The Bulls 2018-19 season may have started Wednesday with about nine minutes left in the third quarter of the Bulls season season ending 119-87 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Because that's when the Pistons' Stanley Johnson from the right baseline tried a pass to the left corner. Bulls rookie forward Lauri Markkanen intercepted the pass. He then went behind his back with the ball to avoid defender Anthony Tolliver. Markkanen then became a one-player fast break, dribbling full court left handed and going to the basket until the Pistons fouled him.
It was the kind of play from a 20-year old, Markkanen leading the Bulls in scoring with 20 points in 21 minutes with his fourth game of at least 20 in the last five, that suggested the early glimpse of a player who could become that star to fulfill the ambitions of the franchise.
Perhaps it was no coincidence that Markkanen also was chosen to address the fans before the final game and was introduced last among the starters.
From No. 23 to No. 24?
No one wants to hang that responsibility on a kid. But also with three of seven three pointers, eight rebounds and two steals and leading the team in scoring this season for everyone who played more than 25 games, Markkanen has given the Bulls perhaps more rebuilding optimism than anticipated.
"Lauri's been unbelievable these last couple weeks," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. "He's elevated his game. He had a stretch where he was out with the back injury and a little bit with the elbow, but he's been awesome. He set an all time record for threes as a rookie in a Bulls uniform (breaking Kirk Hinrich's mark Wednesday despite missing 14 games). To score 1,000 points and get 500 rebounds (the first Bulls rookie since Elton Brand), quickest player in the history of the league to get to 100 threes. He had a special, special season. It's fun to be a part of, and it's going to be an important offseason for Lauri, but he's committed to it. And I think you're going to see a better player next year."
It's hardly unreasonable for the young man from Finland who was in the United States for just one year before the 2017 draft. Then after a hectic summer with Finland's national team, Markkanen is suddenly thrust into the starting lineup with the incident between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. And then also leads the team in rebounding and has one of the elite games of the season, 33 points with eight threes in an overtime win in Madison Square Garden.
"Lauri, he's incredible, such a special talent and I feel we have three potential All Stars here," said Zach LaVine. "Lauri's talent is going to be crazy and this is going to be his first real summer he gets to work out and he already has the experience of what he did this year. He's great, man; that kid's good."
The Bulls also got 14 points from Sean Kilpatrick, 13 from David Nwaba, 11 from Bobby Portis and 10 each from Jerian Grant and Cristiano Felicio. But the Bulls never were much in this finale, trailing 35-21 after the first quarter and then by double digits the rest of the game, by 30 midway through the fourth quarter.
It was the team's fourth consecutive loss and 11th in the last 14, but positive in the race to the draft lottery chances. The Bulls ended the season 27-55, their poorest record since 2003-04 and first season with fewer than 30 wins since 2007-08. The latter was the season the Bulls defied the lottery odds to get the No. 1 pick and Derrick Rose.
The Bulls will go into the May 15 lottery drawing to be conducted in Chicago in a tie with Sacramento for the sixth poorest record. And thus sixth best odds of moving into the top three. Teams tied divide the number of lottery chances. A drawing is conducted for final standings, but it has no effect on the lottery.
Should no team change order, the Bulls would select sixth or seventh in the June draft.
Which becomes the result of an awkward, unusual and uncomfortable season in which the Bulls began trying to overcome the fight with Portis and Markkanen and begin to develop their prime three players from the Jimmy Butler trade, Markkanen, LaVine and Kris Dunn.
It resulted after a brutal 3-20 start in an impressive winning month in December. But then a slide with the trade of Mirotic, injury to Dunn with his concussion and the an examination of players on the roster while benching starters Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, a quest for development and perhaps the chance to draft a better player.
It certainly was a one-year trial for the Bulls as every player after the finale talked about playoff contending for next season.
"I think we are all really hungry to be successful and be great players in this league," said Denzel Valentine. "I've heard Kris, Lauri and Zach and Bobby and on down say they want to be great in this league and coming from a player myself, I want that, too. Everyone wants to be successful and elite, and that's a formula for success.
"I think we have a great group," added Valentine. "I feel we showed our potential and what we are capable of throughout this year. We just have to capitalize on it and take another step, win the kinds of games we lost earlier and once we come back, be locked in with one common goal to make it to the playoffs and put Chicago back on the map."
Which is also why the philosophy of a drawn out rebuilding seemed to have been expedited with the growth of, especially, the three players from the Butler trade, particularly Markkanen. The Bulls get two first round picks this June, the second from the Mirotic trade. And it wouldn't be surprising to see the Bulls try to fill out the roster with free agents. Plus, the Bulls appear to have found some valuable additions in players like Nwaba and perhaps Kilpatrick.
"Obviously, this was a tough thing that we went through here at the end, experimenting with different lineups, but we had some really good moments this year, some things that we certainly can build on. I thought Bobby had a terrific year," said Hoiberg. "From when Bobby got in the lineup after the suspension early in the season, I thought Bobby was terrific, and you just look at how he's grown as a player. I like some of the things Felício did when we started playing him, gain some of that confidence back. It was good to get Kilpatrick in here. I really like some of the things that he did. Denzel Valentine, I thought, had a great year from start to finish. Nwaba is a guy that went out and competed every night and does some really positive things when he's on the floor. And then Cameron Payne, the one guy I think a lot of people had questions about after getting him in the trade and going through some difficult times and showing some real positive things on the floor. A lot of things were positive out of this."
