Champagne and Cam Payne: To Tank or Not To Tank?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Chicago Bulls executives John Paxson (L) and Gar Forman
By Chris Pennant (@kwandarykitten)

No fan really wants to watch their team lose.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the process (no pun intended) of tanking in the NBA. Basketball is the sport where an individual player can have the greatest and most immediate impact, so it’s in a mediocre team’s best interest to increase their chances for a high draft pick.

In previous years, an real impact player only seemed to come along every few years: Hakeem, MJ and Chuck in the ‘84 Draft; Tim Duncan in ‘97; LeBron in ‘03 (and Darko Milicic, too, if you’ve forgotten.) When there’s a franchise-changing player available, you do your best to take him. Even if that means losing for a year or two.

The Chicago Bulls are, by many accounts, on the cusp of mediocrity, a place no NBA team wants to be in, and that has many fans happily hoping for “Ls” instead of “Ws” on any given night.

The Bulls’ current plan to build a quality contender rests in losing now in order to draft high in the upcoming draft. However, this year’s team might not go along with the program.

Who Are These Bulls?

It’s early in the season, so its hard to discern from a team’s record just who they are at this point. (For proof of that statement, the Sacramento Kings are 6-5, while the LeBron Lakers are 5-6.) The Bulls are 3-9 so far, but six of those losses have been by less than 10 points and two of those games went down to the final possession. On the other hand, four of the nine losses were to teams that currently have losing records.

Considering that Lauri Markkanen, Denzel Valentine, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis have missed a combined 43 games this year, it’s fair to think the Bulls could be in the thick of the Eastern Conference. That’s not what many Bulls fans want to hear, with three immediate impact players beckoning in next year’s draft in Dukies Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish.

There’s talent to be had throughout the draft and the Bulls might be set at two of the front-court positions with Markkanen and Carter, but the common thinking is that it’s better to wield the power that comes with a high draft choice than not. There won’t be a rush to bring Lauri or Dunn back onto the active roster, and Cam Payne is likely going to have the starting spot going forward, if only to increase his possible trade value.

For all the All-Star talk he has generated, Zach Lavine has been notably cold at the end of close games this year (38 percent FG in the last five minutes of close games, 38% in the 4th quarter and OT on shots to tie or take the lead), and he had two egregious out of bounds turnovers in the first overtime of Monday’s game against the Knicks.

Wait Until…

According to Hoops Hype, the Bulls have the third-lowest payroll in the league this year and the seventh-lowest the next two seasons. That puts them in good position to contend starting in 2020, depending on how their youngsters develop down the stretch.

Chicago has seemed to have done well over the last two years, which lends some confidence they will make the best of wherever they end up. It’s probable we’ll see three or four players traded by the February 7 deadline to clear salary room (Justin Holiday’s shooting improvement and consistent defense will land him on a contender, guaranteed).

So what are the Chicago Bulls? An unfinished product. But we might not have to wait long for the finishing touches.

Beast of the Week: As the Chicago Blackhawks showed this week, Chicago will always be a “what have you done for me lately?” sports town. So it went with Wendell Carter Jr. I was not impressed with his preseason play and his first week of games, but now I’m all but declaring him Rookie of the Year. (*Tee Grizzley voice* Luka who?)

The line below represents the per-game averages of Carter’s first five games:

23:24 MIN, 6.6 PTS, 7.0 FGA, 1.6 FTA, 5.0 REB, 1.8 BLK, -7.3 +/-

Here’s the averages from the six games that followed:

28:10 MIN, 14.8 PTS, 11.5 FGA, 4.0 FTA, 9.8 REB, 2.0 BLK, 0.83 +/-

Even with the uptick is minutes (some of which is due to two overtime games), it’s clear the young center has been more active on the boards and less hesitant to shoot, he’s also held his own against some of the top pivots in the league, including Nikola Jokic (25-8-5-3 stls-3 blks), Clint Capela (14-13-1-4 blks) and Myles Turner/Domantas Sabonis (11-8-6).

WCJ will inevitably hit a wall at mid-season, but Carter’s energizing play validates his draft choice. He’ll be a cornerstone of the Bulls franchise.

Predictions for Next Week: What are the chances we’ll see another ugly tank battle on Saturday?

With Kevin Love injured, the Cavs are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and have approximately $86.5 million tied into Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, George Hill, and Jordan Clarkson. Until they can shed salary, they’ll be trying hard to lose games. So, yeah, we’re in for an ugly game on Saturday night.

Sat. vs. Cavaliers – W

Nov. 12 vs. Mavericks – W

Nov. 14 at Celtics – L

One Last Thing: If Joel Quenneville can get fired three years after winning the Stanley Cup, Fred Hoiberg better start working on his resume.

Until next time, keep your champagne on ice.

Chris Pennant covers the Chicago Bulls and basketball in general for WARR

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