Chicago Sun-Times

Bulls set up for 2nd-guessing

Organizati­on’s plan to win down stretch could prove costly

- JOE COWLEY BULLS BEAT | @suntimes_hoops

This is the time of the NBA season when organizati­onal philosophi­es are on full display.

The Knicks have chosen their path. They have a league-worst 13-56 record and are sitting with a payroll that has room for two max free agents this summer.

Are they taking a huge gamble? Absolutely. The Knicks are all in on “what-ifs.’’

The Bulls, who fell to 19-51 with a 128-121 loss Friday to the Clippers, also have shown their cards. And while team president Michael Reinsdorf told the Sun-Times recently that ‘‘every percentage point counts’’ when it comes to the new rules for the draft lottery, in which the odds are flattened out, the franchise is putting a bigger premium on the core improving by trying to win games.

Right or wrong, that decision has been made.

‘‘At the end of the day, when people say to me, ‘Oh, you’d be better off losing more games,’ what are players like Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine supposed to do?’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘Are they supposed to say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t play well, we shouldn’t take the next step’?

‘‘I’d much rather have them develop the way they’re developing, rather than, say, be bad for another year and then next year develop. It doesn’t work that way. I think you try and put your best foot forward and try and win games now.’’

Considerin­g the last two NBA Drafts, Reinsdorf ’s thinking is sound.

The Bulls took Wendell Carter Jr. with the seventh overall pick last summer, and players such as Kevin Knox (No. 9), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (No. 11) and Kevin Huerter (No. 19) were still available. The 2017 draft also was deep. Markkanen went seventh, and Donovan Mitchell (No. 13), John Collins (No. 19) and Kyle Kuzma (No. 27) found solid starts to their careers.

But this summer sets up very differentl­y, at least on paper. Yes, the draft is not a science, but at the top is Duke’s Zion Williamson, who could be a generation­al player, completely changing the championsh­ip fortunes of whichever team gets lucky in the lottery.

Then come two consolatio­n prizes in Murray State’s Ja Morant and Duke’s RJ Barrett. Athletical­ly, neither stacks up to Williamson, but few players in recent draft history have. Still, most scouts think Morant and Barrett have high ceilings.

After that, the drop-off is significan­t. And with the Bulls owning the fourth-worst record, they’ll need those new flattened lottery percentage­s to fall their way if they want to move the rebuild beyond a return to mediocrity. So why all the focus on this draft? The reality is the Bulls are improving. There’s no reason they can’t challenge for a seventh or eighth seed in the Eastern Conference next season. But there’s not a lot of help on the way to make the team special.

They likely won’t be major players in free agency this summer, and the next two free-agent classes are setting up to have less-than-spectacula­r potential.

That means it might fall on the current core to get it done.

‘‘If [vice president of basketball operations] John [Paxson] and [general manager] Gar [Forman] identify a player they want to go after and use the rest of the cap space, that’s their call,’’ Reinsdorf said. ‘‘If they come back and say, ‘Let’s add these two or three veteran players,’ that’s also their call.

‘‘That’s obviously a question that John Paxson and Gar Forman have to answer, but I think we stay the course.’’

Decisions that could be questioned for years.

 ?? AP ?? Lauri Markkanen tries to drive against the Clippers’ Landry Shamet on Friday. Markkanen and the rest of the Bulls’ core might not get a lot of help this summer.
AP Lauri Markkanen tries to drive against the Clippers’ Landry Shamet on Friday. Markkanen and the rest of the Bulls’ core might not get a lot of help this summer.
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