Portis, Markkanen and Nwaba: Grading the 2017-18 Bulls' frontcourt


The 2017-18 season has come and gone, so Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are handing out grades to the seven key frontcourt players. You can read the backcourt grades here.

Robin Lopez | C | 11.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.9 APG | '18-19 contract: $14,357,750

Mark Strotman: Unlike Justin Holiday, who chose to sign in Chicago, Lopez came to the Bulls via a trade. So whether he approved of being benched for Cristiano Felicio the final 20 games of the year was never really up to him. And yet, he took it all in stride, acted as the veteran presence on the bench and earned the respect and admiration of coaches and teammates alike.

Forget his rather average numbers - 11.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.8 blocks - that declined for the third straight season. Lopez's 2018 season will be remembered for how he dealt with his circumstances in professional fashion. I don't truly believe he's part of the team's future, as John Paxson said last week, but I do think the organization really values Lopez. And for good reason. On performance alone Lopez probably deserves a C, but I'll bump it to a B for the way he handled himself on and off the court.

Vincent Goodwill: I find myself agreeing with you on Lopez. He was the most steady starter this season--while his ceiling wasn't high, his floor wasn't low. You didn't find yourself saying "He's having a terrible night" too many nights aside from his "Training Day" episode in Miami or his chair-throwing fit in Sacramento. You mentioned the numbers, that 11.8 points is a career high, but beyond that, he took up space on the interior.

And make no mistake, he was another guy who understood the nuances of the offense and unselfishly sprung Lauri Markkanen for open jump shots, another reason the front office wasn't so gung-ho about getting rid of Lopez at the trade deadline this season. Taking up space is a talent in this league, even if he doesn't fit the new-age definition of a center.

Add to the fact he was one of Nikola Mirotic's only allies in the locker room while also being good with Bobby Portis, the soft-spoken but booming-voiced big man displayed his value in spades when things got chaotic. All things considered, he was a godsend, especially when he had to take his demotion for the last six weeks. Grade: B+

Lauri Markkanen | PF | 15.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.2 APG | '18-19 contract: $4,536,120

VG: The crown jewel of the front office's eyes and he lived up to it in his rookie year. The most unexpected surprise and frankly, a benefit of Nikola Mirotic's early-season absence. When he got hot, he could go for 30 and shoot without a hint of hesitation.

He showed the ability to put it on the floor every now and again to shake himself free for jumpers but nearly half of his attempts came from 20 feet and out. A solid rebounder and unselfish player who can only grow from here. Finding space among the hierarchy of himself, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine was the only unanswered question and it wouldn't seem right if he asserted himself so soon--even if he seems more mature beyond his tender age of 20.

Is he a franchise player? A future true superstar? It's hard to say for sure but the fact we're asking this question means he made a heck of an impression in what would've been a miserable year without him. Grade: A-

MS: I didn't know what to expect from Markkanen in Year 1. I just know I didn't expect this. We've tweeted plenty about his accomplishments, but let's put them here again: Markkanen was the 108th rookie in NBA history to score 1,000 points and grab 500 rebounds. None of those 107 players before him had made 110 3-pointers as rookies. Markkanen made 145. He was one of three players to go 1,000/500/145, joining Dario Saric and some guy named LeBron James. Markkanen definitely hit some lulls in the regular season, and his year-end shooting numbers weren't great (.434/.363/.843) but that's really stretching it.

Markkanen was phenomenal. Thrust into a starting gig 24 hours thanks to the Bobby/Niko fight, he hit the ground running and never looked back. His dunk over Enes Kanter, his dribbling clinics in the open court, his rebounding success in traffic. He even showed some real value defensively, where he clearly needs work/muscle but has the footwork and instincts down to be a capable defender. Though Markkanen wasn't a true "Euro pick," this was still a swing-for-the-fences pick from GarPax. And the early returns are Markkanen is a perfect fit for the NBA, a mature player who wants to get better, and someone whose potential is untapped. The Bulls couldn't have asked for more from Lauri Legend this season. Grade: A-

Bobby Portis | PF | 13.2 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.7 APG | '18-19 contract: $2,494,346

MS: Apologies to Lauri Markkanen and his sensational rookie season, but the most impressive Bulls player I watched this season was Portis. While his future in Chicago never really seemed in jeopardy, his return to the Bulls after a seven-game suspension had many wondering what type of player he'd be. Instead, the third-year foward put together a career year and made a serious case to remain a piece of this team's future. The Bulls offense was nearly NINE points better with Portis on the floor, and while his field goal percentage dipped slightly he also doubled his attempts. He was one of 31 players to attempt 800 shots and shoot 47 percent from the field.

