LAS VEGAS — Gar Forman and John Paxson jumped all in on a rebuild this summer. Despite owing Dwyane Wade over $23 million next season, youth — and slinging hope to the Chicago Bulls’ fan base — took center stage when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Butler and the 16th pick in the draft left Chicago. The Bulls imported Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh pick, which turned out to be Lauri Markkanen. The front office shipped out an All-NBA player and a first-round pick for some complicated pieces.
For Forman and Paxson, this move was as much about survival as it was a pivot in the franchise’s philosophy, according to league sources. While Paxson’s job seems to be safe as long as he wants it, a potential shake-up could have been ordered from above had the Bulls continued to wade in mediocrity with big names. Failing to win while spending money to star names increased the odds of a front office change. Shipping Butler and throwing a rebuild together is believed to be a way for the basketball operation in Chicago to buy some time.
Chicago held the playing card of being up 2-0 on the top-seeded Boston Celtics prior to a Rajon Rondo injury. They lost the next four games to receive their exit from the postseason. Even the Bulls’ front office — often looking for the winning press conference over a true vision of building — knew how flimsy that playing card was. The reality for Chicago existed in Butler’s discontent with the situation while still hoping to remain loyal to his only franchise. Wade created a buzz the previous season but couldn’t build upon that during his first season in his hometown. The carousel of young point guard options to supplant Rondo kept giving the former All-Star his job by default.
That kind of complacency and reshuffling of deck chairs can lead to an owner curious about what he is paying for. With Jerry Reinsdorf, the reputation and calls to action in the financial books make management acutely aware of how to keep things smooth for job security.
During the Las Vegas Summer League, a good chunk of the Bulls’ youth movement has been on display. Five players on their roster this coming season have played at least a game. LaVine even made an appearance in the front row to catch some action from his new team. Unfortunately, peddling hope took a bit of a hit if anyone expected these roster players to show great things.
The Bulls’ young core has struggled so far in Las Vegas. The end of the world doesn’t come barreling down on a fast break due to these struggles, but it’s hard to feel good about a youth movement that doesn’t move the needle at a lower level of competition.
The five players on display have mostly disappointed. How much does any of that matter? Let’s take a quick look at each situation.
A rookie player, especially a big man, not lighting up summer league shouldn’t cause the alarms to go off. Chaos reigns supreme in these summer sessions, so a big man unable to dominate or get a rhythm shouldn’t surprise us. They don’t get control of what happens outside of rim protection and rebounding. Markkanen averaged 14 points on 13.6 shots with 9.0 rebounds and 29.3 percent shooting from the field in three games before missing the Bulls’ last game with a toe injury. Volume scoring on quite a bit of inefficiency hasn’t been fun for Bulls fans with Markkanen, but the rebounding numbers are good.
The big issue with Markkanen’s scoring capacity comes from a pre-draft concern. How physically dominant can he be? Nobody really worries about his shot. The rookie hasn’t shot well on guarded catch-and-shoot attempts (4 of 14) and he’s just missing the open ones (2 of 9). He possesses such a fluid, high shot release on his 7-foot frame that he’ll be able to knock those down eventually, but scoring when moving toward the basket is another matter altogether. He looks overmatched as he adjusts to the speed and physicality of a higher quality:
You can see in those instances that a lack of top athleticism or strength kept him from getting better scoring opportunities. On the first play, he didn’t go up strong on a play that was too early in the shot clock to throw up such a desperate attempt. The second drive to the hoop should have resulted in a dunk with most players. Instead, he kept the ball exposed and never exploded enough to put pressure on the defender. The last miss was just a result of a lack of strength through contact. He will have time to build up that strength to better equip him for the NBA level.
It will also only get worse as he enters the NBA regular season. He isn’t facing the best competition in Las Vegas, so the adjustment to physicality will become more severe. But when faced with a pure run to the rim on any given play, Markkanen shows aggressiveness in making a play. Markkanen has shown a penchant for crashing the glass. He also goes up for strong dunks with a free rim run:
Plenty of time still exists for Markkanen to correct this stuff, obviously. Some scouts around the Las Vegas Summer League have echoed the physicality concerns but know this environment doesn’t lead to much consistent big man production. Once that shot falls, it will change a lot of how he’s viewed. He just needs it to fall to start sparking that hope.
