#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Chicago Bulls for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Chicago Bulls, who have plunged firmly into a rebuilding period after trading away Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

14. Cameron Payne: 2.06

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.2 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-64.36 TPA (for Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

This, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, is not what you want to hear about one of the point guards on the Chicago roster who was supposed to display some semblance of upside during the 2017-18 campaign:

‘We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level,’’ the source said. ‘The only reason it took two practices was because we thought maybe it was nerves in the first one. Any [Bulls] coach who says differently is lying. . . . We got ‘Garred’ on that one.’’

The source was referring to general manager Gar Forman, who sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to the Thunder for a package that supposedly was highlighted by Payne. The front office even called Payne ‘the point guard of the future.’’

But Payne played in only 11 regular-season games.

According to the Bulls, Payne suffered a fracture July 18 to the same foot he broke during the 2015-16 season.

Even when he’s healthy, Cameron Payne might be fighting an uphill battle for any playing time.

13. David Nwaba: 2.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-17.92 TPA (for Los Angeles Lakers)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

David Nwaba may not have done much while with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was an absolute monster during his tenure in what’s now known as the G League. Over the course of 40 games for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, he averaged 14.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 64.7 percent from the field. Though his game was utterly bereft of three-point potential, he asserted himself as one of the league’s best defensive wings and showed a consistent ability to get to the basket, making both the All-Defensive and All-Rookie squads.

At this point in his career, Nwaba might not enjoy much name recognition. He played for Santa Monica College and Cal Poly during his college days before going undrafted in 2016. But he’s starting to build a convincing case for NBA minutes on the back of his relentless hustle and stifling defensive presence. Don’t be surprised when he forces the Bulls’ hand and earns more minutes than some players whose draft-day stocks once rose much higher.

12. Quincy Pondexter: 2.56

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: N/A
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

The Bulls acquired Quincy Pondexter and a second-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans for nothing more than the draft rights to Ater Majok—a 30-year-old big man selected in the 2011 NBA draft who will probably never play in the NBA. That should just about say it all, since the Pelicans, who are utterly devoid of talent on the wings, were still willing to pay a price just to move Pondexter’s contract.

When healthy, the veteran small forward can knock down triples with the best of ’em. During his last healthy season, he drilled 37.3 percent of his treys while taking 3.3 per game for the Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. But that was back in 2014-15, and he hasn’t played since. Instead, he’s gone under the knife for arthroscopic knee surgery on three separate occasions, and it’s hard to imagine him maintaining his prior level if he’s ever able to suit up again.

11. Denzel Valentine: 2.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-54.26 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (Louis Vicchiollo)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Tom Rende)

If Denzel Valentine wants to avoid becoming a bust—and yes, it’s far too soon to start throwing that label around with legitimacy—the No. 14 pick of the 2016 NBA draft needs to work on his offensive fundamentals. After a tremendous career at Michigan State as a triple threat, he failed to showcase the vision that made him so special with the Spartans and hit on only 35.1 percent of his three-point attempts.

The talent is there. That much is obvious whenever watching Valentine play during exhibition season or in garbage time against lesser NBA players. But the game looked too fast for him during his rookie campaign, whether adept defenders were contesting his pull-up attempts far more tightly than expected or passing lanes were dissolving before he could gather and feed the rock to his teammates.

A year of experience should serve Valentine well. He’ll understand when to call his own number and when to involve his fellow Taurii. But the learning curve here may be far steeper than originally expected.

10. Paul Zipser: 2.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-61.92 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Now that head coach Fred Hoiberg has pieces more suited to his fast-paced, ball-motion offense, he’ll likely run plenty of sets that push Paul Zipser into the left corner. The German small forward showed significant potential as a three-and-D wing who could capably put the rock on the floor and attack the hoop, but it was from below the break on that specific side where he truly thrived. Just take a gander at his shot chart, per StatMuse:

Turnovers and overall shooting inefficiencies tanked Zipser’s overall value in 2016-17, though he had momentary flashes of brilliance that piqued the interest of Bulls fans eager to find bright spots for the future. If he becomes more selective and starts improving as a passer, he could one day be retroactively viewed as a second-round gem.

