The Chicago Bulls' new cornerstone - Wendell Carter Jr.
As recently as 2014, Joakim Noah anchored the Chicago Bulls' defense. The long, gangly, passionate center played hard defense and while Derrick Rose was injured, carried the Bulls to a playoff spot right into LeBron James' stifling embrace.
Noah won the 2013-14 DPOY award by making unbelievable hustle plays and funneling the offense through his court vision as well.
Jimmy Butler didn't so much embrace defense as much as it was thrust on him. A rookie thrown into the offensive shadow of Rose, Boozer and Noah, he had to establish himself as an elite defender to crack the Bulls rotation.
But now, he's generally considered one of the two best on-ball wing defenders in the NBA, behind Kawhi. Take that for data!
However, the days of Noah and Butler being the bedrock of the Bulls' defense are long over. Butler's abrasive personality fractured the locker room atmosphere in Chicago (a season later and he did the same thing in Minny), and he had to be dealt with before he caused serious damage to the team culture.
A part of the trade return the Bulls got, just hit the game winner against the OKC Thunder over PG13 - in his second game back from injury. Nice home debut, Lauri!
Noah was traded because of his injury prone nature. His trade proved somewhat beneficial to the Bulls, as his albatross contract doomed the Knicks to irrelevance for the next four seasons. But what else is new about the Big Apple franchise?
The first and most immediately noticeable thing is that they were both great on-ball defenders. While Butler sometimes lets his man run off screens and get open, he relies on his athleticism to discourage the player from taking a contested shot. Prime Noah, meanwhile, gave LeBron fits near the rim. His wingspan and freakish speed gave everyone in the league second thoughts before taking a shot.
Suffice to say no one in the Bulls team has even approached their defensive caliber these past couple seasons. Markkanen is very good, but he doesn't have the brute combination of core strength and weight to be a serious deterrence under the rim. He does get good blocks in games, but that isn't what he's built his game around. The same goes for LaVine.
But this year's #7 pick, Wendell Carter Jr, is a revelation. He didn't get much appreciation at Duke, where he played in Marvin Bagley III's shadow. But here in the league, where he's bodying more established centers, he is giving proof of how skilled he is at defense, something which his teammate isn't paid to do.
(I have tried to stomach the ire of Jabari Parker's comment, but the idea of a 20 million contract player refusing to play the most important part of the game gives me an ulcer just thinking about it).
Carter ranks third in blocks amongst rookies, behind Memphis steal Jaren Jackson Jr and Knick Mitchell Robinson. But more importantly, he's a clever player and fast learner.
WCJ was always a defensive mastermind at Duke, but the NBA's new three second rule has managed to confound even some established players in the league. WCJ has been whistled for the violation a total four times - twice in his first game, twice over the next three games, and never since then. (Parker has been whistled five times, and he's in his fifth season in the NBA).
Even when he's roaming the paint, Carter never actually leaves his man free. In fact, while playing amazing power forwards like LaMarcus Aldridge (who neither Parker nor Markkanen have any chance of stopping), WCJ slides over to help on incoming lob attempts and spreads himself to take charges.
He can and will improve on offense. This NBA era, one filled with small ball lineups and soft referees, is slowly trying to remove the stereotypical center from the league. Instead, unicorns like KAT, Porzingis, Jokic and Davis have become the norm. (Giannis is excluded because no way a dude shooting 6% from behind the arc will ever be called a unicorn by me).
However, the Bulls have their unicorn: Markkanen. They have slashers and drivers: LaVine and Kris Dunn (who should make his season debut soon). They have good pieces around them: Valentine (out for the season) and veteran Robin Lopez. They even have the Lance Stephenson type player in Portis.
(The reason I didn't include Parker is because he has a team option for next season and if Paxson actually resigns him for 20 million next season - decapitating the Bulls' cap space - I will literally spit venom, as will every other outspoken Bulls fan worldwide).
The one thing they don't have, though, is a defensive bedrock: someone who can anchor their defense and make smart plays (like when he denied Luka Doncic emphatically) or downright brave-to-the-point-of-stupid plays like blocking a Westbrook dunk attempt near the rim. (WCJ's career was on the line there, I admit).
But all in all, in a young team filled with offensive pieces, the youngest piece might just be the most important for Chicago's turnaround after all.