Just about all discussions surrounding the Chicago Bulls right now will include the term “young core.” Describing a group of players that way certainly makes things sound flashy – especially if you’re a GM wanting to avoid some other topics (like, say, the 20 games your team just won in the previous season).
Every team across the NBA has young players around which they’re trying to build, but only a handful have — what I would consider — an actual “young core” that is the foundation of the team.
Recently, The Ringer’s Zach Kram ranked all 30 teams on a scale of who had the best young core in the NBA. The rankings have ruffled some feathers among Bulls fans, with Chicago just barely cracking the top-15. For a better look at who the Bulls are stacked up against, here is a look at The Ringer’s top-15:
- 15. San Antonio Spurs – WAR: 32
- 14. Chicago Bulls – WAR: 33.1
- 13. Miami Heat – WAR: 38.2
- 12. Indiana Pacers – WAR: 38.9
- 11. Orlando Magic – WAR: 43.0
- 10. Golden State Warriors – WAR: 44.1
- 9. Atlanta Hawks – WAR: 51.5
- 8. Boston Celtics – WAR: 52.0
- 7. Philidelphia 76ers – WAR: 54.7
- 6. Phoenix Suns – WAR: 60.0
- 5. Minnesota Timberwolves – WAR: 64.3
- 4. Dallas Mavericks – WAR: 66.0
- 3. Memphis Grizzlies – WAR: 68.1
- 2. New Orleans Pelicans – WAR: 77.5
- 1. Denver Nuggets – WAR: 85.1
NOTE: Ranking young cores is difficult. Anyone who tries, will be juggling multiple factors (often hypothetically) while relying on perceived development. While The Ringer’s method is one way to do it, the final outcome doesn’t feel like the best representation. The Bulls may not have one player with a 15+ WAR, but the Bulls do have multiple young players that – combined – could strongly increase the win total down the road.
And that end … Oof: 14th.
The Ringer does mention at the beginning of the article to focus more-so on the general placement rather than the ranking. With that in mind, I think the Bulls should definitely be closer to teams like the No. 9 Hawks and No. 6 Suns when it comes to their young cores.
Indeed, the biggest thing holding the Bulls back here appears to be the lack of a real star. Lauri Markkanen leads the (under-25) team with 10.8 WAR. but each team following the Bulls has at least one or more players offering 15 or more wins. So when things are laid out that way, these rankings make a bit more sense.
Putting aside rookie expectations, when you look only at the young pieces these team had last season, the Bulls group (Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr. and Markkanen) scored more points on average than both the Suns and Hawks equivalent group:
- Bulls: LaVine, Markkanen, Carter Jr = 52.7 ppg
- Suns: Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges = 51.2 ppg
- Hawks: Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter = 48.3 ppg
Yes, I know points per game also isn’t the ideal measurement for this sort of exercise, but I think it does demonstrate how much these young players meant to their team on a nightly basis.
The Miami Heat are also put ahead of the Bulls (even if it be only one spot). The team might be better than the Bulls with the addition of superstar Jimmy Butler, but that doesn’t mean the young core is better. The main players considered a part of this young core (again excluding rookies for now) would be Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr. Those guys just scored you 28.5 ppg last season combined – not ideal.
When you add rookie into the mix here, the Bulls, Hawks, Suns and Heat should probably still all be relatively close. If anything, the Hawks getting a little more respect here makes sense from a number standpoint with the team adding two more under 25-year-old lottery picks in Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter.
And for what it’s worth, the Hawks (23.6), Suns (23.7) and Bulls (24.1) are also the three youngest teams in the league, respectively. The Heat then check-in as the 14th youngest team (25.1). I don’t know about you, but the actual combined age of the team feels like a worthwhile stat when thinking about the best young cores.
Again, most importantly stars strongly impact this list. For example, Karl-Anthony Towns has a 37.6 WAR, equating for basically 58 percent of the teams 5th-best WAR projection. As for the Golden State Warriors, D’Angelo Russell makes up 48 percent of the teams 10th-best WAR. The first-place Nuggets have Nikola Jokic also making up 48 percent of their projection.
When you have a sure-fire star under 25-years-old, then, of course, your young core projection is going to be better when calculating it based off WAR.
However, when you take a look at the actual number of young players, alongside things like average age and how much they’re doing on the court right now for your entire team, then things feel like the true testament of a “young core.” Otherwise, you just have a “young team.”