9. Jerian Grant: 2.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 5.9 points, 1.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, minus-6.12 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Jerian Grant’s physical tools and instincts make him a solid defensive option, and he can occasionally flash impressive passing out of the pick-and-roll. But his role will remain marginal until he proves he can add more value as a scoring point guard. An inability to efficiently produce points curtails his overall ceiling, especially as the Association trends more and more toward featuring backcourt studs who can space out a defense with pull-up triples.

The former Notre Dame standout did legitimately improve during his sophomore season by hitting 36.6 percent of his treys—a far cry from the 22.0 percent he hit as a rookie with the New York Knicks. But that’s still not good enough, and that only grows increasingly true if his simultaneous jump finishing around the basket was an aberration.

Sure, it’s feasible Grant made major strides in the two most important and efficient scoring areas. It’s also possible he regresses back to the mean as a junior.

8. Lauri Markkanen: 2.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 20
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 15.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 178.38 TPA (for Arizona Wildcats)
  • Highest Grade: 5 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Lauri “Baby Dirk” Markkanen isn’t going to impress on the glass. He’s a tremendously limited facilitator who will likely either feast on catch-and-shoot opportunities or kick the ball back to the top of the key and restart the half-court action. Especially as a rookie, he’ll be a significant liability on the defensive end, though his quick feet will allow him to switch against pick-and-roll sets to guard smaller players for short spells.

And yet, floor-spacing is king in today’s NBA, and this Finnish forward figures to provide quite a bit of it. With a quick release and the ability to knock down shots from all over the court, he should immediately become an elite stretch 4, swishing one shot after another over the outstretched arms of overmatched defenders. With a 7’0″ frame and a high release point, his shot may not be blockable on the perimeter.

Don’t expect Markkanen to factor into the Rookie of the Year race, even on a Bulls squad that should give him plenty of opportunities. But he should prove himself a deadly marksman while working to shore up the other facets of his game and improve his long-term ceiling. Of course, the first part of this paragraph might prove false if someone in the Chicago front office hypnotizes him into thinking he’s still wearing the Finland jersey and playing at Eurobasket:

7. Cristiano Felicio: 3.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 4.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, minus-2.07 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (Brian Sampson)

Only four of the 16 voters viewed Cristiano Felicio as a high-end backup, and his average score left him as a depth piece. But he won’t lose any sleep over it, since the Bulls demonstrated their faith in his abilities by handing him a four-year contract worth $32 million—a reward for the per-minute excellence he’s shown on the glass during his first two professional seasons.

Felicio is a tremendous rebounder on both ends, becoming one of 16 to average at least four offensive and six defensive boards per 36 minutes while logging at least 1,000 minutes during the 2016-17 campaign. But the hope is he’ll soon become more than a specialist, and that belief is buoyed by the passion he shows on the defensive end. Though he can still make a few too many mental mistakes and cede deep positioning on the interior, he never lacks effort and tends to make a sizable impact around the hoop.

Any offense that doesn’t come in the form of thunderous slams as he rolls to the hoop would be gravy.

6. Justin Holiday: 3.06

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 7.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-36.05 TPA (for New York Knicks)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

Getting excited about Justin Holiday isn’t a tough task.

The 28-year-old swingman has shown off his skills in so many areas over the years. He has the athleticism necessary to throw down big-time finishes at the hoop—and get past stifling defense int he process. He can finish creatively while well below the rim. He goes through stretches in which he drains one three after another, only to bring his three-point percentage back down with stretches of wildness. He can even hold his own on the defensive end against multiple positions.

But consistency has eluded him, always preventing him from filling a larger role for the Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. That may be the most telling tidbit of all: Holiday has only four years of NBA service, and he’s already suited up for five different organizations. He’s about to enter his second stint in the Windy City after inking a two-year, $9 million pact.

At this point, should we really hold onto hope that he’s finally going to turn a corner while starting to move past his athletic prime?

5. Bobby Portis: 3.38

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-61.55 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Brian Sampson)

You don’t have to watch Bobby Portis long to see the potential. One possession, he creates a shot for himself around the hoop. The next, he connects on a pick-and-pop jumper. All the while, he remains engaged on the defensive end, pressuring the ball to force opponents into passes his teammates can pick off to create another transition opportunity.

But then you keep watching, and you quickly realize why the 22-year-old has also had trouble breaking out into a trusted rotation member. He’s defeated almost every time he’s left alone in the paint to protect the rim, and he can go through curious stretches in which his shooting ability disappears almost entirely. The consistency just isn’t there, and the lows nearly negate the sequences of two-way superiority.

