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Rebuilding Chicago Bulls still looking for answers. Where do they go from here?

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Mark Deeks, Sky Sports NBA analyst

Saturday 29 February 2020 23:49, UK

Zach LaVine has emerged as a bright spark for the struggling Chicago Bulls
Image: Zach LaVine has emerged as a bright spark for the struggling Chicago Bulls

Injuries, bad luck in the draft, and a dearth of stars has left the Chicago Bulls floundering again. Where do they go from here? asks Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks .

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In a recent interview, Chicago Bulls' vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said that the slate of injuries his team has suffered this season leaves management still "not knowing" the team they have constructed over the last three years.

It was a frustrating thing to hear, as it seemed to lack accountability at the lack of consistent organisational direction over those three years and more. It is, however, also pretty true.

Wendell Carter, Lauri Markkanen and Tomas Satoransky in action for the Chicago Bulls
Image: Wendell Carter, Lauri Markkanen and Tomas Satoransky in action for the Chicago Bulls

After an offseason in which they drafted Coby White and acquired Tomas Satoransky, Thaddeus Young, and Daniel Gafford, while losing just one significant rotation player, Robin Lopez, the Bulls expected to field a deep team with a young core buffered by versatile two-way veterans.

Having drafted Wendell Carter in the first round the previous year, and having also only had leading scorer Zach LaVine for slightly over a year prior to that, it was understandable that the roster would take time to gel.

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But due to further injuries to Carter, plus the absence for almost the entire season of Otto Porter Jr (acquired at the 2019 trade deadline), they have not yet had that time to cohere.

Indeed, they have been fractured for some time - the second-longest tenured Bull is Denzel Valentine, and he does not play much, likely idling out the final few weeks of his tenure with the team on the bench. (The longest tenured? Cristiano Felicio. And only his oversized contract binds him to them.)

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In theory, if Porter gets healthy and stays with the team this summer, and if Carter can begin to realise his potential as the third Gasol brother at some point soon with his own clean bill of health, perhaps the Bulls could go on to be the low playoff seed with incumbent upside for more that they intended to be this year.

Oklahoma City at Chicago 2:00
Highlights of the Oklahoma City Thunder's clash with the Chicago Bulls in Week 19 of the NBA

However, as things stand, they are a way short of that, deep in the lottery and still falling, yet not deep enough in the lottery to draft near the top of It.

Going several years without bottoming out or having a Derrick Rose-like stretch of luck for several consecutive seasons in what is supposed to be a rebuild is a measure of the strategic shifts and frustrating combination of circumstances and inconsistency that have seen the team regress rather than progress, without having all that much to regress from.

Robert Covington #33 of the Minnesota Timberwolves (R) knocks the ball away from Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls as he drives past Shabazz Napier #13 at the United Center on January 22, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. 0:30
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The turnover began with the trade of the much-diminished Rose and the loss to free agency of a much-declined Joakim Noah. Both of whom had previously been NBA stars, yet for them, the Bulls got next to no returns.

In the immediate aftermath of that, rather than taking a Philadelphia 76ers 'Process'-like route of asset-stripping and rebuilding from the ground up, they somewhat needlessly signed Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo to short-term contracts, two declined veterans themselves, neither of whom figured to pair well with Jimmy Butler, who they still had at the time.

Chicago Milwaukee
Image: Coby White in action against the Milwaukee Bucks

The 'Three Alpha' experiment as it was named proved unsuccessful, and Wade and Rondo left the team after only one season (again for no returns). And then came the trade of Butler to Minnesota, a move that has left the Bulls floundering ever since.

The actual quality returned in the trade for Butler was quite good. In that deal, the Bulls got back LaVine (who has gone on to be their best scorer and one of the best shooters in the league), while also receiving Kris Dunn (a player who has been incredibly inconsistent offensively in various roles given to him over his near-three years in Chicago, but who has emerged as an excellent Marcus Smart-like versatile backcourt defender and viable NBA starter in his limited role) and the draft pick that they used to select Lauri Markkanen.

Shabazz Napier of the Washington Wizards shoots the ball against the Chicago Bulls 1:21
Highlights of the Washington Wizards' trip to the Chicago Bulls in Week 18 of the NBA

To get all that for a disgruntled star that did not have a whole lot of team control on his contract is a good haul, and could have been the catalyst for a fairly quick rebuilding job.

