Bulls mailbag: Most Improved, Wendell Carter's ceiling, future free agent targets and more


Bulls Media Day begins in a week, so we're answering your questions to tide you over until the preseason kicks off.

Q: What's your o/u on how many games our entire starting unit (+ White off bench) will play together this year? - @jstafman

A: That's the million-dollar question, Jeff. For all the talk of whether Zach LaVine will make a jump to All-Star status, whether Lauri Markkanen will become the face of the franchise or how the good-on-paper free-agent signings will fare, health remains the biggest factor. That's true for any team, but certainly for one that still lacks depth at three positions (they're set at point guard and power forward) and one that was crushed by injury the last two seasons.

I've said it before but it's worth repeating: Staying healthy isn't entirely luck. There's a skill to being available for 75-80 games a year. The best in the game are the best in the game because they're available. There are a few exceptions - it's hard to see Joel Embiid ever playing 75 games, and Jimmy Butler's physical style means he might be capped at 70 games - but by in large, stars take the floor each night.

The Orlando Magic had the most frequent five-man lineup last season (Augustin/Fournier/Isaac/Gordon/Vucevic) at 66 games. I'll go optimistic and say the Bulls' starting five can flirt with the 50-game mark together. Satoransky and Young are rocks, Porter has played 74+ games in four of his six seasons, and Markkanen appears healthy. LaVine is the wild card. I'll peg Satoransky for 76 games, Porter for 80, Markkanen for 70, Carter for 70 and LaVine for 65. That's 49 missed games, and if they overlap at times, there will be 30-ish games they aren't together. That gives them a shot at 50 games together, which would have ranked in the top-5 among starting units last season. After so many freak injuries, they're due for a healthy season.

Who's your most improved player prediction for 2019-20? - @BrockWorkman

I'm going to say Lauri Markkanen. Maybe that's the easy answer, but the most improved players are usually the ones who see an uptick in efficiency (and if you know my analysis, I'm all about efficiency). Markkanen is penciled in for 34+ minutes per night, and he can rack up counting stats in his sleep. A 20-10 campaign isn't out of the question. But where he can improve - and will improve - is in his shot selection, efficiency around the rim, and his defensive metrics.

Part of that is the team around you. It's not easy being an efficient player when you're asked to carry such a large scoring burden and the talent around you is full of borderline NBA talent. Markkanen played 436 minutes alongside Wendell Carter Jr. and 450 alongside Shaq Harrison. He played just 67 more minutes with Otto Porter than he did with Chandler Hutchison. The Bulls are so much more talented on paper this season than they were a year ago. The newcomers won't just help because of their own talent; they'll help because they're going to make Markkanen and Zach LaVine better, too.

So where does Markkanen improve? Assuming he stays healthy, he shot below 48% from inside the 3-point arc, he went through two ugly shooting stretches from beyond the arc, and he averaged a minuscule 1.6 assists per 36 minutes. All those numbers should get a bump with more talent around him. If he can get over 50% from 2, bump his 3-point percentage closer to 40%, and even add an extra assist per game, you're looking at a Most Improved Player candidate.

Ceiling and floor player comparison for Wendell Carter Jr? - @ATresh

Let's get wild with the ceiling. Carter has just 44 games under his belt but his skill set was on full display acting as a No. 2/3 option while the Bulls were decimated with injury in October and November. He'll shoot better than he did as a rookie (80% from the stripe was very promising), he's probably the most underrated passer on the team, and he really does have All-NBA Defensive potential. For those reasons, I'll give him a ceiling of a poor man's Nikola Jokic. There's a scenario in which the Bulls one day run the offense through Carter at the elbow, with him running two-man games with Coby White (Jamal Murray) and Zach LaVine (Gary Harris/Will Barton). The Bulls already have LaVine and Markkanen who rightfully will command the ball, so Carter's usage will never be through the roof's like Jokic's, but he can have that effect as a passer and an occasional 3-point shooter (Jokic is a career 34.5% 3-point shooter; if Carter gets there, the Bulls would be thrilled). Again, we're talking ceilings here.

It's tough because he has 44 games under his belt, but Carter is probably already a better defender than Jokic. So while he'll never average 20.1 points on 51% shooting and 7.3 assists, he'll make that up on the defensive end.

