Dunn, LaVine, Denzel and Payne: Grading the 2017-18 Bulls' backcourt

Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman
NBC Sports Chicago

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

Kris Dunn | PG | 13.4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 6.0 APG | '18-19 contract: $4,221,000

Mark Strotman: Expectations were low for Dunn after a rookie season in which his 43.2 true shooting percentage was 287th of 288 players who averaged 17 minutes per game. But given the starting reins in late November, Dunn proved to be a serviceable, if not above-average point guard. His shooting numbers are still not where they need to be - his true shooting percentage (48.8%) was ninth worst among guards - and the Bulls' offense finished the season 1.2 points per 100 possessions better when he was off the floor (the defense was better, too). Questions still remain about whether he can co-exist with Zach LaVine, and let's not forget he's already 24 years old.

I don't think he's the point guard of the future, but I'm not sure he has to be. Where he struggles offensively he's still one of the better defensive point guards in the league. Steals aren't always a great indicator of defensive worth, but there's something to be said for finishing fourth in the league (2.0 per game) behind Victor Oladipo, Paul George and Eric Bledsoe, and tied with Jimmy Butler. It's clear he has an understanding on that side of the ball, and his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame helps. On the flip side, his 3.4 fouls per game were third most in the league behind DeMarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Dunn is an NBA player, and he was markedly better than his rookie campaign under Dictator Thibodeau. He proved to be a starting caliber point guard, but his raw numbers (13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists) mask some of the shortcomings, all while dealing with three separate injuries. The Bulls have him for three more seasons, so they'll get a close look at his improvement at a discounted rate through 2021 before deciding if he's part of the core. Shooting can be coached, but he'll have to improve his feel for the game on his own. Given expectations, battling through injuries and a revolving door of teammates he played with, I'll give Dunn a B- for his 2017-18 performance.

Vincent Goodwill: He certainly feels like John Paxson's pick for the ever-changing title, "point guard of the future", but one could argue Dunn was the biggest surprise of the season, even with Lauri Markkanen on the roster. Even the way the coaching staff made it a slow build to Dunn becoming starter seemed to be the right move, letting his confidence grow incrementally as opposed to giving it to him immediately.

He's a pit-bull on defense and if it becomes a consistent focus, that could be his greatest value as a backcourt member alongside Zach LaVine. I think he'll get better at spot shooting because he works at it, and he could use more attempts in the corners--the easiest three-pointer to take.

Fred Hoiberg pointed to the Bulls' best stretch of the season and Dunn was at the center of it, as a closer and a catalyst. His attitude was just as critical as the tangibles and the tangibles were solid, averaging 15 points, 8.0 assists and 2.2 steals for the 20-game sample before his hard fall against Golden State. The Bulls seem to be banking on that, along with natural improvement, before next season.

He's a critical element to chemistry developing between himself, LaVine and Markkanen, and we didn't see much of that. I still have questions long-term that haven't been answered, but he's at least earned the right as the incumbent for the near future. Grade: B

Zach LaVine | SG | 16.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.0 APG | '18-19 contract: RFA

VG: If I saw the best of LaVine this year, I'd be asking if he and Tom Brady were drinking the same magic water. That said, he had some impressive moments even if the overall numbers don't display it, coming off the ACL injury. The duel with Jimmy Butler was electrifying and his February numbers were somewhat encouraging, averaging 22.1/4.9/3.5. 

But he never seemed to find his own rhythm within the offense, a shock of sorts because it seemed like Fred Hoiberg's offense was tailor-made for him. Whether that's on LaVine or Hoiberg, next year will tell with a full training camp and presumably, healthy legs. There were times he didn't trust the offense, wanting to push the ball from the backcourt--and the view from here isn't that it was a selfish move, but a player looking to have an impact, any impact, within the offense.

