How the Bulls can beat the odds and return to contention soon
How the Bulls can beat the odds and return to contention soon
The Bulls probably won't be good in 2018-19, but there's a path for them to shock the world and become relevant sooner than expected.
While optimistic Chicago Bulls fans are dreaming of a return to the playoffs in 2018-19 and a seventh championship banner in the near future, conventional wisdom says the team is still a couple of years away from being relevant again when it comes to playoff contention. Even with bettors [hammering the OVER](https://www.betchicago.com/nba-season-win-totals-bulls-vegas) on the Bulls' opening 2018-19 win total of 27.5, their number at the Westgate LV SuperBook still sits at only 29.5, tied for third-worst in the league. Their odds are +550 to make the playoffs, 100/1 to win the Central Division, 200/1 to win the Eastern Conference and 500/1 to win the NBA Finals. The Bulls aren't sniffing the 2019 NBA Finals. Winning the division is also unrealistic. But there's a path to the Bulls beating the odds and sneaking into the playoffs, which could be the push needed to become a true contender in the coming years. ### Lauri Markkanen makes The Leap Markkanen's rapid development was one of the few positives of the Bulls' 2017-18 season. He made the All-Rookie first team by finishing with averages of 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and he also became the fastest player in NBA history to hit 100 3-pointers. Now the hope is he can blossom into a legitimate star. We already know he's a truly special shooter at his size: <a href="https://twitter.com/Sam_Vecenie/status/1034557262151307264" class="embedly-card" data-card-width="100%" data-card-controls="0">Embedded content: https://twitter.com/Sam_Vecenie/status/1034557262151307264</a> But if Markkanen can develop a consistent off-the-dribble game and do work in the post, that's when All-Star and No. 1 scoring option discussions can begin. Markkanen [has packed on nearly 15 pounds](https://www.blogabull.com/2018/8/6/17653568/lauri-markkanen-talks-about-getting-yoked-bulls) this summer, which will help him down low and allow him to play more center in small-ball lineups. This could unlock a lot for the Bulls' offense. Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated's The Crossover recently [highlighted](https://www.si.com/nba/2018/08/16/nba-breakout-candidates-jayson-tatum-lauri-markkanen-jamal-murray) Markkanen as a top breakout candidate for 2018-19, and I'm bullish on this prediction. There are concerns about Markkanen getting marginalized by the more ball-dominant players on the roster, but if he can become the true franchise cornerstone the Bulls think he can be, that will be huge for a quick rebuild. ### Zach LaVine and/or Jabari Parker become impactful The Bulls spent a lot of money on LaVine and Parker this summer, despite their recent ACL surgeries. And while they're both young, talented players who can get buckets, they've never really been positive players overall. They had their share of struggles last season after returning from their respective injuries, and LaVine was especially bad in his brief stint. If the Bulls are going to be any good, at least one of these guys has to become an impact player on the wing. Preferably it's LaVine, given the large four-year commitment the Bulls made, because an albatross contract could be a major hindrance when trying to build a championship roster. The Bulls could probably survive if LaVine is just okay and tops out as a microwave sixth man, but in that case they would need more out of Parker. Parker's short contract makes his long-term future murkier, but if he bounces back in a big way, the Bulls will surely want to keep him around for the long haul. Either way, having top-flight wings is a necessity in the NBA. LaVine and Parker need to make big strides, especially defensively, to reach that level. ### Kris Dunn becomes an above-average point guard Dunn had his moments last season after a mostly awful rookie campaign in Minnesota. When the Bulls went on their run after Nikola Mirotic's return, Dunn was a key factor leading the charge. The youngster had some huge games and was never afraid to take big shots in the clutch. However, Dunn's season was marred by injuries, and he still displayed several notable flaws that could hinder him from ever becoming anything more than an average point guard. His jumper remains erratic (32.1 percent from 3) and he struggles to finish at the rim ([52.6 percent in the restricted area](http://stats.nba.com/events/?flag=3&CFID=33&CFPARAMS=2017-18&PlayerID=1627739&TeamID=0&GameID=&ContextMeasure=FGA&Season=2017-18&SeasonType=Regular%20Season&LeagueID=00&PerMode=PerGame&Split=general&PlusMinus=N&PaceAdjust=N&Rank=N&Outcome=&Location=&Month=0&SeasonSegment=&OpponentTeamID=0&VsConference=&VsDivision=&GameSegment=&Period=0&LastNGames=0&DateFrom=&DateTo=&PORound=0&ShotClockRange=&MeasureType=Base§ion=player&sct=zone)). He also has a loose handle, sometimes gets tunnel vision and doesn't draw enough fouls. The good news is Dunn should be an impact defender, which is extremely important given the Bulls' lack of them. It's Dunn's offense that needs to make yet another jump. A sub-50 true shooting percentage won't cut it. Dunn's true shooting percentage did jump nearly six percentage points last year, though, and a similar jump in 2018-19 would make the Bulls feel a lot better about the point guard position moving forward. This isn't out of the question with a few more finishes, a few more fouls drawn and a few more splashed jumpers. He shouldn't have to carry as big of a usage load, so focusing more on efficiency, playmaking and defense could help him become a stellar two-way player and point guard of the future. ### Wendell Carter Jr. develops quickly The Bulls have a quality veteran at center in Robin Lopez, but we know what he is at this point and he