Chicago’s Future Is Brighter Than It Appears

Can the Bulls become one of the more formidable teams in the Eastern Conference? Plus notes on Aaron Gordon's fit on the Nuggets.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

The Bulls are 2–4 since they acquired Nikola Vučević, their best player since Jimmy Butler was dealt. That’s not great. It’s also hardly a surprise. As a middling squad that’s been atrocious against teams above .500, the Bulls decided to fast-track whatever phase of their rebuild this used to be by adding an aging, complementary All-Star who neatly fits next to the one they already have.

The playoffs are an obvious goal even if, with good reason, current odds aren’t their friend. The Bulls look like what they are: a 21–28 team integrating a major piece on the fly, without practice time, inside a compressed schedule, among players who are in and out of the lineup with various injuries. Mistakes related to timing and unfamiliarity will eventually iron themselves out, but right now the Bulls are expending as much energy learning about themselves as they are trying to defeat their opponent.

And that’s totally fine since this team is better positioned to make a legitimate run next year. Barring any offseason deals, every helpful contributor will be back in Billy Donovan’s rotation, most consequently Vučević, Zach LaVine, Thad Young, the criminally overlooked Tomáš Satoranský, and 19-year-old Patrick Williams.

Patience is a paradox for a team that just exchanged two first-round picks for a 30-year-old center, and their financial flexibility won’t last forever; if LaVine’s breakout season is an earthquake, the max contract he’s due next summer is a looming tsunami. But if the Bulls come up short and are somehow eclipsed by the Raptors (who they play tomorrow night), Wizards or Cavaliers, there’s no reason to panic. Their foundational pieces fit; next season, after a full training camp and offseason that allows the front office to clarify its roster, the Bulls will make even more sense in ways that can turn them into one of the more formidable teams in the Eastern Conference.

LaVine’s ascension isn’t a new topic, but it’s worth mentioning in any article that tries to explain why it’s O.K. to be bullish (sorry) about what’s to come for this team. He’s having one of the more efficient seasons in NBA history, ranking sixth in points per game, shooting 47.5% on catch-and-shoot threes and 40% on deep pull-ups. After making 41.4% of his step-back threes last season, LaVine is somehow a couple of points better this year, brushing the game’s most unguardable move off more often than before. He’s become an unstoppable Tier 1 scorer, and there’s no trade for Vučević without that development.

Behind LaVine, Young has been the Bulls’ most significant revelation. They outscore opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and are outscored by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when he sits. It’s the type of imprint typically made by superstars, especially on offense, and the results have glimmered even brighter when Young is surrounded by reliable players. (Chicago has outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions in lineups that feature Young but not Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr. or Lauri Markkanen.)

Young entered the starting lineup in the middle of March after making a better Sixth Man of the Year case than anyone outside Salt Lake City. He should be a staple of that first unit now and going forward, with an adaptive guile that makes up for a nonexistent outside shot (he’s 6-for-25 on threes this season). The 32-year-old’s highest assist rate coming into this season was 12.4%. Now it’s 26.5%. His true shooting percentage is also at a career-high.

Assuming the Bulls guarantee Young’s contract this summer, he can help mold what their religion should be: methodical, occasionally unstoppable offense that leans on post-ups, keen bigs directing traffic from the high post (Young ranks fourth in elbow touches per game—despite averaging only 25 minutes—and Vučević is sixth), smart cuts and passes. Once comfortable as a group, they’ll swirl through an improvisational series of ball screens, pin downs and (fake) dribble handoffs that are accentuated by constant movement on the weak side and a willingness to reverse the ball.

LaVine’s two-man game with Vučević is common-sense gold and the bedrock of Chicago’s playbook. But when the Bulls need a bucket or have to stop a run, LaVine’s partnership with Young has been Chicago’s bread and butter all year long. Young doesn’t have Vučević’s gravity popping out to the three-point line, but he can expertly play-make out of 4-on-3 situations and bully switches into submission.

There’s a reason LaVine lobbied the team not to trade Young before the deadline. He sees the game from a crow’s nest and can make quick decisions in real time. Watch here, how after Williams drags Joe Harris through the paint, Young leads LaVine on a back cut that fills the space just cleared by Chicago’s rookie.

