Chicago Bulls have important decisions to make at halfway mark of season
The home game against Houston on Monday will mark the halfway point of the Bulls season.
With a 14-26 record, they've already done better than most preseason projections. If the Bulls keep up their 11-6 pace since Dec. 8 through the second half of the season, they'd finish 41-41, which might be good enough to make the playoffs.
With all that in mind, here's a look at what could be an eventful second half of the season:
Return of LaVine:
The Bulls' debut of Zach LaVine should happen soon. A gathering of interested party is set for Monday to choose a return date as he completes recovery from an ACL injury.
LaVine has said he's felt ready to play for a few weeks and he completed a personal six-day training camp with no reported issues. So there's really no reason to wait, beyond extra caution. The Bulls have been winning without him, so keeping him on the bench in an effort to lose more games isn't a valid excuse.
The two players mentioned most often as trade possibilities are Nikola Mirotic and Robin Lopez. Neither is a lock to be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline.
The key for the Bulls here is obviously acquiring young assets that could help in the rebuild. Their best-case scenario is first-round picks without taking back long-term salary.
In order for the Bulls to have significant free agent money next summer, they'd need to get rid of one of those salaries. At the same time, both Mirotic (26) and Lopez (29) are young enough to contribute if this team grows into a playoff contender during the next few seasons.
The likelihood of a trade depends on what sort of offers are coming in and how any potential trade would fit into the Bulls' strategic plan. Do the Bulls expect to be players in free-agency this summer? Would they take on a bad contract if it meant gaining a future first-round pick? Do they think Mirotic and Lauri Markkanen can play together or are they redundant?
Logic suggests the tank is off. An injury could always derail things, but the Bulls have too many successful young pieces to intentionally slow the roll.
As of Sunday morning, the Bulls were one of 11 teams that are at least eight games below .500. So as good as Arizona's DeAndre Ayton or Duke's Marvin Bagley would look in this lineup, there's no way to guarantee getting either of those guys. As mentioned before, David Nwaba isn't a bad substitute for a lottery pick, so missing out on a top-three draft choice isn't the end of the world.
Important to improve:
The Bulls coaching staff has done a nice job with player development. Two of the most important rebuilding blocks, Markkanen and point guard Kris Dunn, are playing very well. Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis have made nice improvements since last season.
The Bulls should be anxious to get LaVine on the floor, because then they'll get a chance to evaluate the full trade haul for Jimmy Butler. Dunn and Markkanen already appear to be solid pieces for the future. An important decision moving forward is whether the next piece should be a big man or another wing.
The Bulls can't count on a top-five draft pick and need to lighten the payroll to contend for a significant free agent, since they'll need to re-sign LaVine and Nwaba this summer. With the rebuild happening fast, important decisions are ahead.
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Outlook: MVP candidate James Harden (32.3 ppg) is out with a hamstring injury. Between that and Chris Paul's left abductor strain a few weeks ago, the Rockets have lost 7 of their last 9 games after a 25-4 start. SG Eric Gordon is Houston's second-leading scorer at 19.5 ppg, while Paul is averaging 17.2 points and 9.3 assists. C Clint Capela is having his best year, averaging 14.2 points and 11.0 rebounds. Former Celtics SF Gerald Green has averaged 23.7 points and hit 19 of 37 3-point attempts in the last three games. The Rockets average 43.3 3-point attempts per game, easily tops in the NBA. Houston swept the Bulls last season.
Next: New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.
-- Mike McGraw