The Chicago Bulls are now in full-blown rebuilding mode after finally pulling the trigger on a trade for superstar Jimmy Butler this offseason. They are now left with a very young team which will almost certainly be one of, if not the worst in the entire NBA this upcoming season.
Arrivals: Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Antonio Blakeney, Justin Holiday, Ryan Arcidiacono, David Nwaba, Quincy Pondexter
Departures: Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, Isaiah Canaan, Anthony Morrow, Joffrey Lauvergne
The Bulls’ 2017 offseason will be defined by their blockbuster draft day trade of Jimmy Butler and the 16th pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh pick, which became Lauri Markkanen. It was a widely panned deal, and rightly so, based on how little they got in return for a player of Butler’s caliber.
Those three will now have to live up to their potential in order to fully justify the trade. LaVine broke out as a scorer last season in Minnesota, but it could take time for him to get back to his best after the torn ACL he suffered last season. Meanwhile, Dunn didn’t show any progress offensively in his first two years with the Timberwolves.
There’s a chance Markkanen turns into the biggest star of the three. He has the shooting and overall scoring ability as a seven-footer to thrive in the league. But he will likely still have some growing pains to work through as a rookie, especially on the defensive end.
Apart from the trade, Chicago’s other most notable roster move was likely the re-signing of big man Cristiano Felicio to a four-year, $32 million contract. It was a generous contract given how tough the market was for big men in free agency this summer. It remains to be seen whether Felicio will be able to live up to that deal.
Meanwhile, their other key restricted free agent, Nikola Mirotic, remains unsigned at the time of writing. There’s still a possibility he stays on the team for at least one more season, but he might not be offered a long-term deal after the Bulls acquired their presumptive power forward of the future in Markkanen.
The Bulls don’t figure to be very good overall next season, but they do have a couple of things going for them.
It took three years, but head coach Fred Hoiberg finally has the shooters he needs to play his preferred pace-and-space system. Markkanen and LaVine are both capable three-point shooters, while Felicio has flashed some perimeter shooting, as has Bobby Portis. Paul Zipser showed during his rookie season that he can stroke it, and if they hang onto Mirotic, he would be a terrific stretch four off the bench.
The Bulls could also be more effective in transition with all the youth and athleticism now on the roster. If LaVine is back to his athletic best, he can get on the business end of a handful of alley-oops. Meanwhile, their big men, Felicio and Portis in particular, can also run the court fairly well.
The Bulls backcourt is not very good. They have zero starting-caliber point guards on the roster. Dunn and Jerian Grant have not proven much in their formative years in the league. Neither has Cameron Payne, and his career’s in jeopardy after another foot injury. With Dwyane Wade likely to be bought out at some point, they figure to be light on the wing as well behind LaVine. Justin Holiday, Denzel Valentine and David Nwaba will be battling it out for minutes, which is not ideal.
While the team should have better spacing, it may not necessarily have a better offense after finishing 23rd last season. With Butler gone, they’ll be relying on someone coming off a torn ACL (LaVine) and a rookie (Markkanen) to be their top two scoring options, which doesn’t figure to end well.
The defense, which was surprisingly way up in sixth last season in efficiency, could also take a significant step down. They lost their two best defender in Butler and Taj Gibson, and have brought in LaVine and Markkanen, who will be somewhere between bad and awful defensively this season. And, of course, there is the obvious weakness of the relative lack of inexperience on this roster apart from Robin Lopez, which means they will likely throw away their share of winnable games.
Player to watch – Lauri Markkanen
With the high-flying LaVine likely to be somewhat limited this season following knee surgery, Markkanen takes his place as the player to watch on a team that has very few of them. The Finn’s skill set is definitely intriguing. He has garnered all sorts of comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki by the simple fact that he’s a fair-skinned, 7’0” European who can shoot. While that level of expectation is a bit unfair, Markkanen has flashed the talent to live up to them.
Markkanen certainly has a good chance of being as central to the Bulls offense this season as prime Nowitzki due to the lack of other capable offensive options on the team. If he can make the most out of those chances, he should go some way toward justifying the Bulls front office’s decision to take him with the pick they got for Butler.
It’ll be a long season in Chicago. The young Bulls struggle to remain competitive as LaVine and Markkanen don’t quite light it up in their first season in the Windy City. The Bulls finish with the worst record in the East at 25-57, which is all part of the plan as it improves their odds for a top lottery pick.
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