And then there are Vučević's post-ups, which take up a lot of oxygen. Sometimes that’s a good thing, especially when set up to attack a mismatch and draw a panicked double team.

Pairing Young—who’s spent most of the season at center—with a traditional low-post threat can be tricky because of his inability to stretch the floor. This possession against the Warriors, where Draymond Green ignores Young to take away Williams’s cut, is not what anybody wants.

But the Bulls have already figured out some ways to work around that issue. One is to let Young make the entry pass, placing him in a situation where he can survey the floor and find cutters who take advantage of the attention Vučević demands.

The starting lineup isn’t perfect but has enough two-way balance, experience, athleticism and upside to carry over into next season. The questions then shift to everybody else. Troy Brown Jr. can be a fine spot-up shooter and, given the fact that Al-Farouq Aminu is guaranteed $10.1 million next season, Donovan should give him a chance to mesh. But with the ball primarily in either LaVine or Vučević’s hands, and plays most often initiated by bigs out on the perimeter (plus the need for Williams to stretch other areas of his game), White and Markkanen both can feel like they’re on the outside looking in.

Since the trade Markkanen is starting to play minutes as a wing, in jumbo lineups that feature Vučević and Daniel Theis (another new big man who’s better than Markkanen). These groups were seen in three separate blips during Sunday’s win over the Nets, and the obvious issues they present on the defensive end make it difficult to picture the Bulls sticking with them much longer—or at least until Garrett Temple returns from a lingering hamstring injury. Donovan recently addressed the conundrum, admitting that Markkanen is “dealing with guys probably who are much more nimble and quicker on their feet and they’re more comfortable chasing off screens than maybe it was when he was at the 4 spot.” Same goes for Theis:

Tempo is a factor, too. Before the All-Star break Chicago’s pace was 101.8, the fourth-fastest in the league. With Markkanen on the floor, they zipped up to 105.4 (quicker than where the NBA-leading Wizards have been all season). But since the Bulls acquired Vučević, they’re down to 21st in pace, averaging a tepid 97.8 possessions per 48 minutes. White is only 21 years old and it’s unfair to rule him out entirely as an important part of Chicago’s future. It’s also hard to picture a bolt of lightning—who isn’t all that great shooting the ball—make strides in an environment that needs him to be something he’s not on an accelerated timeline.

An imminent second contract makes Markkanen’s situation more pressing; it’s not that he’s entirely useless on a roster that’s suddenly loaded in the frontcourt—seven-footers who can fly off a screen and drill a three are definitely valuable—but matching a hefty offer sheet this summer would be immediately regretful. If the Bulls want to have their identity be systematic and precise, in a league chock-full of explosive offenses, their defense can’t be wretched. Paying Markkanen a ton of money doesn’t help them shore up that end of the floor, where they’ve been really bad since Vučević climbed aboard.

Defense is going to be a question mark on any team that has LaVine and Vučević as their two highest-paid players. But league-average play is attainable with a conservative approach. Vooch can’t do much more than drop-guarding pick-and-rolls, but he is quick enough rotating over from the weakside to contest shots at the rim as a help defender. (The Magic have had solid-to-good defenses when Vučević played over the past few seasons.) Young, Satoransky and Williams can all be above-average team defenders next season if they aren’t already.

If they renounce Markkanen (whose cap hold is $16.8 million) and Theis ($9.5 million), the Bulls can guarantee Young and Satoransky’s contracts and still have over $20 million to spend in free agency. A star probably isn’t in the cards, but Evan Fournier, Goran Dragić, Spencer Dinwiddie, Will Barton and Kelly Olynyk all make sense. Lonzo Ball should be on their radar, and if things turn south in Utah, Mike Conley would be an ideal table-setter for a team that’s interested in winning sooner than later.

It’s hard to see the Bulls not being a competitive playoff team with any of those players folded into what’s already there. They can also go in a different direction, re-sign Theis, aim for less desirable fruit and target only one-year deals that leave the door open for a splashy signing the following summer, when, as of today, only Vučević, Williams and White are under contract.

