A Bulls mailbag from the New Guy: Insider K.C. Johnson answers your questions


Filed my first Bulls mailbag in 1996, so it’s been 23 years---Michael Jordan number alert---for answering questions large and small. That doesn’t change, no matter the employer.

Q: Is it reasonable to expect a playoff push this year considering another year of development for Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, and Wendell Carter Jr.? - Connor

A: Reasonable? Sure. Realistic? Meh. The last four seasons, the No. 8 seed in the East has won either 41, 43 or 44 games. Let’s drop that lowest number by two victories. That’s still 39-43. That’s still a 17-game improvement from last season.

That’s a lot.

It assumes good health, good production from multiple players and good fortune. Also, remember that brutal close to the Bulls’ schedule this season (six of eight on the road against seven projected playoff teams). Every team plays 41 home and 41 road games, of course. So this isn’t to say woe-is-the-Bulls for that closing stretch. It’s more to say it would behoove the Bulls not to be in a position where they need to win a lot of games or catch teams for a playoff seed down the stretch.

Then, you also have to look at the rest of the conference. The Nos. 7-10 seeds from last season didn’t get worse. Orlando, Detroit, Charlotte and Miami all should be in the mix. And there’s another 20-something victory team from last season that’s looking to make a big jump in the Hawks. From this perspective, improvement is in the cards for the Bulls. The postseason is not.

Glad to see the mailbag continues into your new position and employer. I got excited and submitted several questions in case someone already asked one: What do you think is the Bulls' best lineup? Any chance the Bulls' roll out a lineup with Tomas Satoransky at small forward or do they view him strictly as a guard? What is a realistic best-case scenario for the Kris Dunn situation? Is there hope he could be integrated into a successful role with the team? Or is he just trade bait/insurance in case Coby White fails to develop? - Matt A.

Given how everything is new for awhile, the judges will allow multiple questions in one submission. Don’t get used to it, though. Come February, on some long slog of a road trip, it will be an impressive feat if we’re still using verbs in our answers.

The Bulls’ best lineup is Satoransky, LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Markkanen and either Carter or Thaddeus Young. This can’t be emphasized enough, but what makes this lineup so intriguing on paper is how Young and Satoransky have been effective players throughout their careers with low usage rates. Carter, in a limited sample size, is on track for that reputation as well.

Satoransky can play point or shooting guard or small forward. He’s one of those seamless players who fits in a lot of different roles. And from all accounts, Dunn has looked great in informal September workouts. Remember: He likes to say he’s a “dawg” and he’s at his best when challenged. He’s currently being challenged. So his best-case scenario is to be an important contributor to the team. The more realistic one, however, is for him to improve his trade value with solid play and the Bulls look to shore up their wing depth with a trade.

How do you see the Bulls utilizing Thad Young? How many minutes, which center would you pair him with and do you think they’ll ask him to add range to his shooting game. – Ben E.

Of the many positive aspects to this free-agent signing, Young’s plug-and-play status has to be near the top of the list. He can start. He can play off the bench. He can play with a traditional big man or a pick-and-pop big man. He can play with Wendell Carter Jr. or Lauri Markkanen or Luke Kornet. He’s versatile and low maintenance. In 81 games last season for the Pacers---all starts---Young hit his career average of 30.7 minutes on the mark. Somewhere around there is a safe guess for his playing time this season.

And Young only has attempted more than 2.2 3-pointers per game once in his 12 seasons. That was when he launched 3.7 per game for the woeful 2013-14 76ers. He shot 30.8 percent from 3-point range that season, shy of his career mark of 32.9 percent. Crafty post play with some midrange jumpers is his main game. He’ll do plenty for the Bulls without needing to shoot 3-pointers.

Wanted to get your input on the point guard position this year. Coby White is coming into the season as the first-round draft pick with a lot of upside and excitement. Meanwhile, we have Kris Dunn who has shown flashes of leading the Bulls with good point guard play, but injuries and inconsistent play has forced him out of the lineup. Who starts this year? How fast do they implement the rookie or is it Dunn’s job to lose? - Bernardo G.

Tomas Satoransky would like a word. I think most followers of the team would agree that Satoransky will be starting at some point, if not Opening Night. There’s also plenty of speculation that Dunn won’t be on the team past the February trade deadline. As for White, he needs to play. And he needs to play through some mistakes. That’s why the organizational projection, for now, is for him to be playing 20-24 minutes per night.

Despite the rampant trade rumors, it seems like Kris Dunn is going to be on the Opening Day roster. Do you think he’ll better adjust to playing off the ball this year? He could really slide into an area of need with his ability to defend shooting guard and small forward but his shooting likely is what it is at this point. - Nick P.

Your point about defense is a valid one, particularly if Dunn embraces a reserve role. Let’s say Satoransky eventually starts at point guard. That leaves a projected second unit of Dunn, Denzel Valentine, Chandler Hutchison, Young and either Daniel Gafford or, more likely, Kornet. The way the roster is set up, seeing Jim Boylen stagger some of his starters’ minutes is almost guaranteed. Dunn can be a defensive presence alongside either LaVine or Satoransky if their minutes are staggered to overlap with Dunn’s. He’s still arguably the best one-on-one perimeter defender on the roster. Plus, if he plays well early, perhaps his trade value increases.

