Coming into this season, expectations were high. Bulls management, coaches, and fans seemed to be aligned: This is the season the Bulls turn it around and start competing for a playoff spot. Granted, the East is so bad at the beginning of the season that this might be true, but more was expected of this Bulls team. More three-pointers, more consistency, more energy, more excitement in the United Center – but the team has been flat through the first 12 games of the season and the rare unity that started this season has devolved into the familiar bitter rivalry between the doom and gloom Bulls fans, the middle of the road Bulls fans, and then…well….See Red Fred. This team has let us down and everybody seems to have an opinion on what’s wrong. To me, the answer is simple: We don’t have “that guy” yet.
You know “that guy.” Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaq, Hakeem, LeBron, D-Wade, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Kareem – these were all “those guys.” They’re franchise players, players you can build the team around. The Bulls don’t have one on this roster yet. And let me be clear: They don’t have one on the horizon either. None of the guys on this Bulls team have shown anything resembling a franchise player.
When the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler in 2017 for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the rights to Lauri Markkanen, most Bulls fans immediately claimed victory the season after. Markkanen, if he continued to develop, looked like a potential franchise player. LaVine looked rusty in year 1 after the ACL injury he sustained, but in year 2, he was performing like an All-Star.
However, heading into year 3, we’ve seen regression from both players. LaVine is performing pretty well averaging 20 pts, 4 reb, and nearly 4 and a half assists per game, but shooting just 42.8% from the field and only getting to the line close to 4 times per game. There’s this arbitrary line in NBA history that separates the really good players from the transcendent players. If a guy scores at least 20 points per game and averages at least 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game, they’re likely a franchise cornerstone. If you run it on the Play Index on Basketball-Reference.com, you’ll see names like Jordan, LeBron, Steph Curry, even more recent MVPs like Giannis and James Harden. But if it’s less than 5 rebounds and 5 assists, they’re in the really good scorer/multi-time All-Star camp. You’ll see names like old Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Michael Redd, Ray Allen, Mitch Richmond, DeMar Derozan, Kevin Martin, & Vince Carter. All really good players, even multi-time All-Stars and some Hall of Famers, but they were better off not being “the guy” on successful teams. LaVine has never broken that 20/5/5 barrier and as such, has never seen team success.
As for Markkanen, the comparisons coming into the league were always Dirk Nowitzki. I always thought of somebody different: Tom Chambers. If you remember Tom Chambers, he was 6’10, athletic, a great scorer, but wasn’t aggressive enough to be “the guy.” He had some great years, even winning the 1987 All-Star game MVP, but he wasn’t good enough to carry a team. I thought that was Markkanen and when the Bulls traded Butler for his draft rights, I was upset – not because I didn’t like Lauri, but because I felt you could build a Playoff team around Butler. I wasn’t sure about LaVine or Lauri. On Basketball-Reference, I looked at Lauri’s stats and searched for players that were 6’9″ tall and scored 15+ points per game, but grabbed 8 rebounds or less. Names like Brook Lopez, old Dirk Nowitzki, old Kareem, Aron Baynes (this season), Blake Griffin, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Pau & Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Ryan Anderson, old Kevin McHale, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Danilo Gallinari (shout-out to Kevin Anderson of NBC Sports Chicago for making that comparison weeks ago on The Chicago Bullseye), and yes, Tom Chambers. If that’s what Lauri Markkanen really is, then the Bulls don’t have a franchise player in him either.
The Bulls have a lot of positives: They’ve been playing pretty well defensively, Coby White looks like he’s at least an energetic scorer off the bench, Wendell Carter Jr. is definitely a piece of the puzzle if not a perennial All-Star. But the Bulls are still missing one major piece: The guy. I’m not sure how they him or when they’ll get him, but until then, they’re going to be stuck in basketball hell as a mid-level playoff team in the East at best. Will Bulls management recognize it or will they continue to overvalue their assets instead of making a bold move to improve this team? Chicago is thirsty for a championship. It’s been 21 years since Jordan shoved Bryon Russell into the crowd and cemented his career with an iconic shot. This fanbase is too passionate to be in a drought this long. It’s time for the Bulls to be bold and seek a true franchise star to lead this team.
But hey…at least we’re not the Knicks.