Bulls’ loss, another win in race for Duke’s dynamic Zion Williamson

For most, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  For the Bulls, where there’s a will, there’s no direction and another dispiriting defeat.

At 11-39, the 2018 Bulls are off to their second-worst start through 50 games ever, only surpassed by Tim Floyd’s 2000-2001 team who went 8-42 through the first two thirds of that season. Floyd’s Bulls back then finished with the worst record in franchise history: a hearty testament to the struggles of the modern Bulls. Through those 50 games, the Bulls will have missed 151 appearances from their top seven players due to injury. Every time it’s felt like they’ve possibly, maybe, picked it up a key player like Wendell Carter Jr. or Chandler Hutchinson – the Bulls’ most recent draft picks – have gone down.

The most recent stretch of play of around a month has been the best (or worst) emblem of a team going nowhere as head coach Jim Boylen’s bunch has lost 13 of it’s last 14 games, with a win against the porous Cavaliers sandwiched in between. The Bulls have no offensive spark, scoring 101.1 points per game: 29th in the NBA. They can’t consistently lock anyone down on defense, sitting at 16th in points allowed per game at 111.0. Overall, the Bulls are the least efficient offensive team in the NBA and the 23rd least efficient on defense. At every level, they’re a team that can’t hang its hat on anything.

“Something’s obviously wrong. We weren’t losing (by) double-digits earlier in the season,” said leading scorer Zach LaVine of the Bulls’ ongoing struggles in mid-January. “We might have been losing — and we didn’t even have a full roster. I don’t know. We’re a better team now, and we’re getting blown out. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Where there is hope for LaVine and company is in June in the form of the 2019 NBA Draft and a chance at Duke freshman mega star, Zion Williamson. For a Bulls team headed for its second straight losing campaign with no reasonable end in sight, landing Williamson in the summer would be the injection of youth, leadership, and talent they’d need to shift their fortunes around dramatically. For a team that doesn’t have much of any identity, it’d be a sharp contrast with a player like Williamson that doesn’t have much of any flaws for a top college prospect.

Over the course of his first collegiate season to this stage, the 6-foot-7, 285 pound Williamson has averaged over 21.5 points, nine rebounds, two assists, and two blocks per game through 19 contests. A competitive stat sheet stuffer with the ability to impact the game on both ends of the court, Williamson is also one of the nation’s most versatile and efficient scorers, making over 67 percent of his shots on over 200 attempts.

Like many of the game’s greats, Williamson most impressively possesses the capacity to physically overwhelm his opponents with brute force and raw power.  A breathtaking combination of athleticism as an almost 300-pound man that can dunk from the free throw line, Williamson is a freight train that scores and makes an impact on either end of the court as he pleases. When legendary Duke coach Mike Kryzewski says the 18-year-old is “the most unique athlete I’ve coached at Duke,” the hype rises to an even reasonably higher degree.  A man like Kryzewski that’s previously coached future NBA stars such as Grant Hill and Kyrie Irving over the decades knows what he’s talking about.

From every angle, Williamson is a young catalyst that’s every bit the perfect projected No. 1 overall pick. A selection that will change the fortunes of whatever poor franchise, like the Bulls, as soon as he steps in their building.

The only problem with the grand design at drafting Williamson for the Bulls is appropriately gaming the NBA’s now revamped draft lottery odds and wishing for a beyond favorable bounce. From 1985-2018, draft lottery odds were determined directly by the corresponding worst records of the worst teams in the NBA. That meant a team could theoretically tank and assuredly not go all out to win games to attain the by far best possible chances of the draft’s first pick. It’s a system that was thoroughly gamed by the Philadelphia 76ers in recent years that could’ve theoretically benefitted the hapless Bulls tremendously.

Starting this May, the draft lottery system is altered to where the three worst NBA teams by record have an equal shot at the first pick with those on the outside not having that much of worse odds in percentage. The aim is to prevent what those 76ers previously tried to accomplish and level the playing field. So, even while having lost 13 of their last 14 games with a defeat to the league-worst Cavaliers on Sunday, the Bulls’ odds to add a potential superstar like Williamson doesn’t improve that much with each successive loss as much as in year’s past. With much of no difference between the three worst NBA teams, and only a slight dip for the fourth and fifth-worst NBA squads, according to Tankathon, the Bulls’ best means of getting Williamson is making a wish. A wish that isn’t quite like the 1.7 percent chance they had at getting the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 with Derrick Rose, but is applicable amongst a crowded group with the Cavaliers, Bulls, New York Knicks, and Phoenix Suns each hoping the odds are ever in their favor.

Outside of that fateful bounce, the only thing the Bulls can control in their unofficial quest for Williamson is lose as much possible the rest of the way. A professional sports team will never admit to tanking, especially one filled with competitive and frustrated young players like the Bulls. That type of locker room isn’t concerned with the merits of potential and generational prospects for the future. They want to win, prove themselves, and get over rampant embarrassment. But the interest of the Bulls organization in the long term paints the picture of a golden opportunity to stay within shouting distance of the NBA’s four worst squads and get Williamson aboard their ship.

Over the Bulls’ last 32 games of the 2018-2019 season, they have but 13 games against teams above .500. Four of those matchups are against the Hawks (fifth-worst record) and Knicks’ (second-worst record). More than most final stretches in recent years, this last rough third behooves the Bulls to lose as much as possible, but competitively so. That is, if there’s anything even left to salvage amidst one of the worst seasons in the team’s 53-year existence. Losing to win for a transcendent, all-around player like Williamson is indirect forethought that can set the Bulls up well as relevant for a decade. Miss out, and their continued trek into floundering humiliation likely continues for awhile.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. The Bulls have a way to Zion Williamson, now they have to take it.

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