Do you think Lauri Markkanen will be utilized more this year? It seemed like last year he was never really considered that much. It seemed players like Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday were able to shoot all they wanted. – Michael S.

It certainly felt that way for stretches. But Markkanen attempted the second-most shots per game (15.3), behind only LaVine’s 18.0 attempts. For comparison, Holiday attempted 10.4 per game before his trade to the Grizzlies and Lopez attempted 7.2. Markkanen’s usage rate of 25.1 also ranked second behind LaVine for Bulls who logged 50 or more games. (Bobby Portis and Walt Lemon Jr. ranked higher with 22 and six games, respectively.) Fred Hoiberg spent much of his 2018 offseason devising ways to utilize Markkanen. And then some of those plans got scrapped when Markkanen suffered his serious elbow injury during the first week of training camp. It took Markkanen a while to find his rhythm last season. During his dominant stretch in February, his usage rate climbed to 27.4. Don’t worry: He’ll be featured prominently.

Why are the Bulls so in love with Ryan Arcidiacono? He’s no Kirk Hinrich. At one point last year he was on pace to be one of the least efficient and ineffective offensive players in the league. If I would be allowed a bonus question, would he even have a contract if he wasn't on a national championship team? - Darren R.

Again, for this initial mailbag, judges are allowing bonus questions. Arcidiacono finished third in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, so I’d dispute the ineffective offensive part. As for his value, he can play either guard position, he defends, he’s tough, he helps establish the culture Boylen is trying to create and he’s a strong practice player whether he’s getting minutes or not. For a back-of-the-roster player, he’s actually quite valuable.

Who do you think is winning the East and West? And who’s your NBA champion? @dachicagostan

Regular readers of this feature from my days at the Chicago Tribune know that I absolutely stink at sports predictions. But you asked. So I answered: Bucks and Clippers for conference champions, with the Bucks winning it all.

Why should I give this team one second of my time watching them? Convince me. Eric H.

Umm, because I’ll be on the pregame show? Actually, it’s not my job to convince you to watch or not and the above answer likely would lead to the latter choice. But this seems like the wrong time to give up on Bulls fandom. On paper, the roster is improved. Young and Satoransky aren’t just good players; they’re the type of players who make their teammates better. That’s why this season offers plenty of opportunities for LaVine and Markkanen to shine. Depth, particularly at the wing, is a legitimate question mark. And whether or not the Bulls can stay healthy is an annual storyline. But if the victory total remains mired in the 20s, something is up.

As a lifelong Bulls fan that lives in Kentucky, I have to watch the beloved via League Pass. My question is, "Are the Bulls worth watching for $120 this year?" Afraid I won't get my bang for the buck if they trot the Windy City Bulls out again at the end of the season. - Brandon P.

Does NBC Sports Chicago’s pregame show make League Pass? But I digress. Just like the above answer, it’s not my place to tell you how to spend your hard-earned money. I will say if Walt Lemon Jr. is playing in April, something went horribly awry.

The signings of Satoransky and Thad Young imply that the Bulls are 'going for it,' but I can't help but think that another year running back Tank Commander Cam Payne would be better. An article came out today saying that LaMelo Ball is a potential No. 1 pick. Wouldn't you love having LaVar as a key inside source for your new gig? Josh G.

Going for it would have meant landing Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard---or both. As mentioned throughout this mailbag, Satoransky and Young both are rock-solid acquisitions who are low-maintenance players that can not only contribute but help LaVine and Markkanen thrive. The time to advance the rebuild is now. The Bulls own their future first-round picks and projected salary cap space in the 2021 offseason. They’ve had three straight lottery pick acquisitions, counting the Jimmy Butler trade. It’s time to show some progress in the win-loss department.

What exactly are the Bulls going to do to address wing depth this season? Chandler Hutchison is hurt and the other players that can fill in that gap will be needed at other positions. – Will A.

This is a legitimate issue. Satoransky can play some small forward. But, yes, the Bulls are counting on Valentine to resume his 2017-18 form after missing an entire season to ankle surgery. And Hutchison is nursing a sore hamstring that will keep him out for the start of camp. They’re thin at the wing, particularly since the plan is to make sure Otto Porter Jr.’s history of nagging ailments doesn’t become an issue.

First, congrats on the new job. I'm glad to know you're still covering the Bulls. I've lived in Los Angeles since 2002 and around 2008 I started DVRing games (See: Rose, Derrick) then going to your Twitter feed afterwards for postgame quotes and analysis. I appreciate your insight and measured analysis of the Bulls and NBA. Here's my question: What would deem this upcoming season a success? Whether it's the number of wins, making the playoffs, or strides in player development. Thanks and looking forward to the season. - Michael OB

My turn for compliments. This regular reader has turned me on to some solid music recommendations.

Here’s what I’d consider a successful season: At least 35 victories, at least 70 games for LaVine, Markkanen, Carter and Porter and significant jumps in LaVine’s decision-making and defense and Markkanen’s consistency.

Who do you see as the starting five Opening Night? Coby over Kris at PG? – Eric B.

With the qualifier that I fully can change my mind, I’m going with Dunn, LaVine, Porter, Markkanen and Carter with Satoransky, Valentine, White, Young and Kornet prominently in the rotation.

Thanks for all your questions. We’ll do this again soon.

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