It will take more than a flurry of 3-pointers to turn Bulls into contenders

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Daniel Gafford shuts the door on New Orleans' Lonzo Ball during the first half of the Bulls' win Wednesday at the United Center.

    Daniel Gafford shuts the door on New Orleans' Lonzo Ball during the first half of the Bulls' win Wednesday at the United Center. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 2/11/2021 3:34 PM

Setting 3-point records is fun and all. Maybe Zach LaVine and Coby White will turn out to be the "Slush Brothers," the Midwest's answer to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.

But the fact remains, Wednesday's long-distance dismantling of New Orleans was a 10-14 team beating an 11-13 squad that was playing the second leg of back-to-back games.

 

The Bulls don't have many quality victories since the Kris Dunn-fueled 14-7 miracle run in the 2017-18 season. The question remains: How does this team get to the next level?

A timely, secondary question -- since the Pelicans were just in town -- is would Lonzo Ball help turn the Bulls into a more playoff-contending team?

Like Lauri Markkanen, Ball is a 2017 draftee who has not signed a contract extension and is headed for restricted free-agency this summer. In theory, it would be nice to have a distributor in between LaVine and White. That would necessitate a small lineup, but that's already the NBA trend.

Whether Ball could make the Bulls significantly better is open to debate. He had a nice first half on Wednesday, producing 19 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. But he faded in the second half along with the rest of the Pelicans. And defense? Well, LaVine and White did combine for 76 points while hitting 17 of 31 shots from 3-point range.

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There's been plenty of chatter about family patriarch LaVar Ball wanting Lonzo to play for the big-market Bulls, so maybe an audition was on Lonzo's mind Wednesday. His availability is unclear. A three-man nucleus of Ball, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram seems to make sense for New Orleans, but finances are surely a concern.

Ingram already signed a big extension and Williamson will likely do the same in a couple years. New Orleans moved Jrue Holiday's massive contract, but took on center Steven Adams (owed $35 million over the next two years) and point guard Eric Bledsoe ($18.1 million next year, partial guarantee for '22-'23).

So yes, it's possible the Pelicans don't want to go big on a new deal for Ball. He's averaging 13.9 points and 4.7 assists, and while his outside shot has gotten better, he's still at just 37.4 percent from 3 this season.

And if payroll is an issue, New Orleans probably would want a draft pick or very young player back in a trade, not someone like Markkanen who is also looking for a new contract. If the Bulls really want Ball, though, they could wait and try to sign him this summer, since they'll have cap space.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But maybe point guard is not the path for making the Bulls contenders. Another area that needs significant help is interior defense. Wendell Carter Jr. has shown promise in this area, but has had three significant injuries in three seasons and is currently on the shelf.

Here's a thought: Another player from the 2017 draft class who appears to be on the move is Atlanta power forward John Collins. Last season, he averaged 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and shot 58 percent from the field. He's certainly more of a traditional power forward than Markkanen, but he has had injury issues, missing more than 20 games in each of the last two seasons.

The Hawks added Clint Capela, signed Danilo Gallinari and drafted Onyeka Okongwu, so it seems likely Collins will have a new home by the start of next season.

Would Atlanta trade Collins for Markkanen? Could the Bulls sign a veteran center to back up Carter, like Hassan Whiteside or old friend Robin Lopez? Should they use Tomas Satoransky now to experiment with three-guard lineups?

Anyway, that's where the Bulls' rebuild stands as we approach the four-year anniversary of the Jimmy Butler trade. LaVine and White are an interesting pair, while rookie Patrick Williams has some talent worth waiting on. The season-opening starting five of LaVine, White, Williams, Markkanen and Carter is not likely to grow into a Finals contender on its own.

A floor general who would allow White to focus on scoring, a more physical presence inside, more veteran leadership -- it's a long wish list, but if new Bulls boss Arturas Karnisovas didn't love a challenge, he shouldn't have filled out the job application.

• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls

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