The playoffs are exposing the flaws of the Bulls’ rebuild

I can’t watch any form of basketball without applying a Bulls-centric lens.

Call it fandom, obsession, passion, or sickness, this is simply how I’m wired. For years now, I’ve tried escaping this process, testing if I can sit back and appreciate a game between two teams I have zero rooting interest toward without somehow finding an angle to work back toward my team.

I can’t do it.

The Bulls have me, for better or worse. If you’ve ventured upon this blog, one that centres itself around the maddening franchise, chances are you feel the same.

And so we watch the NBA playoffs, analysing every matchup, absorbing every storyline, and applying trends and traits from these bubble playoff games to our lowly Bulls.

In watching these playoffs, the overwhelming takeaway through the first two rounds of play has been the advancement of small-ball lineups, positional versatility, and on-ball, halfcourt offensive creation.

As concepts, these ideas aren’t new — the best and smartest teams in the league have been pushing these boundaries for nearly a decade. And while there has generally only been one or two outlier teams who have truly committed to small-ball lineups, it seems as if the majority of the remaining eight teams vying for playoff supremacy are recognising the true worth of this basketball evolution.

For those of you who haven’t been paying close attention to schematic changes we’ve seen from these teams before and during these playoffs, particularly those changes that relate to the use of smaller lineups, here’s a quick overview:

The Miami Heat — who moved away from a traditional two big-man lineup as the playoffs commenced — neutralised the Milwaukee Bucks by building a mobile, athletic defense that featured a plethora of wings that sieged upon and exploited Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ inability to create efficient offensive possessions in halfcourt scenarios.

Fuelling an unbelievable game six, double overtime classic on Wednesday between the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors, was the exploration of prototypical wing-sized athletes at the four and five position – the Raptors closed with Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby in their frontcourt.

The Houston Rockets traded center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a four-team deal that returned versatile forward Robert Covington. Positioning Covington as the team’s makeshift power power forward, all while shifting P.J. Tucker and his girthy 6-foot-5 frame up to center, was as innovative as it was ballsy.

The Rockets experimenting without a traditional four and five has forced the Los Angeles Lakers to abandon their traditional centers in the teams’ second round series, choosing to counter with LeBron James and Anthony Davis up front (seems like a good idea!)

Meanwhile, the Lakers’ crosstown rival, the Los Angeles Clippers, have been starting and finishing games with three small forwards on the perimeter (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris), adding a combo guard (Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams), and either a traditional, paint protecting big (Ivica Zubac) or a small-ball five (Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green), depending on matchups.

Watching the league’s best teams experiment with their rotations and lineups in such a way has been fascinating. Simultaneously, it’s also been highly concerning to this Bulls fan, one who can’t stop himself from projecting the league’s tactical advancements onto a Chicago franchise who is seemingly years behind the leaders.

I was already nervous about the projection of the current Bulls rebuild.

These playoff teams have me more worried than I previously was before. Here’s why.

Rebuilding around two big men seems like a bad idea

The Jimmy Butler trade was over three years ago. Because I’m a good, kind person, I will spare you the drama of relitigating the merits of trade and hate-typing the ramifications all these years later. Instead, I will simply note this trade was a signal of just how far beyond the times the Bulls truly were.

Resetting the franchise by trading an All-NBA level wing player is probably never a good idea. Strategically, however, choosing to rebuild around two young big men after moving on from said elite wing player, in hindsight, is shaping up to be a really, really bad decision, one that only compounds the initial mistake of dealing Butler.

That may seem like an opportunistic statement to make given Butler’s current playoff fortune with the Miami Heat. Furthermore, in isolation, it’s also easy to defend the selection of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter in their respective drafts. Hell, for several years now, I’ve done exactly that, arguing that both were solid selections who’s projectable career arcs were congruent with the expected value of a typical No. 7 overall pick.

That all may be true. But on some level, forging the foundations of a rebuild around two big men is highly problematic when comparing the ultimate scope of this current Bulls squad versus the teams who are heavily reliant on smaller, wing-dominant lineups, particularly those we’re witnessing during these playoffs.