His per-36 numbers were also great. It seemed odd that he didn't play more minutes, finishing the year averaging just 22.5 per game. Then again, the tank lives. Per-36 minutes, Portis averaged 21.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers. The only players to reach those thresholds were DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love. Maybe he's so effective because he isn't playing more minutes, but as it pertains to this season he did his job as well as he could have. He's got my only A of the year (and yes, I'm going to look past him knocking out Nikola Mirotic in handing out this grade)

VG: If there's a winner for Most Improved Bull, it's definitely Portis. And I agree with you, he might've been the most impressive with all things considered. He entered the preseason as essentially a third-string power forward and left the season as a viable part of the future.

There's a reason over 20 teams were lining up to see if the Bulls were willing to let Portis go for the Blue Box special, and had the thirsty Philadelphia 76ers got their hands on him...Mark, you'd be winning me over on this "Process" thing. But with Portis, he extended his range, physically matured and developed a skill set all while understanding his physical limitations.

Going from 32 triples last year to 80 this year, including doing it in less than 22 minutes, makes him a viable option for more minutes at two spots next year. 

At this level, he's not going to overpower opponents. But he can outwork them. He stayed on the glass even while improving his offense, something that's not a given. If not for Markkanen's presence, Portis would really have All-Star numbers and in regard to the Mirotic situation, he handled himself as well as possible in the aftermath.

Well-liked in the locker room, that situation might've helped him focus even more. The Bulls would be wise to lock him up to an extension this summer before taking a chance on restricted free agency next summer. Grade: A

Cristiano Felicio | C | 5.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.0 APG | '18-19 contract: $8,470,980

VG: If there was one player I got wrong this year, it was Felicio. After some steady improvement his first couple years, believing he would continue on that trajectory was a gross miscalculation. It looks like the Bulls made that same error too after giving him a four-year, $32 million deal over the summer.

He went from finishing around and above the rim with quick feet and decent enough hands to a slow-reaction player who didn't seem to play with the same vigor he had in his first two years. Coming from where he did, it's not impossible to imagine the contract giving him a level of satisfaction and he probably couldn't replicate that hunger from his first two years.

He didn't get consistent playing time until the last six weeks when he posted modest numbers, averaging 9.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in 16 starts. But it still didn't live up to the expectations set by the contract or natural growth. What the Bulls do with him this summer--or try to do with him this summer, will be interesting. Grade: D

MS: Oh, man. I'm going to try to get through this one without being too harsh. Here's a cold-hard fact: Of all players since 1996 who averaged 16 minutes and appeared in 40 or more games, Felicio had the second worst net rating (-18.0). That's a rather large sample size and a rather awful number to have your name attached to. It's also confusing because, like you, Vinnie, I really liked what Felicio brought to the table as a pick-and-roll specialist, someone with good hands and a body big enough to secure a handful of boards every night. He was only 24, too. Instead, we saw some serious regression. He fumbled more balls than he caught (it seemed), he looked lost defensively and got pushed around a lot for a 6-foot-11, 270-pound forward.

He showed some soft touch around the rim and, yes, is still a solid pick-and-roll man. But when is the last time you saw a 6-foot-10 player who plays exclusively in the paint block 11 shots in a season? Zach Randolph comes to mind, but he also averaged 14.5 points this season. Doug McDermott blocked 16 on his own. Look, Felicio seems to have the right attitude, is well-liked and goes about his business the right way. His business just might not be in the NBA. A $32 million man sent to the G-League? Not good at all. Portis was my only A. Felicio is my only F.

David Nwaba | SF | 7.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.5 APG | '18-19 contract: RFA

MS: Myriad backcourt injuries thrust Nwaba into a larger role than expected, and he played fairly well most of the year. He was a rare player who saw significant action pre- and post-All-Star break. He was far and away the Bulls' best individual defender, and he played his game to a T. But he was able to expand that game in the second half of the season. Given a larger role with Justin Holiday riding the bench, Nwaba averaged 9.9 points on 44 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 27.1 minutes. Ironically, for a guy who had never made more than three 3-pointers in a single college, Summer League, G-League, or NBA game, Nwaba finished the second half shooting 39 percent from deep on 32 attempts.

