It’s early in the season and the Chicago Bulls have shown some much-needed promise given fan frustration in recent seasons. It’s also the first year under leadership from the new president of basketball operations, Arturas Karnisovas. That was step one, and a massive step itself, toward fixing the organization’s recent struggles.
Karnisovas also moved on from Jim Boylen in favor of Billy Donovan, which was another important and necessary measure in getting back on the right track. Still, they’ve struggled, so it’s time to discuss the next steps the rehabilitation of one of the league’s biggest and brightest all-time franchises.
Simply put, the Bulls are off to a phenomenal offensive start under Donovan. Through 11 games, they’re scoring 116.1 points per contest, 9.3 more than they averaged last season. Although a small sample size, it’s also one that has accounted for missing several significant contributors on the offensive end.
Lauri Markkanen is the biggest producer who has missed time, playing in just four of the team’s 11 games so far. He’s scored 17.3 per night healthy, so there’s offensive firepower even in his absence.
In it, two players have been integral in the offensive success, specifically when combined. The Chicago backcourt of Zach LaVine and Coby White is giving fans a reason to be excited about the roster through this tough rebuilding period.
LaVine is off to a red-hot start, averaging 27.7 points per game on efficient shooting numbers. When he and the second-year White share the court, the team is shooting 48.2 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from behind the arc.
White is tacking on 17.3 points per contest of his own, helping the Bulls get top of the line scoring from their suddenly-promising backcourt. The two combine to average over 10 assists per game as well, showing they are willing and capable playmakers even though both are more natural scorers.
Another promising development, and certainly the most surprising in the early season, is the play of Garrett Temple. He has been a versatile piece for the team on both ends of the floor and is producing more than the team could have expected when they signed the 34-year-old veteran wing.
That’s not a knock on Temple, who has proven to be a solid NBA rotation player. It’s a matter of how the move appeared when he was signed, as Temple seemed to make a lot more sense for a team with higher aspirations this season than the Bulls. So far, he’s proven he can make a big impact on a lesser team too, not just playing with the game’s elite players.
Finally, back to the offensive success. The Bulls are getting great shooting out of multiple players that is certainly a big part of what’s going well for them on the court. Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen, Patrick Williams, Denzel Valentine and Temple are all shooting above 40 percent from behind the arc so far.
What’s Not Working
While the team’s offense has been working smoothly, the team’s defense has failed to play at a respectable level thus far. It’s not surprising to see this roster struggle defensively, but they’ve been worse than just a bad defensive team.
The Bulls hold the second-worst defensive rating in the league at 115.9. It’s not just bad, the defense is flat-out terrible. While they lacking the ability to thrive on that end of the floor right now, they’re not showing any promise as a team moving forward. Schematically, something needs to be altered in an impactful way to help cover for the individual defenders the team needs overall.
Far too many good looks are being given up from behind the arc on a nightly basis, which will lead to problems in today’s NBA. Combined with the team’s tendency to commit shooting fouls, they’re surrendering over 120 points per contest through 11 games.
Another problem is the team’s lack of a rim protector so far. No one on the team is blocking shots at a good rate outside of rookie Patrick Williams, which is a big ask at this point in his career.
Worse, Wendell Carter Jr. has a tendency to commit defensive fouls currently, struggling to keep up with the constant opposing onslaught. Not ideal from a center expected to play alongside teammates that aren’t the greatest of perimeter defenders in LaVine and White.
What Needs To Change
The good news first: The most important changes from an organizational standpoint have already taken place by the team overhauling their front office and coaching staff in the offseason. The culture of the team needed a face-lift and moving on from the previous regime was necessary in order to successfully overhaul the culture.
Now, of course, the team must take the next steps. It’s not out of the picture to see this group fighting for a playoff spot, and best-case scenario they are certainly a backend Eastern Conference team. Still, for the short and long term, changes are needed.
For starters: Player availability. Unfortunately, the Bulls can only control so much from this standpoint, especially true given the season’s current circumstances. Specifically, important is the availability of Markkanen moving forward. He is set to be a restricted free agent this offseason and the team needs to make a very important decision on him when that time comes.
Needless to say, they’ll require more buy-in on the defensive end. It’s not out of the picture as veterans like Temple set an example for the young players, but a full-on buy-in from a player like LaVine on defense would do wonders for the team. This follows along with the change of culture, and Donovan needs to be creating and developing good habits on that end.
Focus Area: Player Development
Whether the Bulls wind up being a low playoff seed or in the NBA lottery, the greatest area of focus right now is player development. That’s why creating those good habits is so important in their effort to move up the NBA ladder in the coming seasons. It’s clear this roster has more talent than the record shows – but utilizing that talent for results is something that still counts in the standings.
Markkanen’s upcoming restricted free agency leaves his future a bit of a question, but regardless of that outcome, the Bulls also have young players in Carter Jr., White, Williams, Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchinson that need to be put in a position to succeed over the coming years.
Not every player needs to be the star or can be the star, but every player is an opportunity to get a piece for when the team is competing for more. Under Boylen, it’s known development wasn’t maximized and potentially was slightly delayed, making it even more important right now.
While the Chicago Bulls still have many miles to go in their latest rebuild, this is the most exciting version yet. With crucial front office changes and the blossoming Coby White, they’re closer than ever before. The immediate chances of success likely depend on better defense and (healthy) development of Markkanen and Carter Jr., but they’ll need to continue adding strong players to the roster in the coming years.
The Bulls aren’t quite back, but it shouldn’t be all that long now.