For arguments sake, let’s (irrationally) assume the Bulls qualified for the bubble and somehow made the playoffs, matching up against the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Running with this truly unlikely and absurd scenario, using the power of hindsight and knowing the Heat would deploy Jae Crowder and Bam Adebayo at power forward and center, respectively, who does Lauri Markkanen guard in this scenario?

Sure, you could possibly hide Markkanen on Crowder given the latter has no juice to his dribble-drive game and can really only hurt you from the 3-point line. But given how Crowder absolutely torched the Bucks from the distance, are we sure Markkanen is nimble enough to guard out to the perimeter while also maintaining his responsibility as a help defender? Or like the Bucks, do the Bulls get cooked in such a matchup, too?

Crowder isn’t much of an offensive threat, so maybe it works if his jump shot regresses to the mean in a timely manner. But what do you do when going up against the Celtics, who have been closing games with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at both forward positions. Who does Markkanen guard in such a scenario? Really, he has no chance against either, so only two options exist: Scale Markkanen up to center or bench him in crucial moments.

The former is the obvious retort, and perhaps it would be a legitimate option if Markkanen was anything more than a league-average shooter who has shown signs of being able to carry out the basic defensive demands of a modern day NBA center. Still, maybe you roll with it. Markkanen has a much better chance of guarding Celtics center Daniel Theis than he does Tatum or Brown. The same is true against the Heat and Adebayo, even the Raptors when they run their center rotation through Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

That’s the workaround, but here’s the problem with all that: If the counter to Markkanen’s inability to hang with perimeter players who are routinely transitioning to the power forward position is to push him to center, what does this mean for Wendell Carter?

Like Markkanen, the Bulls drafted Carter using a mid-lottery draft pick. Benching him to placate the shortcomings of Markkanen’s limited positional versatility is less than ideal given the Bulls invested heavily in picking a center via the draft, only to have him sit during critical moments of a game.

Perhaps I’m projecting too far forward when comparing an underwhelming Bulls team who are firmly still in rebuild mode to any of the league’s best teams. And maybe it’s a pointless exercise to play the matchup game at this point of the rebuild. If you feel that way, I have no real counter to sway you. Still, we have to project this team moving forward, and doing so against some of the better teams in the league to gauge how this rebuild truly is shaping up seems fitting.

Applying the logic noted above, if there’s wasn’t already before, there should be serious questions about the viability of building around a Markkanen and Carter frontcourt. At this point in their careers, both are one position players who — theoretically, at least – balance each other’s strength and weaknesses. But is that enough to justify their long-term pairing while the rest of league continues to push against the efficacy of traditional two big-man lineup?

Where are the versatile wings?

The opportunity cost in drafting two big men in successive drafts is forgoing the chance of adding more perimeter talent on a team starving for on-ball creation. While true, this reality extends beyond the Markkanen and Carter selections: Doing little to prioritise wings via free agency was also very dumb — Jabari Parker was never going to work at small forward!

Whoever the next Bulls coach will be, I would expect them to explore the use of smaller lineups, either with Carter or Markkanen at center. This seems like a safe assumption given many of the candidates which are linked to the Bulls job will be coming from offenses which are already advocating the use of wings acting as bigs. While that should be the expectation, the application of such a method is dependent on the roster being equipped with enough credible rotational options who can be shuffled through the perimeter.

Assuming either can stay healthy for a prolonged period, in theory, Otto Porter and Chandler Hutchison can shift up and play some power forward. Unfortunately, Porter and Hutchison happen to be the only viable small forward options on the roster, meaning the majority of their minutes will still be at the three — a reality that will prolong the dual big man lineups.

While it is easy to identify the problems of building around two young bigs, this issue is compounded by the current Bulls roster having so few levers to pull that promote smaller lineups (beyond playing three guard lineups that force Kris Dunn or Ryan Arcidiacono to guard opposing small forwards, which is far from ideal.)

Play creation is a problem

There are a number of obvious advantages that come with smaller lineups, namely the additional speed and athleticism a coach can deploy on the floor, along with additional shooting from the wing and forward positions. These elements are all potential boons to any offense, but in its simplest form, the biggest advantage to replacing a lumbering big with a guard or wing is having another player on the floor who presumably is capable of handling and creating offense.

Having multiple avenues of play creation is the best method of beating down elite playoff defenses. For the Heat, this has been another competitive advantage gained by going small, and what has transformed them from a viable playoff team to a legitimate title threat.

