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The Bulls Might Actually Have a Proper Rebuild on Their Hands

Chicago’s deadline acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. has already made a difference, but it has nothing to do with wins and losses and everything to do with finding the right complementary pieces for a young, structureless team

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Otto Porter Jr. has gotten off to the best possible start with the Bulls. He is averaging 22.5 points on 62.1 percent shooting, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in the four games since they traded for him at the deadline. He won’t keep shooting this well, but he doesn’t have to in order to be worth the small price Chicago paid for him: two players on expiring contracts (Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker) whom it wasn’t going to re-sign. The negatives with Porter (his massive contract and impact on draft positioning) don’t outweigh the value that his presence on the floor gives their other young players. A rebuilding team needs the stability that a player like Porter can provide.

Players with his skill set are both valuable and hard to find. At 6-foot-8 and 198 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Porter is an elite shooter (career 40.2 percent from 3 on 3.2 attempts per game) with a high basketball IQ who has the physical tools to defend multiple positions. There are not many tall wings who can space the floor and make good decisions with the ball while also being a positive on defense. Porter is one of five 6-foot-8 and taller players this season averaging at least four 3-point attempts, two assists, and one steal per game while shooting higher than 40 percent from the field. The other four are LeBron James, Paul George, Khris Middleton, and Joe Ingles.

The biggest knock on Porter is that he isn’t aggressive enough for a player on a max contract. He has a player option for $28.9 million in the 2020-21 season, which is a lot to pay someone who never averaged more than 12 field goal attempts per game or had a usage rate higher than 20 in six seasons in Washington. Part of the issue is that he has spent his career playing next to two All-Star-caliber guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal. There weren’t enough shots and touches to go around with all three on the floor, and the Wizards rarely staggered their minutes. Porter settled into a smaller role, spotting up off Wall and Beal rather than hunting for his own shot.

The Bulls have given him the opportunity to stretch his wings. They are running more plays for him: The percentage of his offense that comes from handling the ball in the pick-and-roll has almost tripled (32.9) from his time with the Wizards (12.7). To be sure, there are still limits to how much Porter can be the focal point of an offense. He’s not an elite athlete, and he doesn’t have the strength and broad shoulders of Middleton and Ingles, both of whom can push smaller players out of the way and create space off the dribble without a great first step. Porter has not suddenly turned into a ball-dominant player—he is averaging only 14.5 field goal attempts per game with a usage rate of 22.5 in Chicago—he’s just not missing shots. The 57.9 percent he’s shooting from 3 and 64.1 percent he’s shooting from 2 will come down in the coming weeks.

It doesn’t matter; the numbers aren’t as important as the potential he unlocks for everyone around him. The threat of Porter’s jumper will still create space for his teammates even after his percentages normalize. Defenses cannot leave him open. Not only does he have a high release point that allows him to shoot over the top of close-outs, he has the ability to shoot off movement. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he was in the 66th percentile of players leaguewide when shooting off the dribble in Washington and in the 87th percentile when shooting after coming around screens off the ball. He threatens the defense just by moving around the court, and he won’t take a bad shot once he gets the ball. If they collapse on him, he will find the open man.

Porter is also the rare elite shooter who contributes on the other side of the ball. While he’s not a lockdown defender, he’s a smart player who knows how to use his length to funnel his man into help. That length comes in handy off the ball, too: He has excellent career steal (2.2 percent) and block rates (1.4 percent) for a perimeter player. Porter was one of the few constants amid the chaos in Washington. He’s a plus-minus machine. He had the best net rating of any of their rotation players when he was on the floor in each of the past two seasons, and the team had its lowest net rating when he was off the floor. His health might be the biggest concern for Chicago going forward, as he has been bothered by hip issues and seemed a step slow at times this season.

