Bulls' stretch run has value, even if playoffs aren't in cards

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Why Bulls' stretch run has value, even if no playoffs originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

With seven games left in the regular season, the Bulls’ play-in hopes are fading.

Entering Thursday’s road matchup with the Charlotte Hornets, the team trails the Washington Wizards by 3.5 games for the final spot in the play-in tournament (and the free-falling Pacers by four games for ninth). A grueling remaining schedule makes the chances of covering that gap slim, albeit not impossible.

But even if the Bulls’ stated goal of pushing for the play-in and playoffs doesn’t come to fruition, there’s value in these final seven contests. Zach LaVine is on track to return against the Hornets after missing 11 games due to COVID-19. Nikola Vučević, too, is probable to play after missing two straight with hip tightness.

Head coach Billy Donovan will be watching his team’s compete level down the stretch.

“We have a job to do. And we need to keep working and investing in the things that go into winning,” Donovan said after Wednesday’s practice. “I want to see us keep trying to get better and keep trying to improve as a team. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Here are a few other developments to track:

(Disclaimer: On the court, not the lottery odds sheet, where the Bulls currently sit seventh -- 31.9 percent shot at top four, 7.5 percent shot at No. 1 overall. They keep their pick only if it lands in the top four.)

Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević pairing

The Bulls swung a deal for Vučević at the trade deadline to pair two All-Stars and ride their offensive dynamism to a higher tier of contention. 

More than a month later, mostly by way of COVID-19 sidelining LaVine for 11 games, the two have shared the floor for only 285 minutes across 10 games, in which the Bulls sport a 3-7 record. Lineups featuring LaVine and Vučević have produced an offensive rating of 103.5, defensive rating of 115.0 and net rating of minus-12.3.

Even before LaVine’s protocol stay, he was hampered by a sprained ankle suffered the night before the deadline, and the growing pains of integrating Vučević in a topsy-turvy pandemic season were evident. So, while there’s no sugar-coating how disappointing the devolvement of this Bulls season has been, those numbers derived from a small sample don’t represent an eternal referendum on the tandem. 

Provided both return for some or all of the stretch run, there’s value in continuing to grow their on-court chemistry. These are two of the only safe bets on the roster to be fixtures moving forward. The future of this phase of the franchise hinges on them actualizing what on paper should be a potent offensive pairing.

“There really hasn't been a lot of time for both of those guys to get acclimated over a period of time with limited practice and then Zach missing significant time and now Vooch being out,” Donovan said before Monday’s matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers. “That would be great to be able to have both those two guys be able to develop a chemistry with one another.”

Can Patrick Williams’ flashes begin to sustain?

Speaking of safe bets to be long-term fixtures… The rookie is here to stay, and the Bulls are relying on him to rapidly blossom after flipping lightly-protected first-round picks in 2021 and 2023 for Vučević.

Williams has shown promise in his first season. Scroll his most frequent defensive matchups -- which features the likes of Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and myriad others -- for evidence of his desire to grow into a wing stopper and willingness to take the necessary lumps. Highlights like this sense-defying rejection of Deandre Ayton, among others, prove he has the tools. While 91 total assists (against 87 turnovers) through 64 starts underwhelms in the ‘point guard skills’ department, it’s evident he has a knack for ball-handling and facilitating.

Such a varied tool kit is what helped make Williams the No. 4 overall pick in last year’s draft. Asked about his ideal offensive role, he has pointed multiple times to other ways he can impact the game besides scoring. 

But it’s also fair to seek a bit more in the bucket-getting department. Williams has scored in double-figures just twice in his last 15 games, and his scoring average declined month over month from February to April. He’s taken more than eight shots in a game just once since April 1.

Bulls players -- from Thad Young to Williams himself -- and Donovan have all season preached the need for Williams to assert himself offensively. His 14.8 percent usage rate, according to Basketball Reference, ranks 100th of 112 players who have played 1,500 minutes or more.

“Some of the stuff that he does that we think is spectacular, he doesn’t even know is spectacular. He just thinks it’s just a regular play that he’s done,” Young said after Williams dropped 19 points against the Hawks on May 1. “And we’re, like, ‘No, that was amazing. Whatever you just did, keep doing more of that.’ And he’s, like, ‘Oh, OK.’ 

“And you’re like, ‘That’s what’s going to make him good because the things that he can do physically are normal things.’ It’s not to some of us on this team and around the league. He’s going to continue to get better, but I think the mindset is we just have to continue to teach him, continue to get him to understand he can be a star type player in this league with work and with a certain mindset, a killer-instinct mindset.”

But at the same time, Williams expanding his offensive responsibilities isn’t as simple as “shooting more.” He hasn’t been a high-volume scorer at any stage of his basketball career, from AAU to Florida State. He’s still learning to make the right reads in that regard, and at this stage of his NBA career, is assist-dependent, finding a large chunk of his offense on cuts, putbacks, spot ups and closeout attacks.

Coaching or mentoring a more score-first mentality into Williams isn’t impossible, and to say at age 19 he needs to leap into the 15-20 points per game category is unrealistic. Patience is a virtue. But flashes of his drive, slash and pull-up game popping over the final seven games would be encouraging -- especially if he can fit them in alongside LaVine and Vučević. That 19-point outing against Atlanta came with both the Bulls’ stars sidelined.

Auditions

The Bulls finalized and publicized their assessments of a handful of players on the roster by trading Wendell Carter Jr., Daniel Gafford and Chandler Hutchison at the trade deadline. Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine and Garrett Temple are all free agents this offseason, while Ryan Arcidiacono’s salary is non-guaranteed for next season and Thad Young and Tomáš Satoranský’s contracts carry partial guarantees.

One would guess the front office’s evaluation of the latter set of players -- and how they fit into the franchise’s plans past this season -- is close to, if not all the way, formed. But the wave of fresh faces introduced at the deadline are still making their impression.

Daniel Theis, for one, is due for unrestricted free agency this offseason and carries a cap hold of $9.5 million. He’s started the last 11 games and, despite shooting just 24 percent from 3-point range, has displayed a two-way skill set the Bulls don’t sound keen on flippantly turning away.

Troy Brown Jr.’s circumstance is less urgent. His $5.2 million 2021-22 salary is already fully guaranteed. The 21-year-old's defensive presence on the wing has impressed in a limited role, but sidelined since April 19 with an ankle sprain, his rotational fit and contributions will be interesting to watch if or when he returns (Brown is extension-eligible this offseason).

Al-Farouq Aminu, who crept back into the rotation with Vučević out but has existed largely on the fringe, has a $10.2 million player option for next season (that could always be used in a trade).

Should the Bulls be mathematically eliminated, auditions for non-regular guys could increase.

The thing to keep in mind for all of the above is the possibility of winding up cap casualties. If the Bulls want to operate below the cap this offseason, they could clear what currently projects to be about $16 million in room by renouncing all their impending free agents’ cap holds: Lauri Markkanen, Cristiano Felício, Theis, Valentine, Temple and Javonte Green (assuming Aminu picks up his option and the Bulls decline Arcidiacono's). More space is attainable by maneuvering Young and Satoranský’s partial guarantees.

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