Chicago Bulls 2020-21: Five Starters – Five Questions Marks

The Bulls preseason kicks off this Friday, December 11th. It will have been exactly nine months since March 11th, when the NBA suspended play due to the coronavirus pandemic. The world was changing and so was the NBA. When play resumed July 30th in what was termed the NBA bubble, eight teams did not qualify to resume their season. Those teams are Atlanta, Golden State, New York, Minnesota, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, and the Chicago Bulls.

Six of the eight teams that missed the resumption of the season on July 30th are from the Eastern Conference. That highlights the opportunity that an up-and-coming team in the conference may have to break into the 2020-21 “play-in” tournament. This year teams 7-10 will determine the number seven and eight seeds in the playoffs. The Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Pacers, and Nets are projected to fill the first six spots. The Bulls will be one of nine teams fighting for the remaining invitations.

Last season, the Bulls finished with the eleventh best record in the conference, a couple percentage points behind Washington. The revamped front office and coaching staff brings new hope to a fan base eager to forget the fact that since the Jimmy Butler trade (that brought Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to Chicago) the playoffs have been nowhere in sight. Gone are executives John Paxson and Gar Forman as well as head coach Jim Boylen. They have been replaced with Arturas Karnisovas (from Denver), Marc Eversley (Philadelphia) and Billy Donovan (OKC) respectfully.

Still, it will be the players taking the floor who fans expect to outscore their opponent on a nightly basis. Unlike management though, those players pretty much look the same as last year. The signing of free agent Garrett Temple provides depth and a veteran at the wing position but does not take anything to another level. The biggest story of the off-season, from a roster perspective was drafting 18-year-old forward Patrick Williams.

One may ask, how can this new management team not do more? The answer is they are planning to have as much cap space as possible for 2021 free agents, and before that happens, they need to evaluate what they have. Right now, less is more. That means the starting five will consist of the same players as last year with the exception of Coby White starting in place of Tomas Satoransky. Joining him will be Zach LaVine, Laurie Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Otto Porter.

Let us take a look at what will be expected from each of these five players during the evaluation process of who will stay and who will go.

Coby White:

Ironically, the only game White started last season was the last game played. That opportunity arose because he was playing lights out. The last nine games of the season, White averaged over 26 points. The last five games he averaged six assists. On numerous occasions throughout the season, he completely took over. His chance to start in place of Tomas Satoransky finally arrived but unfortunately, so had the pandemic.

It was not clear during the off season what the Bulls intentions were concerning their twenty-year-old guard, but they did not draft or sign a point guard in free agency (though they signed undrafted Devon Dotson, White’s friend, and North Carolina high school rival to a two-way deal). That lack of movement clearly affirms what White has already vocalized, that coach Donovan wants him to be primarily a point guard.

He may not be the most athletic of players but that has never hindered him from putting the ball in the hoop. He finished his high school career as the top scorer in North Carolina state history and in his one year of college, he scored the most points of any freshmen to play at UNC. White also possesses great upper body strength which already makes him a tough defender and strong rebounder.

Although he is young, Coby is in good hands. He is still close with Chris Paul who has mentored him since AAU ball. The Bulls also hired former star point guard and head coach Maurice Cheeks as an assistant coach. White still needs to shoot more consistently off the dribble and finish at the rim. Then, he will not only solidify himself as the Bulls point guard of the future but will also open up the floor for the guy who is the most athletic player on the team, if not in the league.

Zach LaVine:

When new addition Temple was asked about the team, he referenced Zach LaVine as a “budding superstar in the league”. Other players have shared similar sentiments over the last year.

The NBA is just waiting for Zach to take that next step. That is because he already took a large step forward last season. If one player benefitted from the madness of Jim Boylen’s coaching, it was Zach. He still is criticized for not being a winner and slacking off on defense but anyone who saw last seasons games knows Zach was no longer slacking. Zack always competes and does so to win.

As a team, the Bulls had a top-10 defense, ranking first in the league with 18.3 forced turnovers and 21.2 points off turnovers per game. LaVine may not have been all defense or anything close to that, but his 1.5 steals a game was a 50% increase over his previous two seasons. He seemed to feed off of the energy of Kris Dunn and Shaq Harrison, two players he will not have by his side this year. So, it will be interesting to see what kind of defensive effort Donovan demands from Zach this year and whether Zach can improve further.

One thing is for sure though. Zach can score, and maybe in more ways than any player in the league. If Boylen had not essentially eliminated the Bulls mid-range game, Zach may have averaged more than a career high 25.5 points. The most memorable highlight of last season was Zach putting up 49 points and hitting 13 three pointers the game after Boylen sat him early for what he termed “three egregious defensive lapses”. That comeback game showed the competitive spirit and desire to be great that is Zach LaVine.

