Along with massive changeover in the front office and on the sidelines, the Denver Nuggets had to deal with a rash of injuries last season that never really allowed us to see them at their full potential, or even get a sense of what their potential actually is. Even though health is going to be an issue again once training camp starts, but what could this team be if they’re at full strength from midseason on?
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets.
Five Guys Think
It’s kind of hard to believe that just two years ago, the Nuggets were one of the league’s most exciting upstart teams, but last season was the first without Masai Ujiri or George Karl, and it should have been obvious that life after losing one of the best execs and one of the best coaches in the NBA would be a little difficult. This year, things should be marginally better, with Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee both coming back healthy and Arron Afflalo (who was practically stolen from Orlando around the draft) back in powder blue. Rookie Gary Harris (and to a lesser extent Jusuf Nurkic) add depth to the rotation, making this an all-around better team than it was last year. They maybe aren’t as exciting as they were two seasons ago, but it won’t be anywhere near as painful to watch as it was in 2013-2014. Expect improvement out of the Nuggets this season.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
Five players who were expected to play a significant role for the Denver Nuggets missed 20 or more games due to injury last season. So it didn’t surprise many that Denver’s streak of 10 consecutive playoff appearances came to an abrupt halt last season. If healthy, Denver has the talent on the roster needed to get back into the playoff mix but it won’t be an easy road in the competitive Western Conference by any stretch of the imagination.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
Last season was a rough one for the Nuggets from an injury standpoint, with JaVale McGee, Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Nate Robinson among others all missing significant time. Don’t be surprised if they turn some heads this year since they’re back at full strength. This was a strong offseason for Denver, acquiring Arron Afflalo in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick (which seems like an absolute steal) and landing quality prospects Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic in the draft. The Western Conference is insanely competitive, but the Nuggets have the potential to sneak into the playoffs this year as long as they can stay healthy.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
After trading Evan Fournier for Arron Afflalo, Afflalo joins Tyson Chandler of the Dallas Mavericks as a player who left their respective team only to be re-acquired by the team via trade a few years later. That is not something you see everyday in the NBA, and you certainly do not see it as often as you see a torn ACL. Thankfully, for Danilo Gallinari and the Nuggets, he is on the record as saying he “feels great” and is ready to return. JaVale McGee is expected to be fully healthy, as well, and with Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson picking up from where they left off, the Nuggets have a core five that has a chance to be very good. With Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov and Randy Foye presumably coming off of the bench, the Nuggets have scores of talent, even if they still lack a superstar. They will now add Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris to their stable of talent and, more than likely, continue to hover around the .500 mark for the balance of the season. If Lawson and Faried emerge as the two alpha-males and primary playmakers on this team, it may bode positively for the team, but if identity issues and what, at times, appeared to be uncertainty amongst the players as to who should have the ball and who should take big shots continues, the Nuggets’s identity issues will persist. With moving pieces and players returning form injury, that will be second-year head coach Brian Shaw’s biggest challenge. That, well, and avoiding the same 36-win fate that me this team last season. As much talent as there is in Denver, that will be a tall task.
3rd Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Nuggets are one of the bigger mysteries in the Western Conference going into this season. They were plagued by injuries last year, a couple of which that were so severe they’re going to linger into this season as well. While this is going to be Brian Shaw’s second year as a head coach, he’s not going to have the luxury of truly being able to pick up where he left off last year due to all the new pieces that he’s going to have to integrate into his system. However, he did learn over the course of last year how to best utilize Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried, who look poised to lead the way for him this year and continue their ascents. The addition of Arron Afflalo, a borderline All-Star last year, at their weakest position without giving up any significant assets was one of the better deals of the summer. If healthy, the Nuggets certainly have the potential to make the playoffs in the West, but that’s a risky assumption considering that they won’t even be going into training camp healthy.
3rd place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: After last season’s All-Star-caliber season with the Orlando Magic, Arron Afflalo will be picking up where he left off, but this time back in Denver. Afflalo is playing the best basketball of his career so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Nuggets fans are thinking about a return to the playoffs. Afflalo averaged a career-high 18.2 points per game last season with the Magic and shot 43 percent from three-point range. The seven-year veteran will benefit by having a better cast of players around him which will allow him to play more off of the ball. Having guys like Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari on the team will take the pressure off of Afflalo after being the team’s go-to player like he was in Orlando.
