What the hell are the Chicago Bulls?
The short answer is the Bulls are trying to make Jimmy Butler a bona-fide superstar and pull a 2006 Miami Heat in the next couple of years. The long answer is far more interesting (at least to me) and deserves some analysis.
This year is probably a wash. I don’t think anyone expects more than a first round defeat at the hands of Boston or Toronto. With that being said, they do have to make the playoffs. If they don’t, then the Derrick Rose trade was a complete waste and heads have to roll. As much as I, and most Chicago fans, loved Rose to death, the trade has not been the worst and seems to be going ok for both New York and Chi-town. Rose is exactly what you would expect out of him, a former MVP with flashes but ultimately useless without the ball in his hands. Robin Lopez has been solid in his role down low for the Bulls, which has let Taj roam and guard the smaller more agile wings. This is going to win them enough games and keep them competitive for most of year if they stay healthy. At the end of the day, it’s just not a team to write home about.
Jimmy has been phenomenal this season and is easily the best wing in the league (if you count James Harden as a point guard). Klay is struggling to find a rhythm in the Warriors new offense and while Demar DeRozan is an absolute beast on offense, his defense isn’t as elite. Wade has been mentoring Jimmy and it is clearly working in the best possible way. His scoring is up ~3 points a game and every other category has either improved or stuck to his baseline. His PER is a monstrous 28, which according to basketball-reference is top ten in the association. While he is torching opponents, he can’t win games by himself. The pieces that fit around him do not necessarily need to be elite but they do need to complement and help elevate his role as the team leader. So what are some of those pieces?
Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Denzel Valentine are all good complements to a Butler-led Bulls team and will help them leverage pulling in the remaining pieces they need. Let’s break it down. Mirotic is terribly inconsistent right now but he is putting in the effort and continuing to take the shots even if they don’t go in. The looks he is getting are good and over time, I think they will start falling. His confidence is shaky but with Taj and Wade providing some veteran presence, maybe he will turn out to be a solid stretch four. If he wants to become a regular starter, his defense needs to also gain some consistency and he needs to learn how to play into the Hoiberg sets to get better looks for himself and other teammates. I’ll come back to Mirotic a little later because if the Bulls intend on him being a starter, they need a defensive-minded center to help cover his deficiencies.
McDermott can be an effective wing scorer a la JJ Redick and Kyle Korver if he starts shooting more 3’s and playing a little bit more consistent defense. He’s much more athletic than the “white shooters” and nearly dropped a SportsCenter Top Ten dunk on Markieff Morris before slamming to the ground and suffering a probable concussion. Once he recovers, I want to see Hoiberg run him off nonstop curl screens. His shooting numbers are great and he tries enough on defense to warrant a future starting role. Having Mirotic and McDermott moving around the wings while Butler is slashing could be effective. They aren’t quite there yet but that is ok and the fans shouldn’t be so negative on them just yet.
Denzel Valentine could be a really interesting piece in the puzzle and it’s sad to see him get so few minutes playing behind a loaded backcourt. Whenever Rondo fails to play defense, which is basically always, Hoiberg turns to Isaiah Canaan to run the offense. The numbers don’t change much whether Rondo or Canaan is running point but watching them makes it apparent the Bulls run a little smoother on offense and try a little harder on defense with Canaan. When it doesn’t matter whether you have Rondo or Canaan running point, something is definitely wrong. So what is the solution? Valentine? MCW? Most likely neither of the two but Valentine deserves a chance to prove himself. He may not play too much this year while the Bulls let Wade and Rondo soak up minutes but Valentine is versatile enough to run both point and be a threat on the wing. He played really well in Summer league leading a youthful Bulls team and while that doesn’t necessarily mean he will be able to play NBA point guard, I do see him working well with second units and starting some games at point guard alongside Jimmy. A lineup of Valentine, Butler, McDermott, Mirotic, and someone at center is a solid playoff team with a chance to surprise people. There’s still a couple pieces missing though and those are going to have to come through either the draft or trades.
While keeping a team young is definitely important, Jimmy is in his prime and the team should be dedicating everything they can to winning now. Chicago fans were patient while Rose rehabbed and while Mirotic played overseas but gutting the roster and turning the keys to Butler puts a lot of pressure on the front office to produce playoff wins. This is where I think Nerlens Noel comes in. He’s clearly available and may never play another game for Philly. As unfortunate as it is to miss a chance at Embiid and Noel forming a frightening defense, Chicago would be a great chance for Noel to start revitalizing his career. He’s effectively useless on offense but if he can get a few dunks off alley-oops and the occasional putback, Mirotic and McDermott should be enough firepower to create good spacing. Defensively, Noel can lock down the paint and make up for the lapses Mirotic and McDermott are bound to have. Noel would have to come off the bench with Mirotic for now but if Hoiberg can sell him on taking over the center position in a year, Noel has some time to grow with lowered expectations. Noel does have potential to pull in a max deal and while he does not deserve it yet, some team will want his defense bad enough. Rondo is only guaranteed $3M for 2017/2018 (according to basketball-reference) so they could drop him without losing much. Lopez may need to be moved, especially if Noel figures to take over a starting position. The market should be open for a quality starting center on a good contract in the new salary cap era.
What the Bulls can offer for Noel is Bobby Portis and a first round pick. Portis is inconsistent but he has unbound enthusiasm and with the right coaching, he could be an effective backup for Daario Saric. Additionally, flipping between Saric, Embiid, Portis, and Richaun Holmes makes for a very energetic, athletic, and dangerous Sixers frontcourt. Once they figure out what to do with Jahlil Okafor, that team will be fine without Noel. The first round pick that the Bulls are owed from Sacramento is top-ten protected and I don’t think Sacramento is going to be good enough that the Bulls will get to use it. If the Sixers want that gamble, great, but the Bulls could instead try to offer a 2018 or 2019 first. The 2017 draft is insanely deep and while the Bulls should do everything they can to keep at least one first rounder in this draft, Noel is likely much safer of a bet than any 15–20 draft selection the Bulls make. Drafting is not an exact science that relies on a lot of luck and good coaching so I don’t really think anything will fall the Bulls way. Since MJ left Chicago, the Bulls have had some good players that ultimately did not work out (Rose, Elton Brand, Tyson Chandler, Ben Gordon, and Kirk Hinrich).
Players like Anthony Davis and Jabari Parker are Chicago natives who may have a little bit of desire to come home. They won’t be available for a couple more years and by no means should the Bulls try to rely on luring one of them back. Ricky Rubio is hopefully going nowhere (especially if Minnesota understands how vital he is to the team) but players like him or an aging Jeff Teague could provide much better starting minutes than Rondo while Valentine learns.
As a fan base, the best the Bulls can hope for is securing the Kings first and coming away with Noel or someone with a strong defensive skillset. They still need a point guard but this upcoming draft is deep with them and there are still plenty of solid veteran point guards who could be available in a year or two. I desperately want the Bulls to succeed and for some team to threaten LeBron. Historically, the Bulls have always played LeBron well and with some additional pieces and some growth, they could become a dangerous team.