A year ago, Denzel Valentine proved to be the hero of summer league as the Bulls took home the title in dramatic fashion. This time around, we’ve seen nothing but struggles. While a rookie not lighting the world on fire in summer league isn’t a big deal, second- and third-year players struggling causes a lot of concern with scouts and executives. These guys are expected to dominate and prove they don’t belong in the summer sessions. Ball out in the first game or two and get shut down for the rest of the summer. That’s the goal for these guys.
Valentine hasn’t proven that. Instead, he still can’t make shots (49.2 percent true shooting as a rookie) and his body looks sluggish. In theory, Valentine serves as a new-age wing. He can move the ball, initiate the offense, and should shoot the ball well from outside. In the three Summer League games, Valentine has scored 44 points on 57 shot attempts. He has made 29.3 percent of his shots and can’t hit a jumper off a pick-and-roll to save his life.
The Bulls don’t necessarily expect Valentine to be a key building block, but as a lottery pick, they want him to look like he can contribute. He doesn’t look like that right now at a much lower level of play. If his knees are as bad as everybody says, will he become a long-term rotation player in this new Bulls era? Or will that summer league title be the most glory he brings to Chicago? After four games of his second NBA summer, the former seems less likely.
Paul Zipser, Kris Dunn, and Cameron Payne
I am combining these three young players because they have played a total of four games. In their four games, all three players didn’t make anyone think they were too good for summer league. They fed into the struggles of the other Bulls players, showing that hope doesn’t always spring eternal. Sometimes it just gets smothered in the dry heat of Vegas while you keep splitting 2s at a blackjack table until you start wondering just how many decks are in play, and if they’ll wait for you to return from the ATM with more cash … or if you have to take out one of those markers you’ve seen in movies but don’t actually understand how it works, but you just know it’s really bad.
For Zipser and Dunn, their second summer league go-rounds didn’t offer the impression they were too good. A year ago, Dunn impressed everybody in his first summer game before getting shut down with a concussion. It led to a lot of Rookie of the Year speculation for him despite no clear path to minutes. This time, he played 30 minutes, scored 11 points on 12 shots, and didn’t find a way to score around the basket. Then he was excused from the team for personal reasons. Zipser, a growing cult figure in Chicago, struggled with his shot in one game before an ankle injury sidelined him further.
For Payne, his third summer league seemed to remove any doubts of whether or not he should be there. One scout said that Payne is talented enough to be a fringe NBA player but not talented enough to avoid becoming the all-time leader in summer league games played some day. The one area of improvement Payne showed was scoring in pick-and-roll plays. He looked confident coming off screens and getting to his spot on the floor. Everywhere else, he looked like a disaster — especially in transition where he looked entirely overmatched.
Zach LaVine’s upcoming season
Maybe the trickiest development for the Bulls lies in the LaVine situation. As LaVine enters his fourth season, two things hang in the balance for him. The first comes from his contract extension situation. LaVine — with the dearth of quality shooting guards in the NBA right now — shows incredible potential at a position of need for most teams. A high-flyer with a lethal outside shot could command an incredible salary in restricted free agency next summer. While a max offer sheet seems extreme, it just takes one team to put that pressure on Chicago to match.
The second complicated part of the LaVine story rests on the health of his knee. LaVine said at Wednesday’s ESPYS that he plans to be ready for training camp after tearing his ACL in early February, but December projects to be the more likely earliest return. The Bulls probably won’t get to see him on the court in meaningful minutes prior to the rookie extension deadline. That means they can either blindly offer a contract extension in the $100 million range over the next four years or hope restricted free agency treats them well. Either way, the Bulls aren’t expected to let LaVine out of their grasp. Sources familiar with the situation believe the Bulls will likely hold LaVine out closer to the All-Star break.
Doing that offers them the chance to make sure LaVine completely heals and builds strength before his return. It also helps them lose games and secure higher lottery odds. The Bulls possess all of their first-round picks and none of their second-round picks until 2020. LaVine is currently the Bulls’ best prospect, but not necessarily a franchise player. They have a crowded backcourt at both positions but nothing to truly feel like a plan is in place.
Eventually, the Bulls will no longer have Dwyane Wade in tow. The front office will have to prove it can produce by acquiring cheap, young players to build around. The rebuild finally serves as a direction with no false hopes of veterans correcting the standings. Forman and Paxson must create a winning culture with the new crew. The young players must provide the spark and hope to quell future questions about job security.
More NBA Coverage
- Harper | Timberwolves get their veteran star to guide the young guys
- How Gar Forman and John Paxson have hurt Chicago with bad trades
- 2017 NBA Free Agency Tracker