His floor? Well, Carter is undersized. There's really no getting around that. He's 6-foot-10 and is often smaller than his counterpart. He'll fill out (and he could even keep growing) but height inside is critical. Carter didn't seem fazed by that last season, and his defensive IQ and timing make up for that lack of size. But if he doesn't improve as an outside shooter and just isn't big enough to defend 30 minutes a night, his long-term outlook could be that of a Derrick Favors: A successful career and a player who contributes to winning, but never a true All-Star.

Let's meet in the middle and hope he follows the career path of a Myles Turner.

Are there any free agents that would be willing to come play in Chicago in the near future? - @JoelHenderson77
Who would you peg as the most likely UFA/RFA candidates for the Bulls to target and sign next season? - @The_Sooch

I think you guys meant to tweet Woj. In all seriousness, this question will become clearer in 7 months. Dollars are important when it comes to free agency, but the big-name guys want to win. It's why I've said before that the Bulls should follow the path of what the Brooklyn Nets did: Knock the franchise down to its foundation, build back up through the draft and win with your own guys. The Bulls have knocked it down and are beginning to build with their own players. Now it's time to win.

Does that mean if the Bulls can get to 42-44 wins in the next two seasons that the equivalent of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant will come knocking? No. But building a winner that attracts free agents starts with showing that your franchise can improve from within. Even something like JJ Redick joining the Sixers (or the Pelicans this offseason) or a Brook Lopez signing in Milwaukee would be a win for the Bulls. Both those players joined teams that were building something special with their own talent, and they were significant contributors to contenders.

As for specific names, let's toss out Bogdan Bogdanovic. As a season ticket holder of the Kings on League Pass last season, I always loved how the Kings played with Bogi on the floor. He also lit up the FIBA World Cup earlier this month. I'm not a cap expert, but Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent the Bulls could go after as a high-usage sixth man behind LaVine. He can handle the ball, he can shoot it, and he thrives in an up-tempo offense. Check, check, check for what the Bulls should be looking for next July.

If the roster has good overall health and the season is a complete failure, what is the next move? - @tito2468

This is a tough one to answer. By complete failure, I'll assume you mean the Bulls don't top 30 wins, LaVine and Markkanen don't make the expected "jumps" and Wendell Carter and Coby White don't provide much in terms of winning. That's essentially worst-case scenario. If that's the case you could be looking at a serious roster shakeup. I won't speculate on what that would be, but there's just no way the Bulls could enter the 2020-21 season with the same core if they've won 80 or so games in a three-year span. That's just asking to become the Phoenix Suns.

The good news is that's very unlikely to happen. If healthy, like the question asked, the Bulls have nowhere to go but up. You'll see improvements across the board. They HAVE to be better defensively, they have stability at point guard and LaVine and Markkanen already showed they're the real deals. So if healthy, the win total naturally is going to improve.

What will the Dunn-White dynamic be all season? - @The_Sooch

That will be the one to watch. Those two will be battling for minutes behind Tomas Satoransky (Ryan Arcidiacono should play a hybrid off-ball role) and both have plenty to prove. White, of course, has serious expectations to fill as the 7th pick in last year's draft. Dunn needs to prove himself as an offensive contributor and team defender.

On the one hand, the Bulls want to see Dunn succeed. They invested in him and, at worst, it improves potential trade value. On the other hand, White is the future. Ironically, the two share the same agent. What that means for their relationship or dynamic, I'm not sure. But it will be a dogfight between those two for minutes. And, of course, there's a scenario in which they play together. White is better suited off the ball right now, and the Bulls are shallow on the wing.

Which Bulls player on the current roster would you like to grab a beer with/endorse for President? - @deven2021nu

If this question had been any Bulls player, past or present, my answer would have been Taj Gibson. I felt that needed to be said. Taj is and will always be the best.

On the current roster? Give me Lauri Markkanen, Ryan Arcidiacono or Shaq Harrison.

Markkanen is just so incredibly down to earth, has an infectious laugh and quietly has a pretty funny side to him. As a Marquette grad, I'd love to chat with Arci about his days with Villanova in the Big East (and ask if he still has Jim Nantz's tie). And I'm essentially Shaq Harrison's PR guy given how much I write about his outrageous defensive numbers. Maybe I'd ask for royalties. At the very least, he could pick up the check.

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