This first appeared in the Nov. 27 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, The Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
OAKLAND, Calif. — For years, the Chicago Bulls have been defined by the drama constantly surrounding them. From Derrick Rose’s seemingly never-ending string of injuries to the deterioration of Tom Thibodeau’s relationship with the front office to the constant questioning of the state of Jimmy Butler’s relationship with Fred Hoiberg — plus a dozen other minor subplots — the Bulls of the past decade have had more twists and turns than a best-selling novel.
But despite all the drama, they have also won plenty of games. The Bulls haven’t finished below .500 since drafting Rose first overall in 2008 and have made the playoffs eight times in nine seasons while advancing three times — including what, at the time, looked like the first of many trips to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011 before Rose suffered his first knee injury.
That is now all part of the team’s past. Gone is the drama, as all of the core pieces associated with that run — Rose, Thibodeau, Butler, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng — have departed. So, too, has the potential to rack up wins, as the Bulls are firmly committed to rebuilding through the draft — and, in doing so, being awful — after trading Butler on draft night back in June.
In place of both is a young roster that Chicago hopes is the foundation of its next good team and a search for something to define success besides wins, since those will be few and far between.
“I think the biggest thing is we are growing and taking steps in the right direction,” Hoiberg said before the Bulls were blown out by the Golden State Warriors here Friday. “I think that’s the most important thing when you have a young group of guys. You have to try to keep things positive, especially when you’re going through a tough stretch.”
While Hoiberg would never admit it, the Bulls continuing to lose — as they did again Sunday at home to the Miami Heat — is precisely the right direction. At 3-15, Chicago is the early leader in the race for the best lottery odds for next year’s NBA draft — which, if the Bulls can stay there, will give them a chance at securing a potential franchise cornerstone as part of what looks like a long and arduous rebuild.
Still, even with the struggles on the court this season, the early returns on that rebuilding process are promising because of rookie forward Lauri Markkanen.
The 7-footer from Finland (by way of one year at Arizona) has arguably exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations after being taken with the No. 7 pick in June. His 11 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes Sunday pushed his averages to 14.4 and 8.3, respectively, and he’s racked up six double-doubles while scoring in double-figures in 16 of his 18 games. More importantly, he’s shown some effectiveness in the paint while still taking seven threes per game — making him the prototype “big” of the modern game.
Not surprisingly, that success has led teams to key in on Markkanen, which in turn has led to some recent struggles: He is 13 for 52 from the floor in four games since scoring a season-high 26 points in Phoenix last week.
“People do scouting reports like we do on our opponents,” Markkanen said. “It’s one thing that you’ve got to adjust when the other team is playing a different kind of way. I’ve got to work on my game more.
“I knew it’s not going to be easy.”
Still, nothing has dampened the Bulls’ enthusiasm for the rookie forward, who has established himself as the foundation for a rebuilding team. The draft choice coming next June — probably a top-five pick — will join him as part of that foundation.
The other two players who came to Chicago via the Butler trade — Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn — are still unknown quantities.
An explosive athlete who has also become a good three-point shooter, LaVine should join Markkanen in the starting lineup eventually, but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament last season in Minnesota and is still recovering. LaVine is expected to return in the next several weeks, but he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy, and he and the Bulls will have to agree to a new contract when he hits restricted free agency next summer.
Dunn, the No. 5 pick in last year’s draft, flopped in Minnesota, struggling in a part-time role off the bench. And while his defense has been impressive at times — he is averaging close to two steals per game — and he is shooting 35 percent from three-point range, Dunn still commits far too many turnovers — 17 in his past five games — and hasn’t shown the necessary consistency at the point.
Beyond LaVine and Dunn, it’s hard to see much to get excited about. Denzel Valentine is a wing who can both shoot and create, but his lack of foot speed makes him seem destined to do those things off the bench rather than as a starter. The preseason scrap between Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic that left Mirotic with two broken facial bones and a concussion. Mirotic is still out and has not spoken to Portis, and it seems increasingly likely they won’t share the floor again in Bulls uniforms. And while Robin Lopez is a solid player on a decent contract, trading him for some kind of value will be difficult in a league overflowing with centers.
None of this should be surprising — after all, teams aren’t in contention for the worst record in the league if they are brimming with talent, and the Bulls entered the season as the odds-on favorites to finish there. That’s why rebuilds aren’t easy.
Getting Markkanen looks like a successful first step. But for the Bulls to get back where they’ve been the past several seasons, it’s going to take many more.
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