virus. Players like Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine, Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young will be vying for regular rotation spots with the depth that could elevate the Bulls. It was the reserves who carried the team to the final preseason win and a hidden strength of this Bulls team. Porter is the Bulls highest salaried player and has the motivation to demonstrate that.
Defensive Player of the Year: Wendell Carter Jr.
Carter has been used mostly as a defensive player and rim protector much of his two seasons with the Bulls. Can he be that player, or is that a role Daniel Gafford will also fill? Donovan has been urging Carter to lengthen his shooting range in preseason, but Carter shot just one of 16 on threes. Donovan advised more work in his encouragement. It's also a vital season for Carter, who has been injured both his NBA seasons after getting off to an excellent start as a rookie, and then last season mostly used as a decoy. He needs to show he is facile enough to play the defensive role while making those shots with confidence. He's talked about also being able to play power forward, which is the Bulls most crowded position with Porter and rookie Williams also possibly vying for that spot with Markkanen. Carter has the chance to establish himself in the middle in an NBA which these days can accommodate a smaller center.
Clear out the trophy case.