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2015-16 Chicago Bulls Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders



Last season, the Chicago Bulls won 50 games and finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. However, they couldn’t get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs, even though they put up a good fight. This summer, they opted to return just about their entire team rather than make any big changes; that is, outside of replacing head coach Tom Thibodeau with first-time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. Will the coaching change pay off and allow the Bulls to advance further in the postseason? Is this team, as currently constructed, a championship contender?

Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

The Bulls haven’t gotten a lot of attention this offseason since they elected to bring back their same team rather than make big, headline-grabbing additions. But I like this approach, because I think continuity and chemistry is important and this Bulls team was already very talented. I’m looking forward to seeing how Jimmy Butler follows up his breakout campaign, how Derrick Rose does after a relatively healthy 2014-15 campaign and, most importantly, how the team plays under new head coach Fred Hoiberg. I was a big Tom Thibodeau fan, but I like Hoiberg a lot as well. The Bulls will play differently under Hoiberg, and we’ll see if that results in progression or regression. I think they’ll produce similar results as last season, finishing once again as a high seed in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Central Division

-Alex Kennedy

My hope for the Bulls is that Derrick Rose continues to progress and eventually rediscovers some of the magic that he once possessed. Quietly, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah are getting old and Pau Gasol, though he has admirably defied father time, is already old. The truth is, the Bulls may be closer to pulling the plug on a number of their rotation pieces and taking a few steps back than many realize. If head coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t hit the ground and the Bulls end up winning 46 games and get bounced in the first round, what then? Fortunately for Bulls fans, I don’t expect that to happen. I think the Bulls are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and expect them to eventually get another crack at LeBron James, but, of course, that depends on Rose and Hoiberg. I can’t see them topping the Cavaliers in either the Central Division or in a seven-game playoff series, but they still have my respect as being one of the best teams in basketball. I suppose my sign-off will be this: nobody has the Warriors winning the title last year and nobody had the Mavericks winning in 2011. Impossible is nothing, and if there is a dark house team I would pick to shock the world in 2016, it would be the Bulls. But EVERYTHING would have to break right for them (or, not break at all, depending on your perspective).

2nd Place — Central Division

-Moke Hamilton

However we felt about the Bulls at the end of the last season is more or less how we feel about the Bulls now because they are almost the exact same team that was ousted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of last spring’s playoffs. Derrick Rose looked better in those playoffs than he has since tearing his ACL in 2012, but the emergence of Jimmy Butler is really what got Bulls fans excited a year ago and he should be the focal point of optimism yet again this year. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah aren’t going to get any less rickety, and even Taj Gibson seems to be dealing with chronic health issues now too, but that core, along with breakout second-year stretch-four Nikola Mirotic, is still one of the best in the Eastern Conference. They’re not winning a championship with that group, but it’s still fair to talk about them as a possible Conference Finals team because at their best, that’s what they are.

2nd Place – Central Division

-Joel Brigham

Will Derrick Rose stay healthy? That is the question asked every season. The Bulls have battled over the years without their franchise player and they have been right in the mix come playoff time. But Rose is the key to how deep they can go, and that depends on him staying injury-free. This season, the Bulls will be playing under first-year NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg. There will be a new system, and a new way things are done following the departure of Tom Thibodeau. What won’t be new are the faces on the team.The Bulls are returning most of their players from last year (including inking Jimmy Butler to a mega-deal), but did add the intensity-driven Bobby Portis in the draft. In addition to its star players, watch for Nikola Mirotic to continue progressing after a breakthrough second half.

2nd Place – Central Division

-Jessica Camerato

Tom Thibodeau led the Bulls to five consecutive trips to the playoffs, but a difference in philosophy with the team’s front office ultimately led to his departure. The Bulls’ core group remains the same, but the franchise is hoping the addition of new head coach Fred Hoiberg helps push the squad in a new direction. The positives are abundant. Derrick Rose seems to have shaken off his knee troubles, guard Jimmy Butler is ascending to stardom and forward Nikola Mirotic has the goods. But there are some question marks for sure. Joakim Noah is aging and headed to free agency and veteran forward Pau Gasol is another year older. But there’s no reason why this team shouldn’t be among the few squads entering the season with legitimate title hopes.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Lang Greene