Though perhaps none more than that potential for stardom shining on the seven footer from Finland.
The NBA is about stars who can make big plays at big times on a regular basis, and Markkanen has shown that even in a season he admitted he had no idea about to start.
"I think we learned a lot as a team and I learned a lot as an individual," said Markkanen. "I look back now and I don't know what I was thinking when I was coming in. I know a lot more now even though it's just one season. We spent a lot of time with each other and the coaching staff and I think I'm a lot better player than I was coming in, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. It's been fun off the court as well. Everyone comes to the gym every day, a smile on their face. It's a simple example, but it shows how people enjoy being with each other every day."
It does seem like an unusually compatible group of players.
LaVine on his way out of the locker room playfully messed with Markkanen's curly hair and they all talked about working together regularly in the summer. Lopez finished up his interviews with his dog by his side wearing a top hat and a hockey jersey.
"I was going to say the season was weird," said Lopez. "It seems like every NBA season is weird. Things are weird in the NBA. Look at me. I am giving an interview with my dog and wearing a Mighty Ducks Jersey and this hipster hat. Things are weird in the NBA."
It seemed the sort of camaraderie that could be important going forward as the Bulls try to develop not only their main three players in Markkanen, Dunn and LaVine, but see them meld together and perhaps form the order needed for success.
"I want to be more complete, do everything better, work on my post game, get stronger, improve my ball handing, bring the ball up more," said Markkanen. "I'm pushing the ball up more and it's one thing I want to do and I'm looking forward to it. We saw what the team could do. We were on a seven-game win streak, we were 10 for 12. That gives us confidence and guys being with each other we showed what we can do."
"We have to build even better chemistry and start working even better together," Markkanen acknowledged. "We (with Dunn and LaVine) didn't play many games together this year. So I can't actually wait to get back together and the whole team. Last summer, I didn't know what to expect. Now I have gone through it once. I'm much more excited about next year than this year. Believe it or not, we can compete for the playoffs next year."
Now that's the kind of talk everyone wants to hear.
LaVine looks back at the 17-18 season, looks forward to the offseason
The Bulls mystery man of the 2017-18 season probably was Zach LaVine.
He was, in some respects, the featured player in the Jimmy Butler trade because he was a two-time NBA slam dunk champion and averaging 18.9 points when he suffered a torn ACL last year.
He came to the Bulls with the biggest reputation and perhaps most anticipated potential among he, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen.
But while LaVine continued his rehabilitation, both Markkanen and Dunn emerged as productive and, at times, starring players. Dunn had several game winning shots in the team's seven-game winning streak in December. And Markkanen after that had 32 and 33-point games and set team and league rookie records.
LaVine did have some impressive games, especially the 35 points in the February win over Minnesota in Butler's return, perhaps the Bulls' best victory of the season. That game concluded a four-game run in which LaVine averaged almost 27 points. But he was wildly inconsistent shooting after that and suffered defensively. He ended up sitting out the last 13 games with knee tendinitis, though it likely was a precaution and in line with the team's draft situation.
He has considered himself a potential elite star in the NBA. Yet among the big questions for the Bulls heading forward is how he, Dunn and Markkanen will play together, if there has to be a leader among those three and whether LaVine can fulfill his goals for himself and the team.
He was optimistic after the game meeting with reporters and sanguine about the team's prospects.
"We've had some ups and downs, but you always can build from it," said LaVine. "We're going to work. We're already talking about getting back in the gym and scheduling it out and everyone getting together in the offseason. We're going to be good as long as we have that mentality of getting better and growing together. I feel great; totally confident because everyone has individual goals and team goals. You cannot go into the offseason not thinking we are not going to get better and we don't have talent. Because the sky is the limit for us, especially if we get to work and have trust in everybody; we are going to bond together and take off."
It's what the team likely wants to hear, and LaVine said he's not only anxious to get going—"I don't need any vacation; I've sat out enough"—but already is taking charge of the scheduling of the workouts and group sessions.
"It's going to be great (this offseason)," he said. "I missed the whole last offseason. That's where I make a lot of my jumps. I'm ready to get going right now. It sucks to have the season come to an end, but I'm really excited to get back and working and see how high I can take my game."
But LaVine was quick to point out the importance of improving for the team's sake.
"I embraced this (trade) and I am excited to begin this journey here and put on for this city because this is the opportunity of a lifetime," the 6-5 shooting guard said. "Especially with this type of franchise you want to do so well. The city deserves it. From the 90s, got spoiled by that dude. We have a certain standard to stick up to. So we're going to get back and reconnect with that.
"We've already been talking about working out together and I'm going to try to orchestrate a lot of that because this is my first summer being with them," said LaVine. "I want to build some chemistry and I feel you definitely can build chemistry in the offseason when guys put their minds to it and get down to work. Get better with eachother and see where we can take this. We know that we are the three main guys here. We have to set a standard for the rest of the guys and for ourselves. We have to be that force each day with practice, game, regardless; we have to be there for the team. We're going to get this thing rolling."