Last Friday I participated in my first fantasy baseball draft, which is the informal cue that we’re beginning to come down the home stretch for this fantasy basketball season. Depending on your league settings, we’re roughly a month out before the fantasy playoffs and the silly season of DNPs, phantom injuries, and more overt tanking tactics.
To combat the non-competitive play that plagues spring basketball, the NBA has expanded the playoff format this year to incorporate the 9- and 10-place teams in each conference, making the line between buyers and sellers ahead of the March 25 trade deadline harder to see than in seasons past. Trade targets both IRL and fantasy will be hot topics in the coming days, so I decided to see if I could parse what the future holds for the Chicago Bulls, who are currently in 9th place out East and have held my fascination for the last few weeks.
Currently sitting at 17-20, Chicago will have to hold off the 17-21 Pacers and the 17-22 Raptors if they’re going to return to postseason play for the first time since the Jimmy Butler era. Without a 2021 first round pick and contract decisions to make, I find the Bulls intriguing and genuinely don’t have much of a clue about how they’ll proceed. I’ll give away the game early and say that I don’t have any answers and my crystal ball is on the fritz. What follows is simply a consideration of the pieces that could be in play in the coming weeks.
Despite the fact that Coby White had been rolling a bit heading into the All-Star game — a welcome sight for those who have been holding the erratic second-year guard — it’s hard to feel great about what we’ve seen thus far from the Carolina scorer. As a backcourt partner with Zach LaVine, White has fit somewhat awkwardly as a combo guard. He’s struggled once again in his sophomore with efficiency as a shooter (41.5% from the field) and getting to the bucket (only 21% of his attempts are at the rim and his FTA is still stuck around two per game.) Accuracy on outside shots has improved, as have the dimes (up to five after last year’s 2.7 mark), but the steps forward have been smaller than what many were hoping for.
From a fantasy perspective, it’s a bit alarming how hollow his defensive stats are. White is 6’ 5” and is using that frame to double his block output…from last year’s 0.1 to 0.2 this year. I know those numbers don’t wow you, but at least they’re moving in a positive direction, something that cannot be said for his steal rate. White was good for 0.4 rips last season, a distressing number for a guard, but that figure is actually twice as productive as this year’s 0.2 STL. The consistent zeros in the defensive cats and spotty shooting put a firm ceiling on Coby, which has opened the door for backcourt minutes for steadier hands like Denzel Valentine (19.2 MPG in 33 games), Garrett Temple (27.9 MPG in 35 games, including 12 starts), Ryan Arcidiacono, and most recently Tomas Satoransky (20.8 MPG in 28 games and a start on Sunday night.)
Sunday night’s contest against the short-handed Raptors was the first game of the season that did not feature White in the starting five. It was Tomas Satoransky who got the nod and the Bulls cruised to a massive victory. Zooming out, we see that White’s minutes were slipping a bit even before his introduction to the 6th-man role. In five March games, White averaged 31 minutes per game, down from 32 minutes in February, and 33 minutes in January and December.
For nearly the entire year, Sato has been seeing action off the bench despite tallying 64/65 starts for Chicago last season. Even when he was tasked with a heavier workload, Sato was never a usage hog, as last year’s 16.7% usage rate was a career-best for the 29-year-old Czech. This limits his appeal in the fantasy game. At his best, Sato provides 4-5 dimes, 8 or so points, a couple of boards, and fewer than 1.5 stocks on solid shooting and minimal turnovers. He’s a nice guy to have, especially in deeper leagues, as his all-around game doesn’t hurt you. He’s hardly a league-winning pickup, and he’s far more valuable as a real-life contributor than he is in our circles. His recent ascendence in the Bulls backcourt mostly acts as a wet blanket for White, energizes the starting group, and showcases his talents to other teams.
It seems possible to me that Tomas, who will be under contract next year for a team-friendly price of $10M, could be getting extra shine to dazzle potential suitors. Should Chicago move off of him, it would once again clear the path to heavy minutes for White, though expectations for a late-season breakthrough for Coby should be appropriately cooled by now. Of course, Sato’s attractive contract cuts both ways, as the Bulls could certainly use him if they’re going to be chasing down this final playoff spot. My gut says Satoransky is more valuable to teams other than Chicago, but it wouldn’t shock me if he was still around on the 26th.
You’re forgiven if you’ve forgotten about Otto Porter Jr., as his tenure in Chicago has hardly been memorable. The highest-paid Bull is due more than $28M this year, the final installment of a 4-year $106M deal that was handed to him by the Wizards in 2017. Over three seasons in Chicago, Porter has only played 48 games, and scrolling through his injury page is like thumbing through a copy of Grey’s Anatomy: Hip, thigh, leg contusion, back, knee, toe, quad, ankle, shoulder…the dude has been banged up. At only 27 years old, it really wasn’t all that long ago that OPJ was good for 14+ points, 5ish boards, a pair of dimes, and more than a steal a game. That’s a useful fantasy player, though he’s certainly more valuable to a contender as a rangy wing who can guard his position well enough and knockdown corner threes. It’s unclear (read: doubtful) that he’ll have the minutes to replicate that kind of top-end production this year regardless if he stays in Chicago or not.