Top Of the List

Top Offensive Player: Jimmy Butler

It would be fairly easy to argue that the best offensive player on the team should be Derrick Rose, but that wasn’t the case last season and there’s no guarantee it will be the case this coming season, either. Butler did lead all Bulls players in points per game last season with 20 PPG, and he proved to be someone who could both knock down three-pointers from a stand-still and create his own shots from all over the floor. He draws fouls well, attacks the bucket with ferocity and was really consistent scoring the ball last season for the first time in his career. With Rose and Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, this team has plenty of offensive talent, but Butler looks like the best of the bunch for now.

Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler

Butler is also the team’s best defender. While Joakim Noah is only 18 months removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year, he continues to deal with various injuries and looked a step slow and less intense during the 2014-15 campaign (with much less screaming too). Butler, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the premier shutdown perimeter defenders in the league and is consistently tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. It will be interesting to see how much of an defensive burden he’ll be asked to shoulder, because as we saw in the playoffs last year it really deadens his legs on offense when he’s chasing around elite talents like LeBron James. With that said, he’ll presumably get more rest under new head coach Fred Hoiberg than he did under Tom Thibodeau. If his legs are fresher, he could be an even better defender this year.

Top Playmaker: Derrick Rose

As crafty as Butler is on offense, nobody on that Bulls roster can break down a defense and get to the basket quite like Derrick Rose. In fact, there aren’t a whole lot of players in the entire league who have the ability to do what he does, and thankfully we saw in the postseason last year that the explosive first step is still there even after all the knee issues. He’s been more conservative over the last 12 months, attacking quite a bit less, but he still led the team in assists last year with 4.9 APG and is still going to be the guy asked to create some offense when the team needs it. As long as he stays healthy, he should be able to handle that with aplomb.

Top Clutch Player: Derrick Rose

Rose has hit more than enough game-winners over the course of his career to put to bed any question anybody may have about who would take the last shot in a tight Bulls game. As good as Butler may be, Rose has repeatedly come up big in huge moments – most recently in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when he banked home a miracle three-pointer to clinch a home playoff victory at a time when the team was still very much in it. Rose actually is one of the more entertaining guys in the league to watch during crunch time. The kid has alligator blood.

Top Unheralded Player: Mike Dunleavy, Jr.

While Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is “just” a role player, it should say a lot about what kind of a role player he is that LeBron James would publicly recruit him for his own elite team. While he’s not flashy at all, it is without question a good thing that the Bulls were able to re-sign him for a bargain-basement price of $14.4 million over three years this past summer. He’s 34 years old, but he’s an underrated defender and shoots well from deep (40.7 percent last season). He brings plenty of positives to the table without taking anything off of it, which is why he’s one of the most underrated players in the league.

Top New Addition: Fred Hoiberg

While it may be cheating a bit to select a coach as the best new addition to the team, since Chicago is bringing back the exact same roster as they did last year with the exception of a couple of rookies, the only new personnel expected to have a real impact on the team this year is the new coach. And to be honest, Hoiberg will have a huge effect on this team, changing the general team philosophy from one of defensive aptitude to offensive specialty, and of course Hoiberg is known for being a much more laid-back, easy-going guy than Thibs was during his tenure in Chicago. The front office likes him as well, which also will be different. This team needed a breath of fresh air and Hoiberg will supply precisely that. The change of pace had better help, because the clock’s ticking on this current iteration of the Bulls.

-Joel Brigham

Who We Like

Pau Gasol: While not everybody paid attention to the FIBA EuroBasket this summer, those who did know that Gasol still has a whole lot of gas left in the tank. He was named the tournament MVP, topped all scorers with 25.6 PPG and, of course, led Spain to the gold medal (not that anybody needed any convincing that Gasol was a very talented basketball player). Coming off one of the best years of his career, Gasol actually should play a lot fewer minutes this year and maybe see a little dip in his stats, but the hope is that the limited playing time will keep him fresher for the postseason. He broke down in the Cleveland series this past spring and the team doesn’t want to see that happen again. No doubt about it, he’s one of the most important players the Bulls have.