That said, LaVine is also playing on a manageable contract. His pay for the next two seasons is $19.5 million a year making Zach a great bargaining chip if the Bulls decide to play Coby at shooting guard and pursue a point guard.

This season will determine both. Can Coby White handle the point, and if not, should the Bulls take advantage of LaVine’s deal to bring in needs that may become more apparent as the season plays out? My guess though is that Coby and Zach are here to stay as the starting backcourt and LaVine will get an extension after this season.

Lauri Markkanen:

Remember him? Did he even play last year?

I wrote an article at the start of last season that Boylen must expect greatness from Markkanen. Unfortunately, if there was one player who regressed completely under Jim Boylen, it is Lauri.

After the 2018-19 season, which saw him put up averages of 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds, everyone around the league had Markkanen pegged as the teams budding superstar. Now, the question is Lauri’s physical and mental toughness, especially since he seemed to allow Boylen’s schemes to get the better of him. At times on defense, he looked lost. Surely that effected his offensive game also. His body language was one of obvious unhappiness.

Still, Lauri has expressed a desire to stay in Chicago and is hoping the Bulls sign him to an extension. That will only happen though if there is a major jump from last year’s average of 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds. Markkanen has to get back to a post-up game and taking players off the dribble when the opportunity presents itself. The Bulls need him to be more than a catch and shoot seven-footer.

On defense, Donovan is dumping the blitzing scheme Boylen forced upon the team, which should help a seven-footer like Markkanen (and seven footers Luke Kornet and Daniel Gafford) not to get as fatigued. He will have to prove however, that he can defend against a small ball lineup. That would mean either playing center or being able to cover 6’8” players who are much quicker than him.

A best-case scenario for Lauri Markkanen would be a return to his February form of 2018 when he averaged 26.0 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 3-pointers. A worse case scenario would be a repeat of last year which significantly lowers his value as a starter or as a trade chip. It will depend on his relationship with coach Donovan and his ability to stay healthy. Since coming into the league he has missed large chucks of time due to injury, including nagging ankle and back problems. No player on the team has more to lose by not stepping up his game than Markkanen.

Wendell Carter Jr.:

Carter has only played in 77 games through his first two seasons. At 6’9”, comparisons have been made to Bam Adebayo. If Carter can accomplish what Bam did in his third season, the Bulls will have found their center. If not, the Bulls may move on from Carter. They hold a $6.9 million team option for 2021-22.

Another alternative is to try Wendell at the four. Afterall, until he got to Duke and shared the floor with Marvin Bagley III, he was a power forward in high school. If Markkanen does not work out, Carter could provide a much tougher alternative. He could also spell Markkanen for stretches where he and last year’s backup center, Daniel Gafford, share the floor. Gafford averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 mins his rookie year and has more explosive leaping ability than Carter.

While he averaged 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, Wendell seemed timid at times, and unsure of what to do with the ball. His game seemed out of whack having to always look for the open man beyond three.

Expectations are high that Donovan and his staff can utilize the high court awareness and passing ability we saw from Carter during his first year in the league. He will also be expected to extend his range even out to the three-point line.

On defense, Donovan also will want to put him in position to better guard the paint. Dumping the “Boylen Blitz” will help him too. Over a third of Carter’s rebounds were on the offensive end but on defense he was often out of position.

Wendell Carter can easily qualify as a Most Improved Player candidate, but he needs to turn some heads early on in the season. Otherwise, he may become the first casualty of this starting lineup, especially if Gafford continues to show promise.

Otto Porter:

How does one spell bad trade? Very easily. It‘s Otto Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker.

In February 2019, the same month Lauri Markkanen was beginning to look the part, the Bulls thought they were getting their small forward of the future. Porter arrived with a bang putting up 37 points in only his third game with the team.

After that it has only gone downhill. Injury after injury has kept him off the court. He only played in 14 games last year and his player option for this season of $28.5 million makes him the highest player on the team. How do you spell bad trade?

Ok. I admit that when healthy Otto can be a particularly good piece. He also can still play a vital role for the Bulls even though it is virtually certain he will be gone by next year.

Best case scenario would be he stays healthy, mentors rookie Patrick Williams and helps the Bulls make a playoff push. However, by finishing the season with the team, the Bulls would lose him for nothing at season’s end.

This is a contract year for Otto, so expect that we will see his best effort to be on the court. If he stays healthy and plays well, the Bulls will most likely try and trade him midseason for some draft capital.

That is it. Five starters, Five question marks.

It will be interesting to see what the Bulls do this year, if they can even stay healthy. Expect the first half of the season to be an evaluation and get to know each other kind of feeling. After that, expect Arturas to start filling the cracks like clay in the hands of a potter. Hopefully, what will take form will be a winner.