By Tim Baffoe–
(670 The Score) On Thursday evening against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Chicago Bulls will start Cristiano Felicio and David Nwaba. Again, for emphasis: start. Those are two players who have a combined VORP of 0.1.
And that’s awesome — not the stat but that the Bulls are 100 percent bathing in the waters of tank.
The rest of the 2017-’18 season should give us viewers the best of both possible worlds. For one, there’s a conscious organizational effort to lose as many games as possible for more ping-pong balls in NBA Draft lottery. And then there’s still the ability for the Bulls to be the generally fun watch that they’ve unexpectedly been prior to the All-Star break, when there were spurts of “Oh no, why are you winning, silly gooses?”
You got Cameron Payne back with the big club for the first time since a cameo in a playoff loss last April, and he’ll insure against being overly competent. But at the same time, we also get to watch the very positive-so-far fruits of the Jimmy Butler trade in Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine grow and gel. Win-win when the immediate situation involves no postseason capabilities, no?
“Our future’s really, really bright,” Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson told the Bernstein and Goff Show in a… oh, let’s call it a vinegary interview on 670 The Score on Wednesday.
“We’ve got the three kids — Kris Dunn, Zach, Lauri Markkanen — who are starters in this league. We believe over the next few years, they’ll become high-level starters, hopefully, maybe an All-Star player or two in that group. I think this year we’ve learned that Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis are good rotational players that can help a team become successful. We will have draft picks going out. We will have cap room to spend. We will spend it the right way. We’re not going to go out and start throwing money out 32-, 34-year-old players. We’re going to be smart and conscientious about that. I like our future. I think it’s bright, and we’re going to be patient with this process.”
There’s nothing to dislike from that chunk of what Paxson had to say. There’s a decent young core as of now, and the team doesn’t have plans to supplement it over the summer with a Rajon Rondo or a Dwyane Wade years too late again. Another high draft pick will become a real person.
“The toughest part is when you’re trying to build a team — and basketball is still a team game but you need great individual talent — bringing it all together, the components of it,” Paxson said. “If you do have a great player or two or three, finding the players that complement them. It’s what the Bulls did in Jerry Krause’s era so well, playing off Michael and Scottie primarily but finding those other pieces. It really is team-building. I think sometimes you can get caught up in just accumulating a bunch of talent, but if it doesn’t fit … they don’t mesh. That’s the tough part of it but also the great part about it.”
The Bulls are only three games better than the worst record in the NBA, which is a tie between the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, there are five other teams also worse than the Bulls, and those teams mostly lack a talented triumvirate that will accidentally win some games with earnest effort like the Bulls have. Six of the Bulls’ remaining games are against the Hawks, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Magic and Knicks, teams competing for the top draft pick. The bad news is that the Bulls are 9-0 against them already this season. Going into Thursday, the Bulls have only a 2.8 percent shot of drawing the top pick and a 9.9 percent chance of selecting in the top three, per tankathon.com.
But it’s all better than zero and therefore something to root for this spring. The sacrifice is Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant, who will now get paid to play very little and not sabotage a good controlled demolition. Without costing himself $600,000 like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did this week, Paxson diplomatically worded that winning just isn’t in the plans the rest of this season.
“You can’t play 12 guys in our game,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Nine or 10 is the most. And it’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37, with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”
As though Felicio and Payne really run through the scientific method to reach a more thorough conclusion on them. But that’s fine if it keeps Markkanen, Dunn and LaVine from being too good for now.
And coach Fred Hoiberg at least gets 25 more games to run his offense his way with willing participants, unlike previous seasons. He’s seemed different after losses this season. In the past, losses visibly weighed on Hoiberg, whether because they would often be embarrassing given the roster at the time or because the veterans were outright defying him. It’s not to say he’s happier now with losses, but he clearly gets what the operation is right now, and having a group that actually plays for him while his bosses work on gradually getting him more workable talent has him looking much less like he’s regretting leaving Ames, Iowa.
“Fred, more than an any time in his three years here, right now he’s kind of got his feet firmly planted,” Paxson said. “The young guys are listening to him. They’re playing hard for him, and I think that says a lot. When you have a young group of guys that are competing and playing hard most nights, that’s a reflection on the attention going into each practice every day.”
So going forward we should be able to enjoy the Bulls more guilt-free than prior to the break, when you’d too often get caught up in an exciting close game and grapple with rooting for a loss despite the fun that was happening. Now it’s all about individual young core players continuing to blossom, and that can still be enjoyable to watch.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for 670TheScore.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not Entercom or our affiliated radio stations.