Does he want to be an initiator or someone the ball finds on swing-swing action? He's still growing into his game even without the injury and has the tools, assuming he regains his strength, to be a high-level scorer. Defensively he struggled with the schemes but on the ball his competitiveness kicks in and he's willing to take the challenge.

Overall, he wasn't as efficient as he'd like to be but played the good soldier while he was out there and heads into restricted free agency feeling good about what he can be on the floor next season. He still has plenty of untapped potential, even with the unanswered questions. Grade: C+

MS: LaVine was born to score. That much was made clear in the 24 games he played for the Bulls. He made it look easy at times and when his jump shot was falling and he was attacking the basket he had the look of a true No. 1 scorer. But he still has a long way to go before he's anointed the leader of this team or the face of the franchise. There has to be more to his game, and while his abbreviated season was more about proving his health and shaking rust off, he needs to get better in other areas, and fast.

For starters, the Bulls' defense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with LaVine on the bench. That speaks volumes and is in line with what we had heard about LaVine's difference when he arrived in Chicago. He'll play a passing lane every now and then and has the athleticism to stay in front, but he falls asleep and is slow on rotations. His defense isn't where it needs to be, even while playing alongside a stout defender in Dunn. He was also ninth on the team in passes per game, which can seem arbitrary but speaks to where he is as a playmaker. It'd be tough to argue that LaVine made anyone around him better this season. Chalk some of that up to playing the system, but LaVine also took 19.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes; to put that in context, Anthony Davis took 19.3 per 36 minutes.

The verdict is still out on LaVine, and he'll have an entire healthy offseason to work with Dunn and Markkanen to hone his game. If Hoiberg can put him in the right position to succeed he'll improve, but it was a mixed bag with mostly not-so-good in 2017-18. Grade: C+

Denzel Valentine | SG | 10.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.2 APG | '18-19 contract: $2,280,600

MS: Valentine was a one-trick pony as a rookie. He was one of four players with 200+ 3-point attempts and less than 100 2-point attempts (Abrines, Babbitt, JR Smith). The Bulls needed him to be a 3-point specialist on the second unit, and he obliged. But Valentine transformed in his second season. Granted, he was doing so on a team bound for the Lottery with few expectations, but he grew into a ball handler on the second unit, a player capable of driving (and finishing with that quirky floater) and an improved defender.

Valentine made 45 percent of his 2-point shots after making just 36 percent as a rookie, and his 3-point field goal percentage boomed to 38.6 percent (up from 35.1%). Valentine was credited with 377 drives to the basket after just 92 as a rookie. As a rookie he shot 32 percent with 10 assists on those 92 drives; this past season he shot 46 percent (best among guards) and had 44 assists. Speaking of passing, he led the non-point guards in assists (3.2) and, for good measure, was the fastest Bulls offensive player this season. He may never live up to his billing as a Lottery pick, but Valentine showed important versatility in his second season (even if that floater just looks atrocious coming off his hand). Given expectations and his worth as second unit distributor, I'll give Valentine a solid B.

VG: Valentine expected to be a playmaker as a rookie, using the same versatility that made him an All-American performer at Michigan State. But whether the game is too fast for him or he's too slow for it, that vision didn't materialize. Year 2, though, saw him embrace being a 3-point specialist, roaming the perimeter on a string to often find the creases for open shots.

On a good team, that can be valuable. On a great team, it can be transformative. Unfortunately for the Bulls, they're in neither spot but that's not Valentine's problem. By the numbers, he was the best shooter on the roster, beating Lauri Markkanen by a hair. His overall numbers doubled across the board as he earned more playing time in this developmental year.