Nikola Mirotic: There’s a strong argument that Mirotic, with his big-time three-point shooting and strong rebounding, should be a starter for the Chicago Bulls this year ahead of either Gasol or Joakim Noah. Whether that actually happens, the second-year forward is set up for an expanded role this season and should be featured prominently in Hoiberg’s new offense. Expect a lot of screen-and-roll and a whole bunch of drained three-pointers from Niko this year, as he seems like the Bulls player most ready for a breakout campaign.

Taj Gibson: While there isn’t anything particularly sexy about Gibson’s game, he remains the driving force for Chicago’s frontcourt off the bench, having averaged 10.3 PPG, 6.4 RPG and 1.2 BPG last year in a little over 27 minutes per night. He’s coming off an offseason in which he had an ankle injury surgically repaired and he did turn 30 years old this past summer, but he’s still a stout defensive presence and hard-working bench mob stud who will help anchor what should be a pretty deep reserve rotation for the Bulls this season.

Doug McDermott: While Summer League success rarely translates over to the NBA, it’s worth nothing that McDermott was, once again, one of the stars in Las Vegas this July. He scored the ball well, even though he shot the three atrociously, which will have to change considering how badly the Bulls need him to knock down some deep balls and keep defenses honest. But he looks like he has it in him. His rookie year was marred by injury and mediocrity, but he’ll have a larger role and more minutes under Hoiberg. Stacey King said McDermott could be the Most Improved Player this year, which is nothing short of insane, but he almost certainly will be better than he was a year ago. Expect a big step in the right direction for McBuckets this season.

Bobby Portis: In a frontcourt as loaded as Chicago’s, there’s no way Portis is getting any sort of minutes early in his NBA career, but Gasol, Noah and Gibson all have histories of injuries, which means Portis could at some point stumble his way to 15-20 minutes per game for stretches of this season. It’s hard to “like” a guy who’s not playing much, but Portis is a logical and entertaining fit for a Bulls team that loves its hard-nosed big men. This young man, who describes himself as “crazy,” is sort of insane in the best way possible, and this will be the first year of what should eventually be a lucrative career as a Bull. Growing pains are imminent, but he sure is a fun kid to watch hoop.

-Joel Brigham


Chicago is still one of the premier defensive teams in the NBA, though it will be interesting to see if and how Hoiberg’s reputation as an offensive guy will change that. The Bulls were ninth in the league last year in points allowed with 97.8 PPG, and they were fourth in the league in opponents’ field goal percentage at 43.5 percent. They also were third in rebounds and fifth in blocks, all which hammers home just how effective Chicago was on defense just a year ago. The personnel is exactly the same, so it’s hard to see things falling off too much, and in fact their familiarity with each other (if not the system) also should be considered a strength.

-Joel Brigham


Chicago’s biggest problem a year ago was injuries, and that still could be an issue for them this coming year, as most of the team’s most integral players have dealt with either big time injuries or big time minutes in the last couple of seasons. While Hoiberg won’t lean on his horses quite as heavily as Thibodeau did, the damage may have already been done to some extent. Just look at what happened to Luol Deng after multiple years leading the league in minutes. Last year, Butler led the NBA in minutes and Gasol finished in the top 25 despite his age. That, combined with Noah’s issues and Rose’s fragile knees, make for some frightening basketball this season.

-Joel Brigham

The Burning Question

Does Coach Hoiberg make the difference?

For years, the Chicago Bulls front office has been waiting and waiting for this group of players structured around Derrick Rose to contend for a title. Between the injuries to Rose and the existence of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls have fallen short every time they’ve gotten even within sniffing distance of the NBA Finals. Despite Tom Thibodeau’s success in his first half-decade of NBA coaching, there’s been a general feeling that he had simply worn out his welcome in Chicago over time. Hoiberg is supposed to be the shot in the arm that the team needs, but if he can’t do anything with this team either, it might just be that the roster isn’t talented enough. This feels like this team’s last year to make a run at things as currently constructed, and if it doesn’t work out, some form of a rebuild may be coming shortly thereafter.

-Joel Brigham


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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz



The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca



Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau



As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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