As the rest of the NBA stays in stasis due to the COVID-19 postponement, the Bulls are moving forward to a new era. The long-reigning GarPax regime has been deposed, with GM Gar Forman fired, VP of basketball operations John Paxson reassigned, and erstwhile Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas hired as Chicago’s new head of the front office.
Karnisovas’s work is just beginning, as he’s interviewing GM candidates and scheduling meetings with key figures like coach Jim Boylen and leading scorer Zach LaVine. As the Bulls set out on this new direction—and with their fans perhaps distracted by the Michael Jordan–centric Last Dance documentary series—Karnisovas must confront three key questions that will determine the short- and longer-term future of the franchise.
1. Is Jim Boylen the right coach?
Boylen’s performance across 123 games is an exercise in contrasts. His offensive system evinces smart process but produces subpar results. His defense forced the league’s highest rate of turnovers this season but also allowed the highest free throw rate. His main job, as he viewed it, was to develop young talent, not focus on win-loss record, but that developmental track record is also wanting.
This disconnect is perhaps best displayed through the team’s offensive performance. On the surface, Chicago’s numbers were terrible: The team ranked 28th in offensive rating this season (not counting garbage time), at 106.6 points per 100 possessions. Only the Knicks (106.5) and remnants of the Warriors (104.9) were worse. Across the board, the Bulls struggled: They didn’t shoot well (23rd in effective field-goal percentage), turned the ball over, and rarely found their way to the free throw line.
Yet the Bulls’ offensive process looked much healthier. Based on the locations of their shots, the Bulls had the league’s second-highest “expected” effective field goal percentage, trailing only Houston’s mathematically optimized offense. Most notably, they took the league’s highest rate of shots at the rim, with more than a third of their attempts coming from within 3 feet.
As befits a team of contrasts, however, they tied for the lowest shooting percentage on such shots. Getting to the rim is great—but not if that action doesn’t lead to any points. This sort of pattern—promising in theory, deflating in practice—is apparent in the Bulls’ shot chart. The bulk of their shots were concentrated in the paint and beyond the arc, but in this image, blue coloring means they were worse than the league average in the given spot, while yellow means they were at the average and red means better than average. Spoiler: There’s a lot of blue on the Bulls’ map, and not a shred of red.
Underperforming expectations has been something of a Bulls theme. With proven rotation players like Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young joining the team this summer, after Otto Porter came to Chicago via trade last season, the Bulls looked like a natural choice for improvement this season, and even a sneaky preseason playoff contender. But they never came close to fulfilling that potential, combining inconsistency—no winning streak longer than two games—with an inability to compete with high-caliber opponents, going a league-worst 2-23 record against teams with winning records.
Some of that difficulty has to rest on Boylen’s shoulders, even if injuries—including to Porter—hammered his starting lineup. He also hasn’t particularly endeared himself to his players, calling strange timeouts and regularly feuding with his charges. Soon after he took the job in December 2018, he pushed the players “to the brink of a full-blown mutiny” before forming a leadership committee to try to repair the relationship. Yet this season, that relationship seemed to remain sour, characterized by frequent clashes with LaVine and criticism across the roster, from Lauri Markkanen on one end to Denzel Valentine on the other.
And if his chief goal was player development, he didn’t necessarily succeed on that front, either, as several key players have taken steps back since Boylen assumed the head job. Which leads neatly to question no. 2.
2. Do Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. fit together long term?
The no. 7 pick in 2017 and the no. 7 pick in 2018 seem like the ideal frontcourt pair. (The no. 7 pick in 2019, Coby White, joins them in the backcourt—if only three 7s meant a jackpot in this particular game.) In Markkanen, the Bulls have a 7-footer to stretch the floor; in Carter, a more traditional big man who can roll after setting picks and anchor a defense.
Yet both players seemed to stagnate this season. Carter enjoyed less offensive responsibility than he did as a rookie, while all of Markkanen’s numbers this season—from points to rebounds to usage rate to across-the-board shooting splits—were virtually identical to his rookie marks.
Lauri Markkanen’s Statistical Stagnation
|Minutes per Game||29.7||29.8|
|Points per Game||15.2||14.7|
|Rebounds per Game||7.5||6.3|
|Assists per Game||1.2||1.5|
|Steals per Game||0.6||0.8|
|Blocks per Game||0.6||0.5|
|True Shooting %||55.2%||56.0%|
Markkanen’s numbers were impressive when he was a rookie—but now, as a third-year player, one would expect something more. He’s remained a secondary scorer and hasn’t exhibited much offensive versatility, with poor post-up numbers and almost zero creation for his teammates: Markkanen has recorded more turnovers than assists every season of his career. Even his ace long-range shooting has remained more theoretical than actualized; he’s a career 35.6 percent shooter from distance, when the league average over the course of his career has been 35.8 percent.
