CHICAGO – The Bulls like to think they are one of the NBA’s up-and-coming teams, one that could challenge for a playoff berth next season.
They also admit there are many more boxes to check off first.
Led by forward Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls return a slew of young talent, but the team lacks depth and key playmakers. Much will depend on Markkanen’s development along with that of swingman Zach LaVine, guards Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne and Denzel Valentine, and big men Cristiano Felicio and Bobby Portis. Like center Wendell Carter Jr. and forward Chandler Hutchison, the team’s first-round draft picks, all are 25 or younger.
Although the Bulls are almost $40 million below the salary cap, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said a significant move was “unlikely” this offseason. Free agency begins this weekend.
“We have loads of [salary] cap space,” Paxson said Monday, when Carter and Hutchison were introduced at a news conference. “What we don’t have are many open roster spots. We could add one player, but we’re not going to risk making a mistake on a long-term deal. At this point, we don’t feel any urgency to do something big.”
At the top of the to-do list is the somewhat murky future of LaVine, a restricted free agent whose athletic talents are sure to generate interest. Sixteen months removed from left ACL surgery, he averaged 16.7 points and shot only 38 percent in 24 games last season.
“Obviously, we want Zach back,” Paxson said. “But there’s a free-agent process that we’ll follow. The fact that so many teams have limited cap space is in our favor. Until then, we’ll consider Zach to be a big part of our plans.”
For the Bulls to become relevant next season – they’ve reached the conference finals only once since the Michael Jordan years – LaVine and Markkanen will have to fulfill their star potential. The plan calls for them to be more active in the offense, which ranked 30th and last in field-goal percentage (.435) and 26th in points (102.9) last season.
As a rookie, Markkanen averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds.
“We’ll allow Markkanen to make plays a lot more next season,” coach Fred Hoiberg said. “If he rebounds the ball, we want the other guys running and let him bring the ball downcourt.”
Unable to trade up in the draft order last week, the Bulls made a safe pick in the 6-foot-10 Carter at No. 7 overall. The Duke product does his best work as a rebounder and rim protector but will require time to develop other parts of his game.
“I’m a very hard worker. I’m a winner also,” Carter said. “I come in and do whatever I have to to help the team win. That will be an immediate impact.”
The 6-foot-7 Hutchison (22nd overall) possesses an intriguing mix of physical tools. At Boise State, he scored and drew fouls consistently. Both are areas of considerable need in Chicago.
Although a lot has to go right for a team that finished 27-55 to make a quantum jump, the Bulls showed flashes when they won 10 of 12 games in December.
“That stretch last season is where the optimism comes from,” Holberg said. “Since then, we’ve added two young, versatile players who fit for our roster very well. And Zach will have fewer restrictions. So there are a lot of reasons to be excited.”