Even with LaVine’s cap hold, the Bulls can still have enough room to slide another max contract onto their books. Bradley Beal, who played for Donovan in college (Did you know that, Bulls fans? It’s true!) and can opt out of his contract would be a grand slam addition. That’s an extremely expensive team, but with Vučević's coming off his contract the following year, there’s an absolute best-case/dream-like scenario where Beal, LaVine and Williams manifest as the organization’s next Big Three.

If the front office wants more control over their immediate future but also feels a need to inject All-Star caliber talent, would the Raptors have interest in a Williams-for-Pascal-Siakam swap? If the Bucks fail to make the conference finals, can a deal be crafted for Khris Middleton?

Losing Williams—a potential star-in-the-making who already spends most nights guarding the opponent’s top scorer, shoots 38% from behind the arc, 43.5% from the corners and can really cut—would be, in a word, difficult. There’s no chance the Bulls would give up two first-round picks at this trade deadline if they weren’t immensely high on him.

The Vučević trade was a big bet on Williams's trajectory, LaVine’s breakout season, Sato and Young sustaining their career years and the front office’s own ability to turn over the bench and build a competent, complementary troupe that amplifies its core pieces. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but the decision to forfeit future assets for Vučević, a player who grounds them to the present, maximizes LaVine’s prime, and solidifies a style of play that can eventually carry them on a respectable playoff run, is worth it. And regardless of what happens over the next month, their future is still much brighter than it would’ve otherwise been.

Aaron Gordon and the Nuggets are living a forever honeymoon

Aaron-gordon-nuggets-bench

If you believed in Aaron Gordon during his darkest Orlando days—shuffling through different head coaches, offensive systems, responsibilities and expectations—his first five games with the Nuggets (including a near-flawless, 24-point, 7-rebound night against his former team) are the sweetest validation.

The 25-year-old has found basketball nirvana in a role that couldn’t be more ideal for his skill set. Everything he excels at is amplified. All the duties he used to be overextended with are no longer necessary. Gordon is +69 in a Nuggets jersey. Only four players in the entire league have a higher plus-minus in that span. If there’s any particular stat that illustrates how volatile and stunting the Magic have been this season, it’s the fact that Gordon has already spent more time in Denver’s starting lineup than with any five-man unit utilized by the Magic. That group is +61 in 90 minutes; defending it is harder than stopping an ocean wave with a beach towel.

Gordon is 23-for-31 inside the three-point line, screening, diving and supplementing the NBA’s most devastating pick-and-roll combination in any way he can. In the play below, Jamal Murray uses his eyes to tell Gordon when he should cut into a screen on Nikola Jokić’s man, forcing the Clippers to switch Marcus Morris onto him. Execution this good, so soon, is somewhat frightening.

Now watch this simple give-and-go with Jokić. Gordon gives the ball up and then quickly reminds himself that hard cuts get rewarded 10 times out of 10 whenever Jokić has the ball. Both are thrilled to be teammates.

In the playoffs Gordon will have to hit some of the open threes that Jerami Grant knocked down. Defenses won’t ignore him completely—Gordon’s man will need to be wary of him filling open space or flying in for a putback dunk—but when they rotate around the perimeter, he’ll be the one left open. That’s survivable. The two-way benefits of having Gordon on the floor vastly outweigh any drawbacks, especially when he shares the floor with a Michael Porter Jr. who’s more imposing than he was last season and a Will Barton who wasn’t in the bubble.

Just think about how the Nuggets have gone from leaning on a 35-year-old Paul Millsap to now being able to dust him off for specific matchups in the playoffs, should his services even be necessary. This is what affluence in the NBA looks like. Gordon isn’t just the best version of himself right now; he’s someone who can make life easier for Denver’s best players. It’s the NBA’s freshest and most momentous, mutually beneficial situation. The Nuggets aren’t favorites to win the NBA title but ... maybe they should be?

MORE MORNING SHOOTAROUND

Mannix: Why you should not worry about the Lakers

Shapiro: Inside the Rockets' rebuild

Nadkarni: Should the Warriors embrace the pick-and-roll?

Herring: Nikola Jokić has been the MVP all along

Pina: The Heat are suddenly the team no one wants to face