As hard as it has been watching a former Bull revamp an old rival into a contender, Jimmy Butler has been fantastic as a lead initiator, but he hasn’t been the lone driving force. Goran Dragic has discovered late-career resurgence in the bubble, and has been the perfect secondary source of offense behind Butler, a find which inevitably has boosted the Heat’s chances to advance to the Finals. Rookie guard Tyler Herro has also been a revelation, scoring the ball with confidence and, perhaps more importantly, proving he has enough chops to create points for others out of basic pick-and-roll sets.

The Heat building a roster that enables coach Eric Spoelstra to close games with three on-ball creators is already an embarrassment of riches. Throw in Bam Adebayo — who may be the best passing center in the league outside of Nikola Jokic — and now you have an adaptable offense that is far less predictable and more likely to weave its way through a sprawling defense.

Having that many on-ball creators on the floor at any one time, who can continuously breakdown defenses and force additional rotations, makes it next to impossible for bigger teams to matchup against their smaller counterparts — this is another reason why Markkanen guarding Crowder can quickly be exposed.

Perhaps the Bulls can try to mimic their own version of the Heat if they finally choose to explore using Wendell Carter in a similar way the Heat do Adebayo. Why they haven’t, despite the Bulls center arguably being the best and smartest passer on the roster, can only be explained by the common, sighing refrain of ‘Boylen is a doofus’.

I’m hopeful that will change under a more capable coach, which will help the flow of the Bulls offense, particularly when using Carter as release valve on the elbow to kickout to catch-and-shoot options. Still, the Bulls need more playmakers outside of the center position, specifically those who can create offense for others, not just themselves.

Zach LaVine and Coby White can do the latter, albeit at differing levels of efficiency. LaVine has truly emerged as one of the best and most gifted offensive finishers in the league. Before the season was halted, White, too, was showcasing his ability as an on-ball scorer. Together, it stands to reason the pair could form a high-level scoring backcourt that can alternate in using offensive possessions to get their own bucket. But can they create for others?

That questions loom large. It is even more relevant if the Bulls do force themselves in continuing to build around Markkanen and Carter up front, two big men who’s natural game will always be to finish off plays that are created for them — commencing a rebuild around two young bigs and offering them zero credible point guard support is one of the most slept on errors throughout the GarPax era.

Based on the current roster build and assuming it largely remains set, the Bulls really need to find themselves a small forward who is justifiably good enough to command an entire offense, one that can extract the best out of Markkanen and Carter while allowing LaVine and White to thrive as score-first guards (note: Devi Avdija ain’t it). Unless they find this missing link, playmaking will be an issue for the Bulls relative to the teams at the top end of the league.

How these deficiencies should influence the draft

Identifying the gaps in the Bulls’ roster is simple. Closing them is more difficult. Fortunately, that is on Arturas Karnisovas’ shoulders and not mine. How he navigates this next phase of the rebuild remains to be seen. While the new vice president of basketball operations has yet to share his true evaluation of the current roster and how he intends to shape it, we do know that his first milestone will come in November’s draft.

The problem, of course, is the perception of this draft and the players who will likely be available to the Bulls at No. 4.

Killian Hayes seems like the best and most realistic option if Karnisovas intends to add more smart, on-ball creation. As noted above, the Bulls need more wings, therefore expect Deni Avdija, Devin Vassell and Isaac Okoro to be realistic options, too.

While all of these players have individual skills that will certainly improve the talent level of the Bulls roster, it’s only fair to note that all have their own concerns, some of which will likely limit these prospects into roles as high-end role players rather than the real franchise-altering level talent this franchise desperately needs.

Ultimately, this is another point which has been beaten over my skull while watching these playoffs, something which has been illuminated even more with Jimmy Butler’s success in Miami.

Winning games that matter without a top 5-10 player, one who is an elite perimeter player, is near-on impossible. How the Bulls solve this puzzle remains to be seen. And while it’s an interesting thought exercise to gauge how the shape of the Bulls rebuild compares to the best teams in the league — particularly in their ability to follow the small-ball movement — I’m not sure any of that matters without a true franchise talent that can orchestrate a high-level halfcourt offense.