It’s been a rough couple of years for the Chicago Bulls. After a pair of seasons around the .500 mark in 2015-16 and 2016-17, they painfully bottomed out, registering just 49 wins over the past two seasons.
It’s not all bad, though. Through the grueling process and piling losses, the Bulls have found a way to stockpile assets and give their future a promising gleam. Following another high draft pick and a surprisingly active free agency period, they have put themselves into a much stronger position in an admittedly weak Eastern Conference.
For the first time since Jimmy Butler’s departure, the Bulls have some hope. No, they aren’t even close to being able to take down the Eastern Conference heavyweights like Milwaukee or Philadelphia, but they seem to have enough potential talent on their roster to start climbing out of the conference’s basement.
Like every team, their ceiling lies with their top-end talent, namely Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Zach LaVine. The trio project to share the court for the majority of the season with health permitting and each has a different skill set which could help provide balance and structure to a team that has severely lacked it recently.
Markkanen, the seventh pick in the 2017 draft, played just 52 games last year after a sprained elbow kept him out for the first 10 weeks of his sophomore season. However, when he returned, he went straight back to showing his enormous potential. The Finnish national is agile, smart, and has excellent touch from long-range, making him the perfect modern big man. Last season, he joined All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Vucevic as the only players in the league to average at least 18 points and nine rebounds while burying over 36 percent of their triples.
A true offensive unicorn, Markkanen should and likely will be the fulcrum of the Bulls’ offense. He will be partnered by the enigmatic LaVine, whose ability to create his own shot and get to the basket took another giant leap in his fifth season. The former Timberwolf had career-highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and field goal percentage last season, even if his decision-making and game IQ seemed to be lacking at times.
Defensively, the pair still has some work to do, but the Bulls’ much-maligned front office looks to have made some crafty moves to bring in defensive presences to cover for their core’s inevitable mishaps. Injury interrupted rookie season aside, Carter Jr. is one of the most promising young defensive bigs in the league. In 2018-19, no rookie center posted a higher defensive real plus/minus than the 20-year-old. His ability to move laterally and still time up blocks is a perfect fit for the modern NBA, which makes him so valuable next to Markkanen and LaVine.
New signing Thaddeus Young has been one of the most underrated defenders in the league for some time, too. He is capable of guarding small forwards and power forwards effectively, meaning he could be priceless for a team that has had trouble guarding anyone over the last few seasons. He is a certified ball hawk, too. With fast hands and an even faster eye for picking the right moment to strike, only six players have swiped more balls in the last five seasons than Young.
In addition to the depth they have acquired in Young, Chicago made a suave move to swoop up Tomas Satoransky from the Washington Wizards. Along with his capacity to score and pass at a high level for a reserve, Satoransky’s 6-foot-7 size and ability to play the point guard position give him an advantage over most guards defensively. He may even start the season ahead of lottery pick Coby White, who has potentially oozing from his veins but may need some time to adjust to the big leagues. In either case, the pair should form a fairly formidable point guard duo, something the Bulls haven’t had the joy of experiencing in quite some time.
Perhaps White, along with LaVine, may push head coach Jim Boylen to encourage his team to play a more uptempo style of game. Last season, the Bulls finished 23rd in pace of play after Boylen took over from Fred Hoiberg, which wasn’t advantageous to their personnel. Even after recovering from a brutal ACL tear, LaVine is still a gazelle in open or broken floor situations, and White might be even faster and shiftier. With Markkanen and Carter Jr.able to get out in front of most big men, the quartet could run the legs off their opposition in a lot of games this year.
Unfortunately for Windy City faithful, none of their incoming players will really move the needle from behind the 3-point line. Last season, the Bulls finished 27th in 3-point attempts and 19th in 3-point makes, which makes life extremely difficult against the top-tier teams. Of the top 10 3-point shooting teams last season, only the Sacramento Kings didn’t appear in the postseason. Boylen will need to see some internal improvements from his squad if he even wants to sniff the top half of the league this season, which seems like an unlikely event at this point.
Even without the long-range finesse, the Bulls should be a league pass favorite. Unlike previous seasons, they won’t be a pushover and will be capable of eking out wins over any opposition. They will likely push toward the bottom end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, perhaps even breaking their two-year drought in the process. Even if they don’t, winning upward of 35 games and developing the young stars would be a huge step in the right direction for a famous franchise that had lost its way recently.