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Realistic Expectations for the Chicago Bulls 2020-21 Season

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

(Editor’s note: Introducing Bulls Global with his first article for BullsHype.com from the United Kingdom. Here’s a little from the author: From across-the-pond I have found a connection with the Chicago Bulls. I have taken a deep dive into the ins and outs of the NBA within the last year, thank you lockdown! Somewhat optimistic is how I would describe my mindset, particularly with the new leaders, which certainly helps keep me attentive for those 1 AM games. – Bulls Global)

287 days without Chicago Bulls basketball

That is how long it will have been since the Chicago Bulls played a regular-season basketball game. March 10 was when the Bulls last graced the hardwood in a regular-season game and when December 23 hits, the long basketball-less drought will finally end. However, now that that 287th day is nearing, the question looms, how lofty should Bulls fans’ expectations be for the upcoming and somewhat abbreviate 2020-2021 campaign?

Since the abrupt end of last season, the Chicago Bulls organization has undergone an overhaul of their basketball operations. Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley joined the franchise to head basketball operations. A new head coach addition certainly pleased the Bulls faithful. Predicting a drastic leap in the team’s record though, is probably not the most realistic of targets. The roster, however, remains largely the same.

The additions of rookie first-round pick Patrick Williams, veteran free-agent acquisition Garrett Temple, and rookie Devon Dotson (two-way), have not completely satisfied many fans, although, in retrospect, this follows Karnisovas’ comments when he took over. Karnisovas promised diligence and getting to know the roster in his open letter shortly after his arrival.

With a new (and qualified) coach in place, it is easy to jump to the assumption of a leap in the team’s record. Of course, it is not all so black and white for the Bulls. Unforeseen factors throughout the season will affect the realistic goal of the franchise, but where does Chicago stand with the current outlook?

What is the outlook for this season?

Having endured an incredibly long off-season, one likely possibility for the young Bulls is a rusty start. This looks concerning when you take into consideration how brutal their first 5 weeks are. In the 2019-20 season, the Bulls were just about to start their most difficult stretch of the entire season, but then the hiatus hit.

Looking back, it was hard to see the Bulls winning more than 4 of their remaining 18 games, so their record finished a fair bit better than it likely would have, had the season fully played out. Forecasting the Bulls to be around a .500 team this season, particularly in the start, might be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Fortunately for a young team like the Chicago Bulls, there is a play-in spot this season giving seeds 9 and 10 a chance to make it into the playoffs. On paper, the Bulls are penciled into the tier that is likely to fight for these spots. Along with Chicago are, Atlanta, Detroit, Charlotte, and Orlando, and there are only 2 spots for these 5 teams.

Calling favorites for these seeds is too difficult, particularly in a season where Covid protocols are likely to play a big role in determining which teams miss key players down the stretch.

Can the core of this team play together?

The young Bulls left a lot to be desired last season. Last season the core did not mesh well however, their on-court reps to build chemistry as a unit were limited. The 4-man combination of Coby White, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Wendell Carter Jr. was ranked 20th in terms of minutes played amongst other Bulls’ combinations, the latter two’s injuries were partly to blame.

When they were able to get on the floor together the signs were not promising, to say the least, posting the lowest out of any Bulls 4-man combinations in PTS, FG%, eFG%, ORB%, AST, and BLK, all calculated by Net (Per 100 Possessions). On the bright side, the Bulls largely remaining the same may have allowed them to increase their chemistry through both the mini bubble and training camp. Chemistry will likely play a big part in this season where Covid restrictions are the centerpiece to making this season safe for players.

When on the road, players may only have a select few restaurants to visit and may not be able to go to their favorite bars and clubs they may have enjoyed in previous years, depending on the tier-restrictions. This might force players to spend more time together and possibly even enjoy each other’s company more. 

The first expectation will, therefore, be seeing the line-up get some more minutes on the floor together, while also playing well, and building good chemistry. Having brought in a coach who is adaptable to players’ games is a positive indicator of this being affected. Billy Donovan has already spoken about how he plans to use players offensively to create a better team performance.

Offensively and defensively media meetings suggest both schemes will be revamped for the better. Donovan has spoken about involving Carter Jr. more within the offense, giving him a chance to extend his range and facilitate at times.

Markkanen will also be used as more than a spot-up shooter and the team as a whole will have more movement. This should make playmaking and choosing the right pass easier for players, particularly for White, who will come into the season with the starting PG role as his to lose.

With 3 of the original core 4, being primarily offensive players, and being used in a system that will finally allow them to showcase their strengths, the Bulls should make a jump in their offensive stats, both individually and as a team.

On the defensive side, stats would imply the Bulls were not too bad last year, but the eye test would insinuate otherwise. Daniel Gafford was the first to reveal the team will now play a more common drop coverage defensive scheme. This will help out the bigs more than anything, as they can get to the paint and contest shots. Seeing a rise in blocks from Carter and Gafford is a tangible statistic to expect improvement in.

However, anticipating the Bulls to take a leap with the team’s defensive rating is not to be assumed, as former head coach Jim Boylen’s blitz scheme helped to inflate their stats. If the Bulls remain close to their defensive rating last year, that should be seen as an encouraging improvement.

Can the Chicago Bulls be a playoff contender?

Although playoff hopefuls will likely be disappointed, it is hard to determine realistic expectations for the team. As of now, based on the players on the roster, the play-in tournament should be the goal. But in-season trades are not to be out of the question, particularly after a rather quiet off-season, roster wise. It is probably unrealistic to think this core will all function perfectly together.

With the remodeled front office,  it is unlikely this squad stays together for the long-term. Besides rookie Patrick Williams, the front office doesn’t have any ties to the roster, so they are not ‘their guys’. When the 2021-22 season tips off, the roster may look entirely different and that is what this season is about, evaluating the players, and choosing a direction for the franchise moving forward.

The triumvirate of Karnisovas, Eversley and Donovan are showing that they will work hard to ensure the Chicago Bulls won’t be in limbo and labeled as a ‘directionless organization’, that is certain.

As William Shakespeare said once, “The miserable have no other medicine but only hope.” Sadly, Bulls fans have been ‘the miserable’ for years now, but maybe this is the year where the hope starts to mend a few cuts and bruises.

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