Today, we'll examine three teams that all finished next to each other in the Eastern Conference, despite vastly different pre-season expectations: the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards.

 

Chicago Bulls

Record: 22-43 (11th in the Eastern Conference)

82 game pace: 28-54

 

Expectations

Despite closing the 2019 season with a 3-13 stretch, the Bulls decided to invest over the off-season, adding veterans in Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young to their developing core of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr and Otto Porter. They drafted a player with the ability to produce in spurts right away in Coby White. Whilst finishing in the top 4 of the conference was never the goal, Chicago had very real expectations of a first playoff berth since the Jimmy Butler era.

 

What went right

Not a lot, I'm afraid.

LaVine continued his ascension to stardom, averaging 25.5 points, 4.8 board, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 3.1 three pointers at 38% - most of those numbers were career highs. Long considered an inefficient gunner, LaVine's efficiency and decision making continued to improve. His true shooting % hovered around last season's career high mark despite increased usage and his +2.5 Box +/- was miles ahead last years +0.8, his former career high. He also proved clutch – if it wasn't for LaVine, this season could have been truly catastrophic.

White had some significant offensive explosions, as well. Notably back to back to back thirty point games in late February.

 

What went wrong

Chicago had a vision: start Sato, LaVine, Porter, Lauri and Carter, with White firing off the bench, Young and Kris Dunn playing lockdown defense. That's a really solid eight man rotation. The prole for the Bulls is that they never got to deploy those eight men at the same time. Frankly, they struggled to get five of those men on the floor together. Take a look at this:

  • Markkanen – missed 15 games

  • Carter – missed 22 games

  • Dunn – missed 14 games

  • Porter – missed 51 games

LaVine even missed a handful of games. Confounding that was the fact that deeper rotation pieces like Chandler Hutchison, Luke Kornet, Daniel Gafford and Denzel Valentine all missed at least thirty games apiece.

Given the struggles of Brooklyn and Orlando, there is a very real chance that Chicago could have earned a playoff spot this season, if only they had some semblance of health.

 

The outcome

Another disappointing season in the Windy City, although there are definitely signs that the team is headed in the right direction. Porter is still just 26 years old and LaVine only turned 24 this month. The rest of the core are still babies by NBA standards. This is a team that is trending in the right direction, on the proviso that they can get all of their players fit at once. Chicago remains a free agency destination, so some modicum of success could result in the team being able to attract the parts it needs to finish off this team.

IF the Bulls get healthy first.

 

Charlotte Hornets

Record: 23-42 (10th in Eastern Conference)

82 game pace: 29-53

 

Expectations

Charlotte finally – finally – embraced the rebuild this off season. It took losing Kemba Walker to make them face facts that the generation of Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was not getting it done, Kemba or no Kemba.

In making a concerted effort to put their youngsters front and centre and let them play through mistakes, expectations were suitably conservative in Charlotte this season.

 

What went right

The Hornets discovered that they have an actual living, breathing, young core. Terry Rozier turned 26 last week. Devonte' Graham is 25, the Martin twins are 24, Jalen McDaniels, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges are all 22, whilst PJ Washington is still 21. Even veteran centres Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo are only 27. Not all of these players will be contributors to the next good Hornets side, but in the diminutive back court of Rozier and Graham, Charlotte at least have a base to build from. Graham in particular surprised many with his play this season, leading the team with 18.2 points and 7.5 assists and shooting a (for him) blistering 37.3% from deep.

Rozier slipped into his more natural two-guard role, putting up 18 points of his own per night. Bridges and Washington look to be a front court of real potential. Washington started his rookie campaign with a bang, hitting seven trey's on his way to 27 points. Late in this abbreviated season, McDaniels and the Martin twins, Cody and Caleb all emerged as key 2nd unit contributors.

They're still missing an elite talent to tie it all together, but this Hornets side is suddenly very young and surprisingly deep.