Top Defensive Player: On a team that ranked 28th in points allowed last season, it may be hard to pinpoint one standout defensive player, but center Timofey Mozgov is underrated and defense oriented. As a backup for the majority of the season, Mozgov has proven to be a very good rim protector off of the bench. Playing in just 21 minutes per game last season, Mozgov averaged 1.22 blocks a game, or 2.71 per 48 minutes. As pointed out by Denver Stiffs, Mozgov was 10th-best in limiting opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim at 45.2 percent through the first-half of last season, which puts him in the same company as Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka and Joakim Noah, among others. Perhaps one of the biggest indicators of Mozgov’s defense are the splits when he is on the court versus off of the court. When Mozgov is playing, opponents’ field goal percentage within three feet of the rim is 55 percent versus 65 percent when he is off of the court. Looking at these stats, it may not be a surprise to hear that the Cavaliers are reportedly looking to trade for Mozgov. He provides any unit on the floor a great rim protector that can help a team lock teams down.
Top Playmaker: The hands down answer here is Ty Lawson. The 5’11, 195-pound Lawson has the perfect frame to make plays and get the Nuggets’ offense rolling. Lawson’s ability to drive through the lane really sets the tone for the offense and keeps it moving. Lawson was tied for the third-most assists in the league at 8.8 per game, behind only Chris Paul, Kendall Marshall and John Wall. The 8.8 assists per game really speaks volumes to his ability to drive in the lane and kick the ball out to the open shooter, especially in a year where some of his best passing options were hurt.
Top Clutch Player: By season’s end, the Nuggets’ top clutch player could very well be Afflalo, but at this time their clutch player is Lawson. Lawson’s quickness and ability to drive through the lane makes him perhaps their most dangerous player and one that is heavily guarded during crunch time of games, making it easy to find the open man for the shot. After a career year, coach Shaw has the trust in him to put the ball in his hands and make the right play when it matters most.
Most Unheralded Player: Even though Lawson remains one of the league’s most underrated point guards, the Nuggets’ most unheralded player is Mozgov. The underrated defender proved at the end of last season that he is a capable starter. With the Cavaliers reportedly showing interest in the 7’1 big man, the Nuggets may be able to cash in on his value and bring in assets to help the team in the future.
Best New Addition: If being named the team’s best offensive player wasn’t enough of an indication, Afflalo is the team’s best addition. At the cost of Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick, the addition of Afflalo may be one of the best moves of the offseason. The Nuggets were more than 10 games out of the playoff race in the Western Conference when it was all said and done, but Afflalo will give the Nuggets a legitimate chance of closing that gap. Afflalo has proven to be a capable scoring threat, but also is an underrated defender. He was often assigned to guard opposing teams’ top wing players and did a good job when he was engaged. Though Afflalo admitted during the season that he wasn’t used to losing as much as the Magic were and his performances were affected, the hope of playing for the playoffs is back in Denver and so will his perimeter defense.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
Kenneth Faried: After lighting it up with Team USA in Spain, Faried will be coming back to the Nuggets a changed player. Over the course of just a couple of months with Team USA, Faried has gone from a player expected to provide some energy off of the bench backing up Kevin Durant to one of the team’s biggest contributors. Faried is averaging 13 points per game with Team USA on a blistering 71 percent shooting from the floor and a team-high 8.1 rebounds. There’s nothing suggesting that Faried won’t continue his tremendous play this season with the Nuggets. It seems Faried really started to grasp the Nuggets’ new offense under head coach Brian Shawn in the second half of the season as Faried increased his points per game from 10.4 per game before the All-Star break to 18.8 after the All-Star Break. In addition, Faried’s rebounding per game improved from 7.6 to 10.1. Faried’s tremendous improvement this year is another reason why the Nuggets could make some noise in the playoffs.
Danilo Gallinari: After undergoing two knee surgeries in the past 18 months, Gallinari is said to be ready to return and feeling great. The Nuggets desperately missed his versatility last season as he can play both forward positions. At 6’10, Gallinari can play the three-spot on the floor with the best of them and at 225 pounds, he is big enough to compete with most power forwards in the league. Two seasons ago Gallinari shot 37 percent from three-point range and adding him back onto the floor will provide another weapon for Lawson to utilize. Gallinari also possesses the necessary ball-handling skills needed to run in the Nuggets’ up-tempo offense.
Gary Harris: The former Michigan State guard will be competing with Randy Foye and Arron Afflalo for minutes, but Harris will provide the Nuggets with solid minutes off of the bench and could even challenge Foye for his role as the primary backup at the two. Harris averaged 18.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.6 steals and two assists per game in the Las Vegas Summer League and provided a glimpse of what he can turn into. During the Summer League, Harris looked like a very confident player coming out of college and that showed as he was able to score by shooting and driving to the rim against improved competition. Harris can also help the Nuggets improve their defense. Harris was a great defender in college and there’s no reason to think he won’t be solid in the NBA as well. He displayed his athleticism and quick hands during the Summer League with 2.6 steals per game. His fellow rookies seem to think he’ll do well as they voted him as the third-best defender of this class.