Right now, the idea of Portis is still more exciting than Portis himself.

4. Kris Dunn: 3.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 3.8 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-57.79 TPA (for Minnesota Timberwolves)
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Tim Stubbs)

In NBA Math’s defensive points saved, Kris Dunn ranked No. 76 overall and No. 3 among rookie contributors from 2016-17, trailing only Joel Embiid and Dorian Finney-Smith. Per ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus, he came in at No. 271 with a slightly negative score that left him behind just 29 other point guards. Particularly for a first-year player at the league’s most thankless defensive position, that’s by no means a terrible mark.

But unfortunately, Dunn’s shooting is terrible.

Whether you evaluate his defense as a distinct positive or a slight negative, the value he added during his lone season with the Minnesota Timberwolves was more than negated by his putrid offense. He failed to assert himself as a high-quality playmaker (5.1 assists per 36 minutes) and slashed just 37.7/28.8/61.0. It’s that complete inability to find nylon with his shooting stroke that remains most troubling, and the struggles at the charity stripe don’t offer much hope that he’ll immediately improve with more NBA experience.

3. Robin Lopez: 5.25

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 29
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.2 steals, 1.4 blocks, minus-40.58 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Nothing about Robin Lopez’s game is glamorous or exciting. But he also possesses the highest floor on the Chicago roster, since the Bulls know exactly what they’re going to get from the long-haired big man. He’s never going to put up big point totals or contribute much on the offensive end. Instead, he’ll just continue to thrive on the glass while protecting the interior of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s defensive schemes.

During the 2016-17 campaign, Lopez’s first with the Bulls after spending a year suiting up for the New York Knicks, he guarded 9.4 shots per game while stationed close to the rim and held opponents to 48.9 percent shooting. Those aren’t truly elite numbers, but it’s worth noting only Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert were more active in the area.

Lopez knows his role, sticks to it and makes it work.

2. Zach LaVine: 5.31

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, minus-10.34 TPA (for Minnesota Timberwolves)
  • Highest Grade: 8 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

As soon as Zach LaVine recovers from his ACL tear, he should be back to his old tricks. We’ve seen so many players recover athletically from the time-consuming rehab (see: Smith, Dennis) that we shouldn’t have long-term fears about his ability to keep throwing down jaw-dropping dunks. But his shooting stroke might be even more important, especially after a year with the Minnesota Timberwolves in which he hit 38.7 percent of his deep looks while taking 6.6 per game.

LaVine might defy gravity as he soars through the air, but he also creates plenty of it. Defenders now have to worry not only about his catch-and-shoot ability (86.7 percentile in spot-up points per possession), but also playing him too tightly and watching as he dashes by for an uncontested alley-oop finish. That’s a tough ask for even the league’s best wing stoppers.

And yet, this 22-year-old still has plenty of room to grow. A handful of our voters recognized his immense upside, with one viewing him as an All-Star candidate, another an upper-tier starter and three more a solid starter. If he avoids functioning as one of the NBA’s worst perimeter defenders while operating in Chicago’s defensive schemes and merely stagnates on the offensive end, he could quickly rise up the 2-guard rankings—so long as Hoiberg doesn’t fall into the trap of viewing him as more of a combo guard than a pure off-ball weapon.

1. Dwyane Wade: 5.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 35
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 18.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 35.58 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Especially on the defensive end, Dwyane Wade is a mere shell of his old self. He’s no longer quite as explosive cutting to the basket and doesn’t have the energy necessary to assert himself as a two-way stud, as he did while racking up 12 All-Star appearances and eight All-NBA nods during the previous portion of his Hall of Fame career. He’s still a versatile contributor, though, and he can provide a positive impact in so many different areas for shorter stretches. If his shot looks like it did at the beginning of his Chicago excursion, he might even have some legitimate greatness left in the tank.

But what’s more clear is his status of superiority on the Bulls roster, particularly while LaVine is still recovering from his ACL tear. Just look at last year’s TPA scores for justification. Whereas Wade posted 35.58 TPA—the second-worst score of his career—not one one current teammate finished in the green while playing in the NBA.

Of course, whether they remain his teammates is still up in the air. Rumors of an “inevitable” buyout still loom.


Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo