As the NBA season draws near, it's time for me to share a gut feeling that I've harbored since mid-July: I think the Chicago Bulls will make the NBA playoffs in 2020.
Granted, writing this in public is a bad idea for any number of reasons. To begin with, at least half of the Bulls rotation will be comprised of players who have lost 115 games the past two seasons. Only nine months ago those players were threatening to lead a mutiny against freshly-promoted head coach Jim Boylen, a man who's a) still in charge and b) presided over exactly one month of .500 basketball once he took control of the team (February 2019: 5-5!). Lauri Markkanen has yet to play a full, healthy season in the NBA. Zach LaVine only played 63 games last year, and the year before that he missed three-quarters of the season recovering from a torn ACL. Wendell Carter missed half his rookie season. Last February, Chicago traded for Otto Porter, a small forward who's struggled with nagging injuries of his own. All of the above are good reasons to pause and be responsible before predicting any kind of meaningful success in Chicago.
But I can't help it. Maybe this is some kind of whiplash effect after six months of shockingly sensible moves from the Bulls front office, but to me, Chicago looks like a genuine playoff threat.
Consider the field. Five teams in the East should be considered playoff locks: Milwaukee, Philly, Boston, Brooklyn, and Toronto. Most mainstream media would include Indiana in that group, but Victor Oladipo’s health and return date remain unclear, so I’m reluctant to call them a lock. Even so. We can count the Pacers. That's six. And that leaves four teams fighting for two playoff spots: the Bulls, Pistons, Heat, and Magic.
The Heat have the best playoff chances of any of those four. They aren’t quite a lock, and we’ll have to see how the pieces fit around Jimmy Butler, but Miami will be tough. So what about the Pistons? Do you trust Blake to stay healthy all year? How much faith are we putting in the Reggie Jackson/Derrick Rose platoon? Detroit is fine, but by no means a sure thing. And the Magic: they have an excellent defensive foundation with Jonathan Issac and Aaron Gordon playing under Steve Clifford, but the frontcourt is overcrowded around them (Al-Faroqu Aminu, Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba, Khem Birch), while the backcourt will feature some combination of Markelle Fultz, D.J. Augustin, Terrance Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, and Evan Fournier. It wouldn't be shocking if this season in Orlando became something like a transitional year before the team embraces a more coherent identity beginning in February or next summer.
Uncertainty with those final two teams leaves the door open for Chicago. Without resting the entire playoff case on two Wizards refugees who were perpetually underappreciated in D.C., I will begin by saying that both Porter and Tomas Satoransky fit really well. Porter arrived at last year's trade deadline, and he's shot over 40% from three in each of the past three seasons. He doesn't need a ton of touches to be successful, which is perfect, because Markkanen and LaVine will be leading the team in shots. Porter's defense has always been a tad overrated, but he's solid on that end. He's long enough to make opposing wings uncomfortable, and he's worlds better than some of last year's alternatives like Denzel Valentine or Jabari Parker.
As for Satoransky, he's exactly the kind of low-usage, creative combo guard that this team has needed for several seasons. He, too, shoots over 40% from three, and he's a nifty passer who should be able to make plays that have eluded LaVine and Kris Dunn over the past two years. It's unclear how much he'll play—he should probably start—but provided he gets the opportunities, Satoransky can provide the sort of stabilizing presence that will help the Bulls optimize a lot of the firepower that hasn't translated to winning over the past few years. Throw in Thaddeus Young playing a similar role in the frontcourt, and, again, there's more balance surrounding the nucleus than anything we've seen over the past few years.
The health and consistency of LaVine and Markkanen will decide the ceiling. LaVine is a tricky case. I'm pretty he's either been overrated or underrated by everyone who's ever discussed him in the NBA. In short: he's a silky-smooth scorer who can create his own shot at will but he's a subpar creator for others, and there are times when he can look like one of the most shameless gunners in the league. His defense is generally terrible, and for all his offensive production (23.7 ppg, 46% FG, 37% 3FG), it's been easy to demystify the hype and ask whether any of his production actually leads to wins.
But LaVine has yet to play for a team that has any idea of what it wants to do, or how it wants to get there. If he were in Utah playing Donovan Mitchell's role, how different might the LaVine conversations be? How much could solid infrastructure elsewhere help insulate him from the "not a winning player" allegations? I honestly don't have the answer, and it's possible LaVine's blindspots will define him in the end, but it's a question worth thinking about before declaring him a lost cause. LaVine can score against almost anyone, and it’s possible that he could his first All-Star appearance in February. But this season and beyond, his team's success will be directly correlated to how effectively his responsibilities limited and his weaknesses are addressed by the players around him. With Satoransky on hand as a creator and players like Porter and Young around to help defend the perimeter, the Bulls seem to be headed in the right direction.
As for Markkanen, his skillset is more narrow than most potential franchise cornerstones. He's not a great creator for others (1.4 assists-per-game) and he's still learning to create his own offense (68.4% of his field goals were assisted). He's not terrible on defense, but he's not great, either. And all of that means that he'll need to be a truly elite as a scorer to make it worthwile for a team to build around him. He's an incredible shooter, and at his size (7'0''), defenses don't have many answers when he's in rhythm. The next step for Markkanen will be staying healthy, getting more consistent, and generally, just getting a little bit better at the things he's been good at so far. He averaged 18.7 points on 15.3 shots-per-game last year, shooting 43% from the field and 36.1% from three. Each one of those numbers can and should rise by a few digits this season. If they do, he could be in All-Star consideration right alongside LaVine.
It's a big year for Markkanen. There's still a chance that he could be the best player from the 2017 Draft, but if he's going to turn the corner to become a real superstar, this seems like the season we'd begin to see that story emerge. Getting there will require good health, but also help from the Bulls. Markkanen is the sort of unorthodox weapon that requires an extra degree of creativity from any team trying to optimize what he does well. It remains to be seen whether Boylen has that in him, but if nothing else, the Bulls have added creators around to help. Satoransky should create more opportunities, Wendell Carter Jr. is a good passer as well, and rookie point guard Coby White may eventually grow into a similar role.
So: Does all of this mean the Bulls are ready to go win 44 games and sneak into the bottom of the East playoff bracket? That kind of progress is obviously a long shot. We haven't talked much about defense, in part because Chicago's defense will probably be an adventure all year long. The uncertainty on that side of the floor is a red flag if anyone is looking to project sustainable success. But the offense can be very good, and whether they make the playoffs or not, the Bulls should be more fun than most fans realize. Last February was the one month in which this teamwas mostly healthy, and Otto Porter joined them for the final three weeks of that stretch. Through that month, Chicago had the second-best offensive rating in the NBA.
I ran this "playoff dark horse" theory by a Bulls fan friend of mine, SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell, and while today's Bulls fans are generally some of the most disillusioned people on the planet, he agreed that the seeds are there. Last year's 42-win Magic, he pointed out, opened with Vegas setting an over-under of 31.5 wins on the season. What's more, in 2017 the 48-win Pacers opened at 31.5 as well.
The lesson of those Magic and Pacers teams is that the East is a mess, every year, and with chaos comes opportunity. There’s always room for a team to emerge from nowhere to surprise people. And with that in mind, I am obligated to note that the line for this year’s Bulls wins is currently set at 32.5. If it's Markkanen, LaVine and the Wiz refugees crashing the playoff field in 2020, don't say you weren't warned.