 

What went wrong

In the grand scheme of things, not too much. The team wanted to give their youngsters playing time, and that has happened to generally positive reviews. They wanted to shed themselves of some of the veterans contracts and they were able to give the long serving Williams and Kidd-Gilchrist the new homes they were seeking. I'm sure the team would have preferred to get something, anything, from Nic Batum - who was terrible from the get go – so as to trade him to a contender, but it was not to be. Batum will be paid $27 million in the last year of his contract, next season. Both Zeller and Biyombo also come off the books post 2021; again, I'm sure GM Mitch Kupchack was looking to trade at least one of them. I'm sure the team would be happy to keep one of those bigs (probably Zeller) at a more reasonable price.

 

The outcome

For the most part, Charlotte got what they wanted out of season 2019-20. I'm sure they would have appreciated some more game time for their young core, but of course every team is effected by the shutdown, so they can have no complaints. Their top eight played in minutes played through the season are all (perhaps Biyombo aside) players that they can move forward with. That's a positive result.

Whilst they didn't win a hatful of games, the Hornets have at least established a direction. If their notoriously impatient owner can keep faith with that direction, the team will be better for it.

 

Washington Wizards

Record: 24-40 (9th in the Eastern Conference)

82 game pace: 31-51

 

Expectations

The Wizards didn't exactly have high hopes coming into this campaign. John Wall was again injured and was expected to miss the whole season. As a result, the team became a facilitator, taking on cap filler and draft picks, allowing other teams to make their big moves. Those transactions picked up some of the Wizards surprise contributors this season: David Bertans, Mo Wagner, Ish Smith, Jerome Robinson and Isaac Bonga all contributed to various degrees to a surprisingly entertaining Wizards season.

The expectation was that Bradley Beal was the Be All and End All for this team, with precious little in the way of support. Whilst he was the main man, his teammates stepped up manfully.

 

What went right

In short, offense. Washington's 115.6 points per game was good for 6th in the NBA. Coach Scott Brooks had his team fly up and down the court, launching shots from every conceivable angle. Beal led the way with 30.5 points, 6.1 assists and three made treys per game in what should have been a third consecutive All Star campaign. He got great support at that end from Bertans who's 15.4 points per game almost doubled his previous career high. The Latvian shot 42.4% from deep on 10.7 attempts per 36 minutes. His gravity allowed some of the less gifted shooters like Thomas Bryant (12.1 points per game) and the rookie Rui Hachimura (13.4 points) to get to their spots on the floor.

Shabazz Napier was an astute mid season acquisition, giving the team 12 points, 4.4 assists and 1.7 steals in a tick over 25 minutes a game after coming over from Minnesota via Denver. He's a nice insurance policy if Wall, upon his return, either takes some time to find his feet or just straight out doesn't have it anymore.

 

What went wrong

For all that was good at one end of the floor, was horrible at the other.

The Wiz tied with Atlanta, surrendering a league worst 119.7 points per contest. Their defensive rating of 115.8 was outright last. This defense was awful, no matter which way you slice it.

Isaiah Thomas was a nice story at the start of the season, but his defense was non existent even at his peak. A turnstile provided more resistance than Thomas, and he was out of the league by the time the season finished. Beal is a reasonable defender, when he tries. This season, he most certainly didn't try. Bertans is physical and mean, but too slow. Hachimura made more than his share of rookie mistakes. Thomas Robinson might be the worst starting centre in the league on the defensive end of the floor. The only Wizards to play 500+ minutes this season and not have a negative Defensive Box +/- were Ian Mahinmi and Bonga – they're 10th and 13th respectively in minutes per game. Both players rating: 0.0. If they're your best defenders, that's horrifying.

 

The outcome

This Wizards team was expected to be Bradley Beal and a huge pu-pu platter. Instead, Washington provided the league with one of it's most entertaining outfits. The Wizards scored 130 or more points on nine occasions this season; they conceded the same amount in fourteen games, including five where both teams scored over 130. These games were like All Star games, but with consequence. The most bonkers game I've seen in many, many years was a late October game versus Houston that finished 158-159. This game DID NOT go to overtime.