Usually, when I write these posts and analyze the Bulls and their issues, I do it within the context of the franchise itself. This is a very insular blog. It’s rare for me to compare the Bulls to the rest of the league or to a particular team. My focus is on the Bulls themselves, but as we witness this disappointing slide to the middle of the bottom of the heap, a position we fans are intimately familiar with, I can’t help but compare the Bulls to the teams breezing past them. One team in particular has grabbed my attention, the Washington Wizards, a team that streaked past the Bulls and are threatening to disrupt the entire power structure of the Eastern Conference.
Westbrook to Gafford
Daniel Gafford was a very nice bench player for the Chicago Bulls. He came into games and brought energy and rim protection. He could be a rim runner in pick-and-roll, and was a serious threat from the dunker’s spot with his strong hands and athletic hops. Unfortunately, the Bulls only every really utilized Gafford’s energy. The Bulls’ poor defensive schemes and switching often forced Gafford to guard the perimeter against faster opponents, never letting him defend at the rim and leading to serious problems with foul trouble. The inability of the Bulls’ guards to make the right reads in pick-and-roll, or penetrate the lane and threaten the basket, made Gafford nothing more than a put-back artist on offense. In Chicago, Daniel Gafford never had a chance to play to his strengths.
Since his arrival in Washington D.C., Gafford has been “unlocked,” as the gamers might say. He is averaging just under 11 points, with 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks, in 18 minutes of play per game, doubling nearly every traditional stat he had with the Bulls on only an extra 6 minutes of playing time. How have the Wizards put Gafford in a position to succeed? The answer is simple: They have point guards.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that Russell Westbrook is one of the greatest all-around basketball players in the history of the game. He is on pace, again, this season to average a triple-double in points, rebounds, and assists. Only one other player has averaged a triple-double for an entire season, Oscar Robinson did it in the 1961-’62 season. Westbrook has done it 4 times since the 2016-’17 season, that is production on an unheard of scale. Russell Westbrook helps his teammates live up to their full potential, and Daniel Gafford is the proof.
It’s not just that Washington has Westbrook, the superstar, that has help Gafford achieve success, they also have Ish Smith, the journeyman backup point guard. Smith has been a staple on my point guard wish list for the past I-don’t-know-how-many-years now. It seems like every post I’ve ever written looking at available point guards has included his name as a possible free agent or trade target. I get why he’s never been signed by the Bulls. He’s undersized and meant to come off the bench, not a sexy free agent signing to be sure. Counter-point: he’d also be the best point guard on the Bulls. That’s how sorry the state of the Bulls point guard position has been ever since the rebuild started. If he had been acquired at any point in the last 4 seasons, Ish Smith would have been the best point guard on the Bulls.
Thanks for sticking with that long winded rant, I only wrote it to make this point: The Bulls desperately need a point guard.
This isn’t news. We all know this. We’ve known this since Jerian Grant continuously failed to make the entry pass into the post. We’ve known this since Kris Dunn couldn’t finish at the rim or hit a wide-open 3 pointer. We’ve known this since Cam Payne became the punch line to a listless tanking team. We’ve known as recently as Coby White and his struggles with his reads in pick-and-roll that the Bulls desperately need a point guard. Poor point guard play is sabotaging the Bulls rebuild.
Point guard is the hardest position to play in the NBA. If you don’t have, at the bare minimum, competence at that position the entire roster suffers, and the franchise can be set back decades. It sounds like hyperbole, but the Bulls are nearly 5 seasons into a rebuild, and they are still the 7th worst team in the NBA. Even after Zach LaVine made himself an All-Star, even after the Round Table acquired a 2nd All-Star in Nikola Vucevic, the Bulls are STILL the 7th worst team in the NBA. Let that sink in.
There is more than just the point guard position that is wrong with the Bulls, for sure, but the majority of the damage being done to this franchise comes from a lack of competence at that one vital position. Everyone looks better with a competent point guard running the offense.
This could be the most important offseason of the Arturas Karnisovas era. He needs to acquire a competent point guard for the sake of the franchise. It’s nice that he’s got a couple All-Stars in Zach and Vucevic. Maybe with a full season of playing together, they would be enough to propel the Bulls into the playoffs. Quite frankly, I don’t want to find out. Get a damn point guard.
You look around the league and see the difference between the playoff and lottery teams, and the vast majority of playoff bound clubs have a competent point guard leading the offense. We can run down the list if you’d like:
Philadelphia 76’ers – Ben Simmons
Brooklyn Nets – Kyrie Irving
Milwaukee Bucks – Jrue Holiday
NY Knicks – Reggie Bullock
Atlanta Hawks – Trae Young
Boston Celtics – Kemba Walker
Miami Heat – Jimmy Butler
Phoenix Suns – Chris Paul
Utah Jazz – Donovan Mitchell
Dallas Mavericks – Luka Doncic
Portland Trailblazers – Damian Lillard
Golden State Warriors – Steph Curry
Are there teams that can get to the playoffs without competent point guards? Sure, but it usually means that team is getting shot creation from a transcendent player in another position, like the Lakers and LeBron James, or the Nuggets and Nikola Jocic. The Bulls have tried this approach this season, running the majority of the offense through either Thaddeus Young or Vucevic, it hasn’t worked for them. You need that transcendent talent in order for that kind of offense to work, otherwise you get a competent point guard. Solid play from the point guard position is the fastest way to success in the NBA.
Which leads us back to Russell Westbrook and Daniel Gafford. Would the Bulls have even made the trade for Vucevic if they were getting elevated play out of Gafford, or Wendell Carter Jr, or Chandler Hutchison via a competent point guard? How much better would Zach LaVine have been a season ago, two seasons ago, if he had an actual back court running mate? Would we be okay with letting Lauri Markkanen “walk” in free agency this summer if he had a competent point guard making him better? How much time and money has this franchise wasted over the past 4 seasons because they didn’t have competence at the most important position in basketball? Daniel Gafford is a breakout in Washington because of Westbrook. Couldn’t that have happened here in Chicago? Shouldn’t it happen here in Chicago?
Arturas, you’re no dummy, get a damn point guard.
Until he does, thanks for reading and GO BULLS!