He was a benefactor of the Bulls' tank machine, and he'll likely never progress into more than a fifth wing on any NBA team. But there's significant value in that, and the Bulls know what they have in him as a defender and someone who can finish in the paint. I thought he had flashes of defensive brilliance and I was glad Hoiberg and the coaching staff got him out of his comfort zone on offense and begin shooting 3-pointers (then again, maybe his agent told him to start doing that with free agency looming in a few months). I'm going to give him a B. His limitations are clear, but he's rock-solid at what he does well.

VG: 5th wing? I think Nwaba can be more than that on a good team, actually. I'm not sure what his actual ceiling is, and I'm not going to let the Cris Felicio disaster stop me from seeing the promise in a willing and active wing defender who doesn't back down from anybody. More muscular than athletic, he was rarely overpowered and had feet quick enough to fight over the top of screens on the wings--the fact he didn't stick to screeners like glue is a plus, and he had good speed to recover on the back end.

Offensively, he certainly was a work in progress after that nasty ankle injury cost him a few weeks of action. The fact he went from self-check outside the paint to a reliable standstill shooter in the corners illustrates his work ethic and recognition of his weaknesses.

Yes, he's 25 so his free agency experience will be interesting. But reliability is something that should be in high demand, and he went to the glass to start the break plenty of times to my liking. Whether as a part of the Bulls future or as a chip in a trade, Nwaba has value as a Tony Allen-type defender. Grade: B+

Paul Zipser | SF | 4.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.9 APG | '18-19 contract: $1,544,951 (non-guaranteed)

VG: If there was a picture in Fred Hoiberg's office last season as one for player development, it would've been Zipser. But what this year revealed was that he was much more valuable as an afterthought playing next to very good to great players as opposed to this setup.

He got lost in the wing shuffle and didn't distinguish himself this year as someone who could've made a jump--if there was a jump to make. On the nights he received playing time, there were too many where you hardly noticed that he was on the floor. Playing next to Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade, he was someone who played with a flurry of activity, with occasional flashes of athleticism, quickness and spot shooting.

That went away this year, and although I'm not a big believer in PER, that 5.2 mark sticks out in the worst way. Grade: D-

MS: Agreed. This was a lost season for Zipser in a year when minutes were plentiful just about everywhere. It's unfortunate, and probably says more about him than any of the others around him. But it's difficult to play in the NBA and make fewer than 35 percent of your shots. Only he and Michael Carter-Williams attempted 200 or more shots and made 35 percent or worse. You don't ever, ever, ever want to be in the same field goal percentage category as Michael Carter-Williams.

He's athletic for his size, and his defense was never an issue (or a standout trait). He was simply an end of the bench guy who never made a serious impact. And that's unfortunate because he held his own as a rookie. But he didn't improve his 3-point shooting, either, which could have helped his atrocious field goal percentage, and his counting numbers went down as his minutes decreased. He's a pretty easy D-, though the expectations weren't all that high to begin with.

Noah Vonleh | PF | 6.9 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.0 APG | '18-19 contract: UFA

MS: I actually appreciated the Bulls experimenting with Vonleh after they traded for him at the deadline, playing him far more on the perimeter than the Blazers ever did. The results weren't great - he shot 30 percent from deep on 60 attempts - but this was a rental period for the Bulls to see if they had something in Vonleh.

I'm afraid to say they don't, but it was well worth the gamble. Vonleh is still four years removed from being a top-10 selection, and he's just 22 years old. But his offensive game is severely limited, and while he's an apt rebounder and put up solid advanced numbers defensively, the Bulls can find better options that fit Hoiberg's scheme. He was who we all thought he'd be. Average, a warm body to move the tank along with potential upside that never really translated. Grade: C

VG: You're obsessed with the tank, Mark. Everything's about the tank. (Wait, everything with the Bulls was about the tank so....)

The Bulls took a look at Vonleh, a lottery pick in 2013 who's still 22 years young. He wasn't bad in his stint, a 21-game stretch after he was acquired right before All-Star break. He averaged 13 and 13 per 36 minutes and could be a value pickup in free agency this summer. Still a solid athlete growing into his body, he probably won't be able to escape being a top-10 pick, showing how perilous the draft can be.

At this stage, the Bulls seem to be solid at the power forward position with Markkanen and Portis, and it didn't hurt to take a look at him for a few weeks. Grade: C

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