Defensively, he'll still be a target but understands concepts and has been in decent position as a team/help defender. Intangibly, he made strides as a vocal leader willing to speak up in huddles when things got off track. As the year wound down, he made his ambitions known, wanting to be a starter next season. But as a player who can man three positions, he might be better served as the ultimate utility man off the bench. He'll make a lot of money doing that in his career. Grade: B+

Justin Holiday | SG | 12.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.1 APG | '18-19 contract: $4,384,616

VG: Holiday came in as a placeholder for Zach LaVine until he was able to recover from ACL surgery, and continued to develop. Yes, he was aggressive getting up shots, taking 6.2 triples per game and shooting a respectable 36 percent, scoring a career-high 12.2 points per game. But one thing he did have was a grasp of the offense and some of its nuances. When Lauri Markkanen was springing free early for triples, it was often Holiday's screening or spacing that popped the rookie open.

Defensively, he was often overmatched physically, being 185 pounds but didn't back down. However, his greatest value was intangibly. He and Robin Lopez, among others, kept the Bulls' boat from capsizing early when the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic drama unfolded. He was a spokesman in the locker room and a mature force without being a locker room lawyer. Things could've truly gone sideways if not for some veteran stabilization.

He had to endure the yo-yo of being in and out of the rotation when LaVine returned and when the Bulls implemented their plan for the last six weeks of the year. Although it had to be nerve-wrecking, he kept a positive and realistic face on it and was an example for teammates to follow. Grade: B

MS: Holiday found himself in a no-win situation when the Bulls decided to go young after the All-Star break. He had played well, though not well enough to be flipped in a deal at the trade deadline (in large part due to his trigger-happy mindset and 37.9 FG%). Still, Holiday was a real veteran presence on a team that needed such stability at multiple times during the year.

His sporadic playing time down the stretch skewed his per-game numbers, so it's tough to really dissect any of his statistics. Still, thrust into a larger role he averaged career-bests across the board (minus the shooting) and he was a rare +/+ on a 27-win team: the Bulls were better on offense AND defense with Holiday on the floor. That, of course, makes it tough to justify Holiday sitting down the stretch.

He made the most of odd circumstances, and it's a positive that he did so on a $4.5 million deal. In a best-case scenario Holiday returns this fall an improved shooter and becomes a tradeable chip at the deadline in the winter. More likely he'll be another contract that comes off the books in 2019. Either way, in 2018 Holiday dealt with a lot and came out looking pretty good all things considered. Grade: B

Jerian Grant | PG | 8.4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 4.6 APG | '18-19 contract: UFA

MS: Who? For someone who played nearly 1,700 minutes and started more than 30 percent of the time, Grant had a largely irrelevant season. It was made clear that he wasn't a part of the future, as the Bulls plan on going forward with Kris Dunn and Cameron Payne, so even his good minutes seemed to go unnoticed. He began the year in the starting lineup and shot 35 percent before Kris Dunn took over, and while he became an apt distributor who took care of the ball well for a successful second unit, his scoring never caught up and he was a borderline defender. Pegged as a combo guard out of college, he shot 32.4 percent from deep which brought his career average UP.

There is something to be said for him finishing 5th in assist-to-turnover ratio (Collison, Dinwiddie, Burke, Jones were ahead of him), and he was one of the few durable Bulls. But he just never really flashed anything special. On being a constant at a position riddled with injury, as well as taking care of the ball for a team that struggled to do so a lot, he'll receive passing marks. But there wasn't much else to write home about. Grade: B-

VG: Solid, not spectacular for Grant. But he had to handle being part of the future to not being part of the present or future once things shook out. As a professional, he had to take the unspoken message without incident and for as tough as it was, he should be commended.

Before his apparent demotion, Grant played more decisively, although not up to Fred Hoiberg's standards as he started the season as starting point guard before Kris Dunn emerged, playing the backup role until the organization wanted to look at Cameron Payne the last six weeks. Averaging 13 points and 7.5 assists per 36 minutes doesn't say he's a scrub; When he's aggressive on the ball he can be a shot-maker who can take contact and finish, while having good enough size to defend both  guard spots.