The Nuggets’ Second Unit: With so many players returning healthy this season, the Nuggets will most certainly have one of the deepest benches in the league. The Nuggets’ starting five this season could consist of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and McGee, which means the first team off of the bench could include Nate Robinson, Foye, Wilson Chandler and Mozgov. Four out of the five players – Foye, Wilson, Hickson and Mozgov — that could come off of the bench all started a significant amount of games last season. Given that those players started out of necessity given all of the injuries, the Nuggets’ second unit will be more experienced and talented than most benches in the league.
– Cody Taylor
It’s that second unit off of the bench that is easily the Nuggets’ biggest strength heading into the season. The Nuggets have 10 players on the team that could easily play each night and unfortunately for head coach Shaw, finding minutes for each of those players may not be simple. Shaw will have his work cut out to figure out the proper rotations and when to bring certain players into the game, but he and the Nuggets will be in a much better position than last season when they were shorthanded more nights than not.
– Cody Taylor
The team’s defense will be an ongoing issue for the team throughout the season. The Nuggets were the third-worst team in the league last season with their opponents scoring an average of 106.5 points per game. Should the Nuggets be able to fix their defensive woes, they may very well find themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the ever-challenging Western Conference. While their projected starting five seems to be rock solid on the offensive end, that isn’t going to help get it done on the other end and the Nuggets could be in trouble. While players like Mozgov and Faried are proving themselves each night on the defensive end, other players will need to step up for the Nuggets to have a chance.
– Cody Taylor
The Salary Cap
The Nuggets have held onto most of their Mid-Level Exception, saving $4.8 million after giving rookie Erick Green a three-year minimum deal. The team is also invested in 13 guaranteed players, with a 14th (Quincy Miller) locked in for $150k. Kenneth Faried, who has been a vital part of Team USA’s quest for the World Cup, is eligible for a contract extension – but needs to lock in a deal before the October 31 deadline. Denver is over the cap but under the luxury tax. The team also had four traded player exceptions ranging from $1.2-$1.7 million. The Nuggets do not have the $2.1 million Bi-Annual Exception available after using it last season on Nate Robinson.
– Eric Pincus
It is difficult to believe that a mere season ago the Nuggets were coming off a 57-win season under Coach George Karl. The Nuggets fired Karl after that season, reportedly because they did not want to give him a contract extension with only one year remaining on his deal. Then, team architect Masai Ujiri left for Toronto, replaced by Tim Connelly from New Orleans. The Nuggets hired Brian Shaw to replace Karl, but both struggled a bit in their first year. Connelly acquired defensively-challenged players like J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye, and that end of the floor unsurprisingly suffered after losing Andre Iguodala to Golden State. Season-long injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee worsened the situation, as did Shaw’s insistence on starting Hickson over Timofey Mozgov in the frontcourt. The result was a desultory 36-46 finish.
Connelly has bounced back quite nicely though, reacquiring Arron Afflalo from Orlando to upgrade the gaping hole at shooting guard. He also got great value in the draft by trading down to select Jusuf Nurkic (scouting report) and Gary Harris, both of whom were projected to go quite a bit higher. Gallinari should be back, and Shaw will hopefully give Mozgov more run, giving this squad a chance to really upgrade the defense.
Better health and defense leads Denver’s fight for the eighth seed. Ty Lawson has a career year, Afflalo avoids a dropoff from his last year in Orlando, Gallinari looks like his old self by midseason, and Mozgov’s three-pointer that he flashed at the end of last season becomes a semi-passable weapon. (This is a best-case scenario after all.) Kenneth Faried builds on his excellent World Cup on both ends. McGee and Nate Robinson return to anchor a solid bench along with Wilson Chandler and Harris (Nurkic is unlikely to play much). Shaw improves in his second year on the bench.
The players returning from injury are shells of themselves. Afflalo reverts back to his career norms, Mozgov rides the pine behind Hickson, and the squad basically duplicates last year’s campaign. As the squad descends again into irrelevance, Nurkic’s father demands a starting position for his son and nobody has the guts to tell him he’s not ready yet. Another lost year leaves Denver in limbo going forward with this core.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
With the Nuggets finally healthy, will that be enough to compete for a playoff spot in the West?
Last season the Dallas Mavericks as the eighth-seed needed 49 wins to lock in a playoff berth and the Suns were right behind them with 48 wins. The Nuggets will need to see an improvement of about 14 games to get to 50 this season and have a chance at making the playoffs. Out in the West, there could be as many as 12 teams legitimately competing for the playoffs and the Nuggets’ chances will surely be determined by how their players coming back from injury perform. With those players returning and playing like they have in the past, the Nuggets should be competitive for the season and their deep bench could prove huge come March and April if it remains as is. Barring an injury to Afflalo, Faried or Lawson, the Nuggets should be a playoff team next season.
– Cody Taylor
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.