may not be long for the team. What we don't know yet is how good their 2018 No. 7 overall pick can be. Carter was [terrific at Summer League](https://www.betchicago.com/bulls-win-total-las-vegas-bet-over) and looked like one of the best rookies there. That may not mean anything, but it has raised expectations at least a bit. While Carter's offense may not be a major factor given the other players on the roster, his development defensively will be important when it comes to the Bulls improving. [From The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks:](https://www.theringer.com/nba/2018/8/21/17763968/wendell-carter-bulls-rookie-curve) > Just how good Carter can become defensively is still unclear. He’s a smart player who uses his length (7-foot-4 wingspan) to wall off the paint, but he’s also the least athletic of the top big men in this year’s draft. His success against (Collin) Sexton doesn’t necessarily mean he can be a switch-everything center in the mold of Clint Capela or Tristan Thompson. The Bulls won’t get answers until they get back into the playoffs, when teams would repeatedly run pick-and-rolls against Carter to isolate him against the best perimeter players in the league. > > Pick-and-roll defense is more important than ever, but Chicago also needs Carter to develop into an elite rim protector. The other members of the team’s young core don’t have much potential on that end of the floor ... > > ... If Chicago keeps its young core together, Carter may never be a featured player on offense. Just like at Duke, he can excel in areas of the game where his teammates can’t. He can be valuable concentrating on defense and playing off of Dunn, LaVine, Parker, and Markkanen. The latter three, on the other hand, probably top out as average defenders. The Bulls project to be bad on defense, but Carter blossoming into an anchor could mitigate some of the other poor defenders. While that's a big ask out of a young player, don't rule it out. ### The Bulls bomb 3s en route to a high-powered offense and are just good enough on defense The Bulls played more like Fred Hoiberg wanted to last season. They were 10th in pace, eighth in assist percentage and sixth in 3-point attempts, [per NBA.com](http://stats.nba.com/teams/advanced/?sort=PACE&dir=-1). Unfortunately, they were only 21st in 3-point percentage and 28th in offensive rating. The Bulls are poised to be better in those latter areas. LaVine is better than the 34.1 percent he shot from deep. Dunn has plenty of room to improve. Markkanen should only get better. Parker is a capable shooter, and Carter shot .413 percent from 3-point range in college. Let's also not forget about bench gunners like Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis and Justin Holiday, plus rookie Chandler Hutchison, an improving spot-up shooter. Even Cameron Payne shot well from 3 last year, albeit in a limited sample size. The Bulls need more than just 3-pointers to be an elite offense (free throws, shots at the rim, etc.), but becoming one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the league would be a big step to making that happen. Here's Hoiberg, [via Karl Bullock of The Crossover:](https://www.si.com/nba/2018/08/30/bulls-fred-hoiberg-zach-lavine-jabari-parker-lauri-markkanen-wendell-carter-jr?utm_medium=social&xid=socialflow_twitter_si&utm_campaign=thecrossover&utm_source=twitter.com) > “You look at our guys numbers, I think all but one of our players last year had a career year when you look at their per 36 minutes,” he said. “I think the way we had that stretch last season and did a relatively good job on taking care of the ball with the pace. If we could carry some of those things over, we’re going to have a chance this year.” If the Bulls can put together an above-average offense and manage to be even passable defensively, they can win a good amount of games. *** So, let's say the Bulls pull off the unthinkable and make the playoffs by winning 40-plus games. That would obviously be a great sign for the rebuild, but it's more likely than not they'll need a proven star from elsewhere to push them into legitimate contention in the future. [2019 free agency is shaping up to be big](https://www.sbnation.com/nba/2018/7/30/17616436/nba-free-agency-2019-list-kevin-durant-kyrie-irving), with names like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson potentially on the market. Those all seem like pipe dreams at the moment, and it's hard to see Butler returning to Chicago (or the Bulls even wanting him back), but perhaps a surprisingly successful season gets one or more of them thinking. One never knows what can happen over the next year. Even if the Bulls can't snag one of the biggest fish, there are lower-level stars set to hit the market. Khris Middleton would be an especially intriguing option given his two-way proficiency and fit in the Bulls' offense. The Bulls will also monitor the trade market. Having quality young players means having attractive assets to deal. If a star wants out in the near future (Anthony Davis? Giannis? Somebody else?), the Bulls will try to jump on any opportunity. John Paxson [knows the NBA is a star-driven league](https://www.blogabull.com/2018/6/22/17493176/bulls-continue-preach-patience-with-process-nba-draft), and the Bulls need multiple stars. *** Now, this is all best-case scenario stuff. [While I think the Bulls will go over their win total](https://www.betchicago.com/bulls-win-total-las-vegas-bet-over), I wouldn't bet on them to make the playoffs. I still think they're a couple of years away from being good, and who knows if this group ever becomes contender worthy. However, if you're feeling frisky and seeing red, putting some money on the Bulls making the playoffs could yield a nice payout if these youngsters come together. And maybe, just maybe, the Bulls will be relevant again sooner than expected.2018-08-31T13:21:06.754Z2018-08-31T09:21-04:00