2019-20 season preview: Improved on paper, the Bulls still pose questions


If the Bulls stay healthy...

If Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen move their games to the next level...

If Jim Boylen and his staff manage games and style of play efficiently...

The 2019-20 Bulls season comes with so many qualifiers, it feels like it should take place at a conference track meet. Which, come to think of it, feels somewhat fitting given that the franchise’s official marketing slogan is “Run With Us.”

The first two seasons of the rebuild undertaken with the Jimmy Butler trade have featured more stumbles than sprints. But with Media Day festivities set for Monday and Boylen’s first training camp as head coach set to begin Tuesday, there’s genuine intrigue and optimism in the air.

Why can’t the Bulls challenge for a playoff spot?

Praise flowed from myriad directions—with, ahem, few qualifiers—for management’s offseason moves. Those featured the drafting of speedy guard Coby White and athletic big man Daniel Gafford, and the quick acquisitions of dependable veteran Thaddeus Young and reliable combo guard Tomas Satoransky in free agency. Plus, the later signing of intriguing big man Luke Kornet and the re-signings of Boylen favorites Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaquille Harrison.

In fact, Boylen’s handprint of tough-minded, versatile players is all over this offseason, a sign of how much he, management and ownership are in lockstep as the rebuild hits the point in the timeline where significant progress is paramount.

So how do the Bulls get there?

It starts with LaVine and Markkanen. During a long media session at NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Boylen admitted as much.

“With the (free agent) pieces, we have honored where we think Zach and Lauri can go. I’m hoping they take that and run with it,” Boylen said in July. “We believe in them. They’ve done it. What we want them to do is do it more consistently. And they’ve both had great moments in a Bulls uniform, a great month, a great streak of games. But now we’ve got to do it for 82.”

That, of course, leads to another critical element for the Bulls—improved health. The Bulls missed the second-most games to injury or illness last season. And it’s never a good sign when a projected rotation player in Chandler Hutchison will miss the start of training camp to a hamstring injury.

Wendell Carter Jr. is coming off July surgery to repair a core muscle injury. Denzel Valentine is playing after missing the 2018-19 season to reconstructive ankle surgery. Lauri Markkanen has missed 44 games in his first two seasons. Otto Porter Jr. has a history of nagging injuries. Zach LaVine has a torn ACL in his rearview mirror.

And on and on and on.

Boylen is emboldened by the team’s widespread participation at voluntary September workouts. Only Satoransky and Cristiano Felicio weren’t regular participants, and that’s because both represented their respective countries of Czech Republic and Brazil at the FIBA World Cup in China.

In advance of his first training camp as head coach, Boylen is stressing conditioning as one way to help combat the team’s recent poor injury history.

And that first camp for Boylen is no small detail. His turbulent first week after replacing Fred Hoiberg in December 2018 has been well documented. It featured a franchise-worst, 56-point home loss to the Celtics and a day filled with team meetings when players had to quell talk from at least one disgruntled teammate of boycotting the rare practice following a back-to-back set of games.

Boylen embraced the fallout from those events, calling the process necessary for growth.

In trading for a no-nonsense veteran like Porter Jr. last February, adding Young and Satoransky and re-signing tough-minded practice bodies like Arcidiacono and Harrison, Boylen is confident this team’s makeup is ready for work and competition.

Boylen invested considerable time throughout the offseason visiting players, including international trips. He and management also achieved their shared goal of adding versatility and, to use Boylen’s word, “redundancy” to the roster.

This means, in theory, that if one player is injured or struggling, another can substitute in for the same style of play. Too often last season, particularly as the Bulls fielded a glorified G League team down the stretch, the Bulls changed game plans because of their own personnel.

What is this season’s style? Boylen wants to utilize the multiple ball-handler system that played out to improved offense during a 6-3 stretch capped by the gritty, quadruple overtime, road victory over the Hawks on March 1. He also wants to play faster after finishing 20th in pace last season.

The additions of Satoransky and Kornet and return of Valentine should translate to more 3-point attempts. The Bulls tied for 17th last season by connecting on 35.1 percent of their 3-pointers but ranked 27th in attempts at 25.9 per game. For comparison, that’s almost 20 attempts behind league-leading Houston’s 45.4 per game.

Depth, particularly at the wing, remains a legitimate question mark. Hutchison has only showed brief flashes of the player the Bulls invested a first-round pick, not to mention a trade of Nikola Mirotic, in and his inability to start camp follows a fractured toe that limited him to 44 games last season. Valentine must regain the form that featured him connecting on 38.6 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2017-18.

And then there’s the potential mess at point guard. Executive vice president John Paxson has said multiple times the franchise still believes in Kris Dunn. But offseason actions—the acquisitions of White and Satoransky and re-signing of Arcidiacono—led to the Bulls trying to accommodate Dunn’s desire to land elsewhere.

In July, league sources said the Bulls held discussions with the Grizzlies on a sign-and-trade for Justin Holiday, who would’ve had his third stint in Chicago. Those talks fizzled, and the Grizzlies moved on to sign Tyus Jones to an offer sheet.

Satoransky’s versatility in being able to play three positions, as well as his selflessness in not even discussing a starting role during the Bulls’ free-agent recruitment, could provide Dunn an early role. Boylen has stressed competition in camp anyway.

But like plenty else regarding this season, question marks remain for how the positional depth chart finalizes itself.

The Bulls hope to sprint more than stumble this season. If that’s to be—there’s one last qualifier—plenty has to go right. Tuesday’s first practice of training camp begins the journey.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.
Contact Us