There’s less than a week until Bulls training camp. Do you know where your Bulls mailbag is? It’s right here — and will be most every Wednesday throughout the season.
Is Gar Forman or John Paxson on the hot seat this year? I understand it’s Year 2 of the rebuild, and while it’s nice to hope for the playoffs in a weaker Eastern Conference, that still may be a tall order. How will they be evaluated in Year 2? “Growth” is kind of subjective. Businesses normally use metrics and data points to make decisions. As a fan, I’m excited to watch the team this year. But I’m concerned about where the team goes from here if they find themselves in the high lottery again in June. — Ryan, Morton Grove
Nothing like coming out of the box asking about potential firings.
By now, it should be clear that ownership greatly values three things — John Paxson, Gar Forman and continuity. Ownership signed off on the rebuild despite team president Michael Reinsdorf having a close relationship with Jimmy Butler. You say it yourself: It’s Year 2. And, really, would a high lottery pick in June be a bad thing at this point of the rebuild?
The Bulls have nine projected rotation players who are 24 or younger. Management has been transparent since the Butler trade that it’s in the talent and asset accumulation mode and will worry about fit later. There should be improvement this year. The Bulls’ victory total should rise. But management will get time to keep working at championship contention regardless.
Do you think this is a make-or-break year for Fred Hoiberg? He’s definitely not gotten the most ideal situations in terms of player personnel. But I’m not sure what Gar/Pax’s level of commitment is if the team flounders to the same extent it did last season. — Adrian R., Detroit
Well, let’s pause to remember they were trying to maximize their draft lottery position last season. But that’s a separate issue from your question on Hoiberg. It’s a make-or-break year simply from the contract status. It’s never an ideal situation to have a lame-duck coach. And this is year 4 of a five-year deal. So it’s either commit to him with an extension next offseason, replace him or go the not-ideal, lame-duck route for 2019-20. Hoiberg has a lot of offensive tools to play with this season. He’ll be judged accordingly.
Any chance of hiring a new coach if the Bulls get off to a horrid start to the season? If so, who’s a good candidate? — Gregory W., Chicago
This, to me, is the more intriguing question of the pair about Hoiberg. After all, management has a track record of hitting a wall with coaches. The instance with Scott Skiles proved the only time that management made an in-season change. With Vinny Del Negro and Tom Thibodeau, the change came following the season, even if reporting pointed to a change coming throughout their final seasons.
There are internal expectations for improvement. As previously mentioned, management believes it has given Hoiberg a myriad of offensive weapons. Now it’s on him and his staff to make it work. That said, management also has said it knows the franchise has a lot of work left to be in championship contention. So it’s not like win-loss expectations are unreasonable. But if the Bulls started, say, 3-20 like last season, there’d be some serious disgruntlement. Whether it would be enough to make to make the rare in-season change and give, say, associate head coach Jim Boylen an interim chance, only management knows. For what it’s worth, I don’t envision that slow a start anyway so could be a moot point.
How much time should the Bulls give this squad before they commit long-term to this direction or shake things up with another trade? It’s still not too late to go deeper into a rebuild. The problem with the last couple of years is that the Bulls never really “bottomed out.” That strategy might work if a couple of their players are star-bound. But that might not happen. We should know this year. Should one of the “core” players be traded by February if it looks like they won’t play a key role going forward? Trade them while their value is at its highest? — Jeff, Arlington Heights
This is an intriguing line of questioning. I’ll say it’s a more proactive and aggressive philosophy than the Bulls traditionally take. Historically, they’ve tried to develop their own. But I agree that they never really bottomed out. I mean, playing Robin Lopez or Justin Holiday alone last season precluded that from happening. Even the late-season signing of Sean Kilpatrick ended up costing them a few victories. Ultimately, drafting Wendell Carter Jr. at No. 7 looks like it will work. But this is the next phase of this rebuild: Deciding who to commit to long-term and who sticks and who doesn’t. Lauri Markkanen seems like a no-brainer. Zach LaVine is here at least four more seasons since I don’t see that contract as one that’s easy to trade. That’s two pieces. Carter feels like another building block. So you’re talking maybe Kris Dunn? Maybe Bobby Portis if the two sides don’t hit on an extension before the season opener? Like I said, it’s an intriguing line of questioning.
How long do you think the Bulls stick with Jabari Parker at small forward? — @Dasearchfor7
Fred Hoiberg already has talked about versatile lineups and playing either Lauri Markkanen or Bobby Portis at center. So Parker surely will log some minutes at power forward. That said, the commitment to start him at small forward is real and, from the Bulls’ view, hopefully long-term. That allows them to field their best starting lineup.
How much playing time for our No. 1 pick? I think his defense will be important unless we’re not going to play defense this year. — Mark S., Beecher, Ill.
The Bulls are in the ideal position to let Wendell Carter Jr. develop as he needs. Such is the luxury of having a low-maintenance veteran like Robin Lopez. Conventional guesswork has the Bulls starting the season with Lopez as the starting center and Carter starting by season’s end. I agree that Carter’s defensive instincts will be needed. But let’s remember that he’s 19. And Lopez is no slouch in that department either.
Will Robin Lopez be on the roster until the trade deadline regardless of the play by Wendell Carter Jr. and Bobby Portis? Michael P., Chicago
The educated guess is yes. The educated guess also is that Lopez is dealt at said deadline.
With his incredible scoring abilities, what do you foresee Antonio Blakeney’s role being? What would he have to do in camp to push veterans for minutes? — Matt S., Scottsdale, Ariz.
Incredible may be overstating matters. Potentially explosive may be more like it. As for Blakeney’s role, it seems fairly obvious: Roll him out there on nights the team can’t throw it in the ocean and see if he can ignite a spark. Offensive problems should be the least of the Bulls’ issues. They have several scorers and, more importantly, they have several players with shoot-first mentalities. So adding Blakeney into the mix regularly seems a longshot unless he has seriously improved his defense and shot selection. And this isn’t to diminish Blakeney’s story. Kudos to him for sticking with it and getting the deal he did after going undrafted. Scoring is always valued in this league.
Where do you see the Bulls’ bench ranking this year? — Bernardo G., Chicago
There’s legitimate depth. How good it is remains to be seen. Justin Holiday projects to be back in his more proper reserve role. Bobby Portis seems to have emerged as a proven player last season but needs to show it wasn’t a fluke. Denzel Valentine played more effectively as a starter and doesn’t project to be one with this group. And while there’s internal belief in Cameron Payne, he’s the most derided of the bunch. Chandler Hutchison is a rookie, albeit one who played four years in college. Like I said, there are lots of questions.
In this era of player-driven movement and teaming up, how likely is Chicago as a landing spot for a super team? — Lazy, Cary, N.C.
The Bulls haven’t been in the conversation since 2010. Maybe you can count 2014 when they chased Carmelo Anthony, since he’s one of the Banana Boat friends. Either way, it’s been a while. And super teams typically don’t pick rebuilding situations, although LeBron James just committed to the unproven Lakers and bigger names are likely to follow. It’s been the age-old question: Why can’t the Bulls land the big free agent signing? They’ve added some nice pieces via free agency, the most recent example being Pau Gasol. And 2019 will bring another test since it’s a strong free-agent class and the Bulls project to have ample salary cap space.
Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you during training camp.