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. 

The Backcourt

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. 

The Frontcourt

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.

The Upshot

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.