If he shot it better than 41 percent and 32 from 3, his future wouldn't be as murky as it appears. It's hard to judge a player with so many role changes, but one can say the Bulls believe they've seen enough of Grant. With his option already exercised, the Bulls will likely look to package him in a trade this offseason so he can have a fresh start somewhere. He knew he was auditioning for 29 other teams from the moment Dunn ascended. Grade: C

Cameron Payne | PG | 8.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 4.5 APG | '18-19 contract: $3,263,295

VG: Payne went from tank commander to someone who took command of his opportunity late in the season. Payne did enough to cement himself as backup point guard in John Paxson's eyes as the season ended. Whether that's the front office wanting to save face from the Taj Gibson-Doug McDermott trade last season or seeing real promise, Payne is getting prime placement for the near future.

He pushed the pace, played aggressively and decisively, and despite not having much action in this offense looked as adept as anyone in Hoiberg's system.

He has a tricky left-handed finish inside the paint while also taking whatever space a defender gives to launch 3-pointers at a really good clip of 39 percent. Averaging 4.5 assists to just 1.4 turnovers is a pretty good ratio, as the offense rarely bogged down when he was running the point.

Defensively, he's so hard to judge because of the changing lineups but on this roster, there's not many who can say they were very good. Seeing how he fits with a more consistent rotation will be a better way to determine how he fits on this roster or any, but he made sure to change the tone on his personal story as soon as he was physically able to return from his offseason foot injuries.

MS: The butt of seemingly everyone's favorite tank joke, Payne actually produced after the All-Star break. We don't think the elite point guards are going to be calling to work out with him this summer, but on a per-36 minute basis Payne was vastly improved across the board. He had a handful of clunkers, but like Grant he took care of the ball for the most part (3.1 A/TO ratio) and was a plus contributor from beyond the arc, shooting 38.5 percent while making 2.2 triples per game. There's something to work with there, even if it remains on a reserve level behind Kris Dunn.

Defensively Payne really isn't big enough to contribute much, despite his 6-foot-3 frame. The Bulls were better defensively with him on the bench, but he led the team in individual pace (101.46) and his assist percentage (percentage of the Bulls' field goals assisted while on the floor) was nearly as good as Dunn's. He has his serious shortcomings, and he still needs to improve his shot selection. But he showed some flashes in pick and roll (with Cris Felicio nonetheless) and played with solid energy. Again, he isn't redefining the position but he showed in 23 games what the Bulls needed to see. His numbers don't jump off the page, but they didn't need to. Grade: C+

Sean Kilpatrick | SG | 15.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.4 APG | '18-19 contract: $2.1 million (estimate; team option)

MS: We only got a nine-game sample size, but it's safe to say Kilpatrick did as much as he could to earn a spot on next year's roster. He topped 20 points three times, including a 21-point effort that included 19 in the fourth against the Hornets. He was largely responsible for the Bulls' victory over Charlotte, which ironically cost them 10 Lottery combinations (they have 53; they would have had 63 if they were in 6th place alone). Kilaptrick didn't provide much outside of his shooting, but there's value in that.

That being said, there are very few - if any - difference makers who play for four teams in a season at any point in their career. Maybe Kilpatrick will catch magic in a bottle with the Bulls and flourish in Hoiberg's system. That remains to be seen. As it stands, for his nine-game performance, Kilaptrick gets solid marks. It's not easy joining a team with three weeks left in the season and actually making a difference. Grade: B

VG: If there's a player taking full advantage of any opportunity given, it's Kilpatrick. He gets up shots from anywhere and everywhere and did so with a glee that was a delight to see as the season slogged to a finish. He probed and probed wherever he was on the floor, playing at speeds faster than the rest of his teammates most times.

Being bounced around so much, the nine-game sample he was going to give the Bulls and the rest of the teams had to show aggression and energy. From that standpoint, he delivered and actually shot 40 percent from 3-point range when he didn't shoot nearly that well in his previous stops.

But given the green light, the shots were going to go up regardless as lineups made no matter to him. Grade: B-

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