LAS VEGAS — The Chicago Bulls’ defense of their Las Vegas Summer League championship isn’t looking good.
They are, however, right where they need to be in terms of their ambitions for the 2017-18 NBA regular season.
Lottery balls love losers. And the Bulls look destined to be rock stars of losing this season.
Their second game against summertime competition — yes, factoring the utter meaninglessness of what’s being played out here in the desert — still managed to be embarrassingly bad. A team that has staked out the next three to five seasons for an unabashed rebuilding plan ought to at least have the sort of young, raw, underdeveloped yet promising players who can compete with the other teams’ kids.
Not Chicago. Not in their opening loss Saturday to the Dallas entry and most assuredly not in their 77-55 loss Monday afternoon to Atlanta’s collection of hopefuls, wannabes and neverwills.
Five guys who figure to be see lots of court time at the United Center this season contributed in their own special way to a mess of a game:
— Denzel Valentine, Chicago’s first-round pick in 2016, shot 1-of-12 overall and 0-of-8 on 3-pointers. He fell to the floor more than any of the other Bulls, though, and bounced up each time. That’s … something.
— Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ first-round product last month thanks to the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota that made their trek down this dreary path official, shot 1-of-12 and 0-of-10 from the arc. Every shot the 7-foot rookie took looked like it was good, both he and Bulls GM Gar Forman maintained. Which only meant that Markkanen didn’t shoot any 12-footers from 18 feet or try to force the ball at any point up through the rim.
— Cameron Payne, the point guard for whom Chicago gave up Doug McDermott, a 2018 second-round pick and the final third of departing free agent forward Taj Gibson’s season, shot 4-of-11 for a two-game total of 9-of-26. He had four turnovers, one assist and his usual difficulty finishing at the rim. He does like to dribble, though, as he bounces around the perimeter.
— Forward Paul Zipser was out with a sprained left ankle.
— Guard Kris Dunn had to leave Las Vegas for personal reasons and won’t be back, thus ending his summer league exposure after two games for the second consecutive year (he suffered a concussion in 2016 with Minnesota).
Those last two are flukes, sure, but they feel like parts of the whole for an operation for which up shall be down, less shall be more, and losing will — wink-wink — get dressed up like winning this season.
Arguably, the best performance by a player in a Chicago jersey at COX Pavilion was by a guy who didn’t have a number of his back, never mind his name, when the game started. Amida Brimah, a 7-footer who spent four seasons at UConn, finally donned a No. 50 shirt in the second quarter. Then he blocked a couple shots, ran the floor well and threw down a dunk.
He looked, in other words, a little too promising for a team committed to failing for a while.
It’s going to be vital for Bulls management to maintain a Russian-proof firewall between its plans and the locker room this season. Not that the young guys are stupid, but if too much seeps in about the “Basement, please!” expectations, apathy might set in.
Valentine, for instance, at least was annoyed and aghast at his and the team’s performance Monday. Said he’d never shot so horribly in his life.
“Nobody is out there playing to lose,” he added. “We’re all out there playing to win. Of course you want a high draft pick [next spring], but we want to make the most out of the season. Our approach to the season is to be the best we can.”
Bless his heart.
Whether two games in Vegas or a dozen, it admittedly is early to pick nits on the road Chicago chose only three weeks ago. Still, the conventional wisdom on the Bulls is that Zach LaVine won’t be hurried back from his ACL surgery even if he’s ready, the front office won’t be rushing to shore up the roster’s inexperience with generous, available veterans, and Dwyane Wade won’t be bought out from his $23.8 million salary unless he gets really ornery and starts to win close game with late heroics.
Then alarms will go off, a check will be cut and Wade will be sent packing to sign with the contender of his choice.
The toughest challenge in what looms as a dismal, cynical, trust-us-again season likely will be dodging whatever get hurled, voluntarily or otherwise, from the 300 level at the UC. Programs, invective, dinner, you name it. From all reports, the Bulls do plan to charge full face value for tickets this season.
“Here’s what I think, I think we have we have great, great fans,’’ Forman said. “And that’s one of the pluses in being in Chicago is that they’re very passionate about the Bulls. We understand that it’s always hard when you have had a level of success and then you’ve got to take a step back and go in a new direction, as far as a rebuild is concerned.
“And we know that it’s going to be a process and there’s going to be ups and downs within that process, but we think the [Jimmy Butler] trade kind of gave us a step in the right direction as far as heading that way, where we got three young players who we really like.’’
Dunn’s learning curve, whenever he returns, will be back nearly to zero after his deflating rookie season in Minnesota. Markkanen naturally is right there with him; anyone comparing him at this point to New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, has forgotten that without the horn, a unicorn is just a horse.
This would all go down easier for Bulls fans if the team had shown a willingness to spend the money it virtually prints in that cavernous home arena while casting its net far and wide for future stars. Instead, the Bulls sent a first-rounder to Minnesota in the Butler trade, a second-rounder to OKC in that McDermott deal and then sold off the No. 38 pick this year to Golden State for $3.5 million. Jordan Bell, the Oregon big man on whom the Warriors used that pick, will find that his career is followed as closely by folks in Chicago as by those in the Bay Area.
There might be more faith in the architects of the rebuild if their first-round yield in the five drafts prior to this year had been more impactful than Marquis Teague (2012), Tony Snell (2013), McDermott (2014), Bobby Portis (2015) and Valentine (2016). Rotation guys, maybe, but the core of a younger, more athletic Bulls future? Hard to see.
There’d be more hope, too, if there was any history of Chicago luring big-name free agents in the prime of their careers to revive the excellence of the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era, rather than staying away and shrinking from it. Fans have seen the brightest stars go elsewhere. No one’s buying the snake oil.
Forman instead focused development and baby steps, as he spoke in a crowded corner of the gym crammed with hopes and dreams. He recalled eventual MVP Derrick Rose getting lit up at summer league by Mario Chalmers, Ben Gordon taking his lumps. He talked the other day about the “Baby Bulls of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler providing an unnerving glimpse of flops to come in their summer play.
“The big thing is just getting the process started,” Forman said. “Learning what’s expected. And this being the first step in what’s going to be a long summer of being in gyms, being with our athletic-performance people getting stronger, being with our coaches in working on skill development. Just getting adjusted to this being a full-time job.”
Watching it already feels like one.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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