The Chicago Bulls are knee-deep in a rebuild entering the 2019-20 season, but expectations still surround the franchise.
Coming off a 22-60 campaign, the expectation isn't for this team to contend this season, but it's for its young roster to take the next step in progressing toward becoming the core of a contender.
In order to do that, the Bulls will have to do something that eluded them last season: stay healthy.
According to the Chicago Tribune's Chris Sosa, the Bulls lost 276 player games to injury or illness. That includes Denzel Valentine, the Bulls' 2016 first-round pick, missing the season after undergoing ankle surgery.
The 25-year-old guard was joined on the injury list by the Lauri Markkanen, the seventh overall draft pick in 2017, playing only 52 games because of an elbow injury and Wendell Carter Jr., last year's seventh overall pick, missing 38 contests with a left thumb injury.
If those three can sustain throughout an entire season alongside Zach LaVine and Coby White, this year's seventh overall draft pick, the Bulls' chances of consistently building for the future while putting together a relatively promising 2019-20 campaign will skyrocket.
Season Opener: Oct. 23 at Charlotte Hornets
Championship Odds: 150-1 (Caesars)
Full Schedule: Visit NBA.com
Atlanta Hawks (Nov. 6)
A comparable team to the Bulls in terms of young, promising talent is Atlanta. While Bulls-Hawks games won't be consequential to a playoff race, they could be an intriguing showcase for the future of the Eastern Conference.
Last season, the Bulls and Hawks split their four regular-season matchups, including a 168-161 four-overtime Chicago win in March. That showcased the team's offensive potential when LaVine and Markkanen are both on the floor, as the former scored 47 points and the latter grabbed 17 rebounds.
"But as one/two punches go, the Bulls have a high level athletic wing player who was among the top 20 scorers in the NBA last season and a seven-foot perimeter player who was in the top 30 in rebounding and just barely outside that in scoring. It would place both, at least statistically, on the verge of being All-Star level players. Who compare favorably with the top twos in the Eastern Conference."
Smith also noted LaVine and Markkanen ranked third last season among top scoring duos' averages in the Eastern Conference at 42.4 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Relevant to this matchup, the Hawks' Trae Young and John Collins ranked sixth with 38.6 points, 13.5 rebounds and 10.1 assists.
The individual matchup to watch when these two teams clash this season will be Young and White in the backcourt.
Young overcame a rough first half last season and became a finalist for NBA Rookie of the Year. In many ways, Young represents what the Bulls hope White can be for them as both are volume scorers—particularly from the outside.
The Hawks have also added top-10 picks De'Andre Hunter (No. 4) and Cam Reddish (No. 10) at forward since last season to compete against the likes of Markkanen, Carter and Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt.
Detroit Pistons (Nov. 1)
The Pistons showed the Bulls what is needed in order to fight for a spot at the low end of the Eastern Conference playoffs in the near future. In other words, Detroit can act as Chicago's litmus test this season.
Last season, the Pistons narrowly made the playoffs as the eighth and final seed at 41-41. Detroit also swept Chicago 4-0 in the regular season. In those matchups, LaVine and Markkanen only played together once, while Carter missed two of the four.
The Bulls playing the Pistons at full strength will be the only way to get an accurate gauge on how far away Chicago is.
From an individual perspective, Markkanen and Carter will be the ones to watch against All-Stars Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. In June, The Athletic's Darnell Mayberry reported the Bulls were believed at the time by some around the league to be "open to trading anyone and anything not named" Markkanen and Carter.
If nothing else, Mayberry's report outlined how much weight has been placed on Markkanen's and Carter's development. Matching up against two proven All-Stars four times this season will be important toward foreshadowing if Markkanen and Carter can anchor a postseason push.
Given this particular set of players' persistent injury woes last season, a prediction for this Bulls squad is 100 percent dependent on health.
However, according to NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh, the playoffs could come as soon as this season in Chicago:
"Another surprise team in that early stats-based look? The Chicago Bulls, who are projected to be the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Bolstered by free agency pickups Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls have quietly had a strong offseason. Toss in Coby White’s promise at point guard, and this team’s core with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. could be playoff-bound."
Expecting the Bulls to compete for a postseason spot this season may be a touch ambitious, but assuming key players can stay healthy, the Bulls should take a notable step this season toward making the postseason for the first time since 2016-17.
Predicted Record: 35-47