A hard ceiling on a return of a productive OPJ exists because of the impressive season turned in by rookie Patrick Williams. The 6’ 7” forward has started all 36 games in 2020-21 and is holding up his end of the bargain as the 4th overall pick with a well-rounded line of 10.2/4.7/1.3/0.8/0.7 on 47.3/39.3/78.1 shooting. Patty Will is chipping in more than two triples a game and seems destined to be a 1/1/1 player as early as next year. He also posted a gem of a line on Sunday, going for 23/6/4/1/1 with one three-pointer and zero turnovers. It was Porter who spelled him against the Raptors, not the other way around, and the vet logged 21 productive minutes in the process. Expect Williams to get plenty of rope for the remainder of the season and for the Bulls to see if they can find a taker for Porter. After years of watching large piles of money go up in smoke with Porter, Williams is the future and the future is now.
The big question mark that remains is what to do with Lauri Markkanen, who has returned from an injured shoulder and stepped right back into the career-best numbers he was posting pre-injury. Markkanen’s 13-game absence did not keep him from being thrown into the deep end with his minutes, as the Finnish big has played 27, 33, and 32 minutes in three games since returning. He’s posted 18.7 points, 5.7 boards, 1 assist, 0.7 blocks, and a whopping 4.3 3PM on 48.8/50/100 shooting during that small stretch.
Despite being a legit seven-footer, Markkanen’s rebounding numbers are light and his defensive capabilities have hindered Chicago’s ability to win actual basketball games. In his stead, Thaddeus Young has turned in a marvelous fantasy (and real-life) season and is currently a top-80 play in the 9-cat game. At 32-years old and due $14M next season, it would take a particular kind of suitor to find Young desirable. So where does that leave Lauri? Markkanen started his first two games after returning from injury, but grabbed some pine with White against the Raptors, opening the door for Young to start for the first time this season.
Lauri and the new Bulls front office never came to an agreement on a contract extension this winter, clearing the way for Markkanen to become a restricted free agent at the end of this year. Reporting around the negotiations said a deal was “never close,” leading me to suspect that the big Finn is willing to bet on himself on the open market. If the Bulls are skeptical about resigning Lauri at a number they feel comfortable with, it might make sense to see if they can move him now instead of watching him walk in the offseason for nothing. As Chicago has cleaned house, I’m sure that being able to get out from under the decisions of the previous regime must have some appeal. If VP of Basketball Ops Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversly have the opportunity to extract themselves from the draft decisions of GarPax, I’m sure it must be tempting.
It’s probably too late in the game to sell your shares of Coby White, though maybe he continues his recent run of efficiency as the sixth man (assuming that rotation sticks.) Should Sato be moved, I’d expect White to inherit his old job, but those who bet big on him during the draft are likely stuck holding the bag. Sato could be useful for deep-leaguers but can be ignored outside of the occasional stream. It seems unlikely that Porter will find himself in a position to get enough oxygen to be the player has been in the past, but those holding Williams shouldn’t feel too threatened by his resurgence. All bets are off with regards to Lauri Markkanen and by extension Thad Young, as I legitimately don’t know how that’s going to shake out. Oh, and Zach LaVine is still a stud.
Thanks for hanging.
Love this as a die hard Bulls fan !! (But I’m pretty certain they have a 1st round pick in ‘21.. unless I interpreted wrong) .. Won’t do much damage but the playoffs would be good from a culture standpoint .. I’d 1000% hope to get SOMETHING for OPJ… and then loosely dangle Lauri, Coby, Thad, Tomas.. anything not nailed to floor and named Zach or Patrick haha .. maybe someone gets desperate and sends a nice deal … just my worthless 2 cents
Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the read. I actually think I’m the one who misread the sheet about the Bulls 2021 pick. Good catch. Apologies about the error.
I can see Tomas and Thad being useful to teams with larger ambitions, but that next year for Young could put buyers off. Lauri is tough because you wouldn’t be able to get much for him unless the other side wanted to sign him long term. I’m not sure he’s show enough yet for any takers.
You’re already off White? I know it’s been tough sledding this year, but he’s still just 21. I don’t watch him every night, so maybe it’s really tougher to stomach when you’re watching every single miss.
I’m not off him at all… in the very unlikely event someone overpaid, I’m totally ok w/ moving on.. I guess I really hope they find ANYTHING for OPJ… the rest I’m good either way
no mention about Wendell Carter JR.?
Sorry to disappoint. Initially I thought about including the whole roster, but I felt like it was running long as is.
Carter is an interesting player and probably should have been included in hindsight. With another year left on his rookie deal, still just 21 years old, and only 113 games played in three seasons, it seems very unlikely to me that they’d move him. TBH, I don’t think I have a feel on how good he actually is, and it wouldn’t surprise if people in Chicago feel the same. The quotes coming out of the team after the Raptor game made it sound like everyone wanted to do what was best for the team, and that both White and Carter took the change more or less in stride. That’s coach speak, of course, but it could also be true. Carter specifically seems to be struggling with confidence and tends to let mistakes linger.
The fact that Wendell was also shuffled to the bench speaks to the logjam that’s happening around the pivot now that Lauri is back. Like White, the minutes are also trending down since he’s come back in February. He played well in his one game off the bench though (12/11/1/1/1). He reminds me of Marvin Bagley in that I get the sense that he’s still learning a lot about how to play. That he’s struggling with letting go of mistakes speaks to his youth more than his talent. I buy him as a longer term project, but the immediate future is murky. How the trade deadline goes will have a big impact on what to expect for the rest of the year.
Perfect timing for this great insight. I own both Lauri and Thad and am twiddling my thumbs on what to do with them. Deandre Hunter is on the wire, and I’m thinking of dumping one of the bulls for him, but it is sort of a three way coin flip. I’m leaning towards dumping thad for hunter.