However, LaVine was injured when acquired, Dunn never developed offensively, and despite some progress over his first two seasons, Markkanen appears to have gone into the tank this year. He looks unsure of where to be, has been gun-shy with the shooting ability that is supposed to be his defining characteristic, and has not developed much of an all-around game beyond that.

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A trade that could have been galvanising and seen the Bulls get back to near the top without ever having to go near the bottom (much like how the Boston Celtics managed in recent seasons) instead has become an embodiment of the problem. Some of the individual pieces have been good, but where is it all headed?

Not every young prospect works out, which is why rebuilding often involves getting as many as possible. This was the best embodied by The Process, a relentlessly committed effort to acquire as many draft assets as possible in the knowledge that not all would work out. Certainly, The Process is a way to build a team, and not the way, but teams that are not willing to engage in it - that is to say, every other NBA team - really need to have either one of two other options available to them.

Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls shoots the ball against the Chicago Bulls on January 25, 2020 at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland, Ohio. 2:01
Zach LaVine logged 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to help the Bulls snap a three-game losing streak

Either they have a good quality of incumbent core players around whom they can either build for the future or sell on in trade for good value, or they have to get very lucky in the draft lottery.

Since the Butler deal, the Bulls have had neither.

Being in the middle tier in the NBA, or in the lower-middle tier, can be fine. The ideology of championship-or-bust so pervasive among fanbases today is not realistic in practice, and works counter to the fact that, whilst the championship is the ultimate goal, there are steps to be taken along the way to get there.

Bulls rookie Coyb White fires a three-pointer 1:14
Coby White connected on six three-pointers en route to a career best 35 points in the Bulls' loss to the Thunder

The success of a sports franchise as both a business interest and pillar of the community is not purely all or nothing; there are other levels of success that are still valid. This is true even of a storied franchise such as Chicago.

That said, the justification for being in the lower-middle class is whether or not the team is on the way up. If you are in that region and either floating without structure or on the way down, you are in there needlessly. As of right now, it is still not immediately obvious who is identifiable as a core medium and long-term piece for the Bulls, and thus it cannot be said they are on the way up.

Lauri Markkanen celebrates a basket against Charlotte
Image: Lauri Markkanen celebrates a basket against Charlotte

One of them should be Markkanen. But this season has been thoroughly forgettable for him, and although LaVine still has two years left on his contract, is still improving and is still young, his timeline does not match up with that of anyone else.

At the moment, it looks as though the best prospect is Carter, but in not being able to consistently make any kind of jump shot, nor being trusted enough offensively to be able to utilise his excellent passing ability and still not able to take the court regularly for long stretches of time, an Al Horford-type of breakout is born out of hope more than expectation.

Wendell Carter Jr. of the Chicago Bulls dunks against Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons
Image: Wendell Carter Jr. of the Chicago Bulls dunks against Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons

Chicago has battled the post-Jordan shadow for the last 20+ years, something which offsets the big market lure they would otherwise have. However, an apparent reluctance to fully bottom out and acquire more premium draft assets throughout the Paxson era means they are constantly drafting around about the seventh pick areas.

They are very good at this, it should be said; both Markkanen and Carter were picked at that exact spot (as was White, who is turning around a shaky rookie year with a recent scoring burst), and there have been myriad other Bulls draft successes throughout his tenure. If a team is this good at drafting, though, why are they not doing it more?

Coby White dribbles upcourt against Atlanta
Image: White dribbles upcourt against Atlanta

Like with The Process, drafting is not the be-all and end-all of NBA roster construction. It would however represent a definitive direction for the franchise to take, especially since they now have another opportunity to reload. Teams such as the Boston Celtics - who fittingly just lost Horford themselves and at least to some degree are feeling his absence- are about to face a roster crunch due to their own proliferation of assets this summer.

It is therefore in their interests, considering the glut that is upcoming and the lack of premium options they have at the center spot, to overpay in trade for a young big such as Carter that potentially could see the Bulls get a sizeable yield with which to start over again. Again.

Will they take it? Probably not, and the justification that they do not yet know what they have will again have a ring of truth to it.

But what we do know that they have unmet expectations, seemingly an apathy and lack of optimism around the team, one designated 'core' piece who is regressing and another who cannot stay healthy. At some point, they need to pick a lane, and not in the Rondo and Wade sense.

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