The Bulls need someone like Porter to complement the young players they already have. They have more talent than their abysmal record (14-44) and net rating (minus-8.4) indicate. Zach LaVine, for all his flaws, is a hyper-athletic guard averaging 23 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting at the age of 23. Lauri Markkanen (21) and Wendell Carter Jr. (19) make up one of the most talented young frontcourts in the league. Markkanen is an elite shooter with an incredibly fluid offensive game for a 7-footer, and Carter is a skilled big man who has shown the potential to be a defensive anchor as a rookie. He is sitting out the rest of this season with a thumb injury, but he will benefit greatly from playing with Porter when he returns for his sophomore campaign.

Markkanen is averaging 23.0 points on 45.7 percent shooting, 14.0 rebounds, and 3.3 assists since the trade. The small sample size means that the numbers themselves aren’t that important. The key is the way he is getting them: Defenses have a harder time sending help toward Markkanen with Porter next to him, while playing in more space in the half court has made it easier for him to read the floor and make plays for his teammates. Markkanen has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 in the 113 minutes he has played with Porter, a huge leap from his ratio (0.8-to-1) over the rest of the season. He has the ability to be an offensive cornerstone, but a combination of factors, from a lingering elbow injury to a midseason coaching change and a lack of talent in his supporting cast, have prevented him from taking the leap that many expected this season. The Bulls need to do everything they can to facilitate his growth.

It’s hard to develop young players if there isn’t much offensive structure in place around them. Chicago is no. 27 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game this season (26.6) and second-to-last in the number of makes (9.4). There weren’t many driving lanes for Markkanen and LaVine or room for Carter in the paint before the trade. The Bulls needed a small forward who could open up the floor while moving the ball and filling in gaps on defense. Parker checked none of those boxes. No one they would have been able to add this summer would have filled all three. They will not be a free-agent destination until they start winning games.

The opportunity cost of adding Porter was low. The Jabari experiment backfired almost instantly, and there was no reason for them to commit big money to a third big man (Portis) when he hit restricted free agency. The Bulls don’t need Porter to play like a star, either. Unlike the Wizards, who were pressed up against the luxury tax, Chicago still has room to maneuver even with Porter on its books. The franchise has only $81 million in salary committed for next season, putting it almost $30 million under the cap. The Bulls can still rent out space to acquire draft picks, like they did when trading for Omer Asik last season, and try their luck with restricted free agents who fit better around Markkanen and Carter. With those two on rookie deals, Chicago has plenty of money to spare.

Nor will winning more games over the next few months dramatically impact the Bulls’ future. They are 2-2 with a net rating of plus-2.7 since acquiring Porter, but they have dug such a deep hole for themselves that there is nothing they do can to meaningfully change their odds of winning the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. The NBA evened out the lottery odds this season so that even the worst team in the league has only a 14 percent chance of getting the no. 1 overall pick. The Bulls, with the fourth-worst record, are at 12.5 percent. There is little chance they’ll finish lower than fifth, which has a 10.5 percent shot. They have seven fewer wins than the sixth-worst team (the Grizzlies) with 25 games left in the season.

Getting a player like Zion, who can single-handedly change a franchise, is more about luck than losing games. The NBA draft is like any other lottery: there is one winner and a lot of losers. Even winding up at no. 2 overall isn’t always a good thing. The difference in expected value between the no. 1 and no. 2 picks is almost identical to the difference between no. 2 and no. 7. Recent history is littered with no. 2 picks (Evan Turner, Derrick Williams, Michael Beasley, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Parker) who have not lived up to their potential. The Bulls have all the proof they need that it’s more about drafting well than where you draft. Markkanen and Carter were both acquired at no. 7 overall, and each could wind up as top-three players in their respective drafts if they continue to develop.

Accumulating a bunch of high lottery picks doesn’t guarantee anything beyond a lot of losing. The Magic, who haven’t sniffed the playoffs in almost a decade, are the perfect example. They have had plenty of talent in that time: They had Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris on the same team at one point. The problem was that they were never able to create an environment around those players to help them reach their potential. Neither blossomed until they wound up in a better situation. Porter has made the players the Bulls have better, and he will make whoever they take in this year’s draft better too. He gives Chicago more structure on both ends of the floor, which means this trade is already a win, no matter what happens going forward.