Bulls Insider

Bulls mailbag: Evaluating Donovan's first year, FA targets


This is the last Bulls mailbag of the regular season. But never fear: More are coming during the offseason.

How would you describe/assess Billy Donovan's first season as coach? -- Matt A.

The players like and respect him. I’d start there. Garrett Temple, who has seen a bit in his many years and is an unrestricted free agent, even said the other day that he’d welcome remaining a part of this moving forward. A savvy business move, to be sure, to keep his options open. But the fact he specifically cited Donovan and his staff as one reason why stood out to me.

And those comments echoed pretty much across-the-board sentiment from players young and old. I think the fact that Donovan never acts like he has all the answers and works in what appears to be a collaborative style serves him well for garnering respect and building strong relationships with players.

Like all coaches, you can question some tactical or rotational decisions. I think he’d be the first to admit that it took him a while to settle on the right lineup combinations following the trade deadline, a process made more difficult by the in-and-out nature to this season.

I also think player development, or a lack thereof, is a valid debate. Donovan has made clear he views the department as all encompassing. In other words, pointing merely at statistics doesn’t capture the full picture of development. Intangibles like understanding what goes into winning and work ethic and film study and proper rest and diet habits are part of it as well. But if you do just focus on statistics, only Coby White has improved from the young core. Lauri Markkanen has regressed. Patrick Williams’ scoring average has dropped monthly, although the fact he started all season is wonderful preparation for future development.

Also, Donovan has done a masterful job unleashing the full potential of Thad Young. Zach LaVine, who was on this trajectory on his own skill and work ethic, earned his first All-Star appearance. Donovan adjusted to place White in more catch-and-shoot situations as the season progressed. Perhaps most importantly, the team exceeded modest preseason predictions.

I also don’t think you can judge any coach this season without acknowledging the unprecedented nature of it. So this doesn’t make Donovan unique, but his ability to handle the unpredictability and challenging nature of this season with an even-keeled demeanor still should be noted.

Big fan of Daniel Theis. Where would you rank him among all 6-foot-8 German players who’ve been on the Bulls roster in the last half decade? Seriously, though, regarding the persistent Lonzo Ball rumors: I’m intrigued but also concerned he might be the NBA version of former MLB pitcher Mike Maddux. In other words, serviceable but not the equal of his brilliant younger brother. Will Bulls go all in to sign him or another big name, even if Coby White finishes strong? -- Brendan G.

Subtle digs at Paul Zipser aside, this has to be the world’s only forum where Lonzo Ball will be compared to Mike Maddux.

There is plenty of talk around the league linking Ball to the Knicks if he isn’t retained by the Pelicans. So given that the Bulls engaged in trade talks centered around Ball at the deadline, I’d assume they’d re-engage and monitor the situation. But I’d rank the Bulls behind both the Knicks and Pelicans in handicapping where Ball is playing next summer.

All the talk has been about the Bulls going after a point guard in free agency and I agree that it would be nice to have a more natural pass-first ballhandler to run the offense and play solid defense. But there’s not much salary cap flexibility with Nikola Vučević on the books now or moving forward if/when they extend/re-sign Zach LaVine. With that being the case, their next biggish contract might be the last/most important addition to try to take this team from middling to possible contention. Coby White might not be the prototypical lead guard. But I think he has shown enough potential recently playing off Vuč and Zach that the Bulls should feel more comfortable rolling with the current backcourt tandem they have in place. In my mind, the most important missing piece is wing play. Garrett Temple and Troy Brown Jr. have proven to be invaluable contributors, especially on defense. But neither has a high enough ceiling to take the Bulls to the next level. Patrick Williams has huge potential, but I think may be a better long-term fit playing power forward. What are your thoughts/insights about the Bulls addressing the small forward position in the near future? -- Seamus F.

This is why management has plenty of work left. I agree that White is a core piece, even if he’s not a prototypical point guard. So whether or not you address that position, White fits in some role moving forward and won’t remain on a rookie deal forever. Neither will Williams. These are the financial gymnastics management must plan for in building out this roster.

I’d rank the Bulls’ needs as facilitating point guard, wing depth and big-man depth. Whether or not Williams is best suited ultimately for power forward, he has the defensive talent and versatility to guard premier wings. If Thad Young is retained but Lauri Markkanen is playing elsewhere, you have to either re-sign Daniel Theis or secure reserve big-man help elsewhere.

If you look at it, there are only probably six or seven virtual locks for next season’s roster -- White, Williams, Vučević, LaVine, Brown, Young, Tomáš Satoranský and Al-Farouq Aminu. So the next few rosters are going to look significantly different.

That’s the thing to remember. I expect plenty of change this offseason. But I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bulls try to work their books so that they have significant cap space in 2022. There already is speculative talk around the league -- emphasis on speculative -- that Bradley Beal could be a target. I assume that’s largely because of his relationship with Donovan. It's speculative for many reasons, not the least of which that there's no guarantee that Beal will be a free agent then. He owns a player option for 2022-23. But he'd be an intriguing piece alongside LaVine and Vučević.

As for this offseason, Markkanen is a possibility to return. Aminu could surprise and turn down his $10.2 million player option if he’s seeking more playing time. Young and Satoranský each have contracts that offer financial flexibility (in the form of partial guarantees) if management seeks that instead of their dependable service. It’s going to be a busy offseason.

Thinking back, I recall that I was far more in favor of drafting Miles Bridges than I was Coby White. Had the Bulls listened to me, that would have necessitated going for Tyrese Haliburton instead of Patrick Williams. In your opinion, would the Bulls have been better off with me drafting or with the way things have turned out so far? -- Dennis N.

Did you want Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose? (And, yes, that was a legitimate debate at the time.)

I’ve never been a fan of these hypotheticals because none of these four players’ full stories are written yet. You don’t know what each player will eventually become.

I was a big Haliburton fan in the limited time I spent studying the draft. But two longtime league observers I talk to regularly and trust both think Williams has the potential to be a star. I also value White’s ability to handle adversity, sometimes during the course of one game, and think his scoring ability is a weapon regardless of his role.

Haliburton undoubtedly would’ve filled a need with this roster, but I’d still give the slight nod to what the Bulls have than what they could’ve.

If this year’s pick were to convey a top-four selection, our picks to Orlando would shift to 2022 and 2024 draft, right? Now I know everyone will say this year’s top four has potential stars yadda yadda yadda. But would the Bulls be able to trade that top-four pick in order to obtain a third star? Or are they handcuffed into making a selection since their 2022 pick is technically traded? -- Anonymous

Yes, if the Bulls get lucky in the draft lottery and keep this year’s first-round selection, the Magic then get the two picks the Bulls sent in the Vučević deal in 2022 and 2024.

As for the other question, the Bulls would have to make the pick. But they then could trade the player once they’ve selected him. They could even draft a particular player for a team and trade that player to that team for their targeted return.

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you soon.

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