And for how natural their fit would seem on paper, the Markkanen-Carter duo has more muddled along than excelled thus far; the Bulls’ net rating with both players on the court this season was negative-0.3. Injuries haven’t helped—Markkanen and Carter each missed long periods of time in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, depriving them of valuable developmental time together. And almost as soon as both players returned the most recent time, the season shut down due to the pandemic.
So even though they’ve spent relatively little time sharing the court and building the slow cohesion that characterizes the sport’s best duos, Markkanen and Carter are already forcing the Bulls to think about their long-term partnership. Markkanen is up for an extension this summer (or whenever the offseason begins), and Carter is already halfway through his rookie deal. There’s still reason for optimism here, given the skill sets embodied by these two young bigs, but they’re running out of time.
Improved play-making from the guards tasked with delivering Markkanen and Carter the ball in favorable positions would help, which is where the final big question arises.
3. Can Zach LaVine be the best player on a strong playoff team?
LaVine averaged more points per game this season (25.5) than any Bull since Michael Jordan. Outside of his shortened 2017-18 campaign, when he returned from an ACL tear, LaVine’s scoring average has increased every season of his career. He is liable to pour in points on any given night, and he’s so confident in his own game that on his personal all-time Bulls team, he’d displace Jordan to small forward to find a spot for himself.
i cant even deal with this right now pic.twitter.com/8zovjpXqf7— Negative Dunks (@negativedunks) April 20, 2020
Yet LaVine has never appeared in a playoff game. In fact, the best team he’s ever played for is the 2016-17 Timberwolves, who finished 31-51. He has a 105-248 career record in games he’s played, the equivalent of a 24-win season, and even in games in which he’s scored 30-plus points, his teams have a losing record (18-19).
Not all of that record is on LaVine, of course, who has often been surrounded by lackluster teammates. But it’s also clear that LaVine doesn’t wield nearly the overall impact as the other players in his scoring range; compared to those high-points peers, the Bulls guard is much more of a single-dimensional player, even six seasons into his career.
Fourteen qualified players this season had a usage rate north of 30 percent. Among that group, LaVine ranked a distant 12th in assist rate (ahead of only Donovan Mitchell, narrowly, and Joel Embiid). In a way, that makes LaVine more of a traditional 2-guard, which isn’t by itself a problem. But as more teams rely on leading scorers who are also leading creators, it’s fair to wonder whether LaVine’s approach can translate to a winning team.
FiveThirtyEight’s new advanced player rating stat, for instance, keys in on factors like creation for others and scoring efficiency, which are markers of true impact on offensive performance. And by this measure, LaVine added only 1.2 points per 100 possessions over an average player on offense—a number that pales compared to the figures for most other high scorers. LaVine is far from matching Trae Young or Bradley Beal, other leading men for woeful teams.
2019-20’s Top 20 Scorers, by Advanced Offensive Performance
|Player||Points Above Average|
|Player||Points Above Average|
And that’s not even taking into account LaVine’s defense, which poses more of a problem than his middling passing numbers. LaVine has long been a careless defender, and he hasn’t improved on that end while increasing his volume on offense.
Here’s the team’s greatest strategic dilemma. LaVine was the only player remotely keeping the Bulls’ offense afloat this season; when he was off the court, the Bulls scored 104 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass—a mark that would have made them the league’s worst offense. Yet playing LaVine also meant sabotaging an otherwise stout defensive group: Without LaVine, the Bulls allowed 105 points per 100 possessions—which would have been the league’s second-best defensive mark.
Essentially, with LaVine, the Bulls were blandly bad on both ends; without their star, the Bulls transformed into a circa-2004 outfit, tossing up bricks but forcing their opponents into yet more bricks of their own. Without LaVine, the Bulls couldn’t score but posted a nearly even scoring margin, and LaVine thus tallied one of the worst on/off ratings for any player on the team.
FiveThirtyEight’s advanced stats tell the same story. They rate LaVine as 1.2 points per 100 possessions better than average on offense, but 1.3 points worse on defense. In other words, all of his offensive gains are canceled out by lackadaisical play on the other end—and it’s difficult to win when a team’s alpha player is an average all-around contributor at best.
LaVine is locked in to two more seasons on his current contract, for $19.5 million per season, and he should at the very least have another season to prove himself as a true no. 1 option, given the Bulls’ lack of upcoming cap space (assuming Porter opts into his final year, at $28.5 million) and the weak 2020 draft class. But the Bulls probably can’t afford to just run the 2019-20 season back—they need to learn whether Markkanen and Carter are the real deal, and how White fits into a lineup, and most of all how to avoid another discouraging campaign that squanders promise like a missed layup at the United Center. Unless LaVine takes significant steps forward in areas he’s never particularly enjoyed, he won’t be the star to lead that turnaround.
Chicago already made one sizable change this month, and more shake-ups could be coming. But like the rest of the NBA, the Bulls might be stuck in place for a while. We know one bit of potential stasis for Chicago, anyway: At the moment, barring potential changes from ping-pong balls on lottery night, the Bulls are slated for the no. 7 pick in yet another draft.