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Inside the Chicago Bulls’ Damaging Inconsistency

The Chicago Bulls are struggling to overcome inconsistency and internal issues, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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By The Horns? Inside Chicago’s Damaging Inconsistency

Even to an outside observer unaware of their recent struggles, the tension surrounding the Chicago Bulls would be palpable after just a few minutes around the team. The air is thick, from players to staff to traveling media. Interactions feel forced and everyone near the team is well aware of the myriad issues facing this group behind the scenes.

Coach Fred Hoiberg begins his media availability before a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City and is immediately besieged by a wall of negativity. The Bulls were taken to school by the Los Angeles Clippers the previous day and a brief respite from the stress after a routine win over the Lakers a couple days prior has evaporated entirely. ‘What’s wrong with this team?’ Hoiberg is asked. ‘What’s causing such a talented roster to underachieve in a year when many pegged them as the most legitimate challengers to Cleveland in the East?’ Focus, effort and consistency are buzzwords of the day, clearly themes Hoiberg is familiar with hearing at this point. It takes effort to remind oneself that this team is six games over .500, a win or two away from the conference’s third seed.

They’ve dropped to five games over .500 a few hours later, and in a fashion that serves as a fantastic microcosm of their recent struggles. An otherwise generally strong game is marred by spots of inconsistency, notably a collapse down the stretch as the Bulls blow a three-point lead with just over 10 seconds remaining before folding altogether in an overtime period where they score just three points.

InsideJimmyButlerTension has become outright frustration in Chicago’s locker room after the loss. Star Jimmy Butler and veteran Taj Gibson both sit, head in hands, for extended periods of time at their lockers, staring in turn at the ground or the ceiling. Hardly a word is spoken between teammates.

Derrick Rose is first to address the assembled media. He’s asked about the possibility of a players-only meeting, a subject with a healthy stigma around the league these days, and says it’s something he’d consider initiating in the next few days. Butler is asked what he can take away from that night’s performance:

“I don’t know,” he says. “How not to play? That’s what I get from it.”

The balance within a successful and competitive NBA franchise is delicate, and the Bulls are learning just how rough things can get when the scales are uneven. Public scrutiny has enveloped the franchise in recent weeks as prominent names like Butler and Pau Gasol have commented on indicators of a disconnect.

“You have to bring the intensity, the effort,” Gasol said following the loss to Utah. “Those are the things – the intangibles – that we [are] sometimes lacking. It happens sometimes, when teams are talented and they have a great level of skill: they forget about doing the little things that I think, in this league and this sport, make such a big difference.”

All parties outwardly insist the team remains united, but privately, it certainly feels like there are tension and fractured relationships within the organization. The locker room has become divided into cliques, per Basketball Insiders sources. One group, including Rose and injured center Joakim Noah, harbors lingering resentment over the handling of ousted coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler has struggled at times to establish himself as a team voice despite the support of Gasol, a reality that’s become public. Rose’s unprompted comments about free agency before the season certainly irked some in the franchise, and it’s not hard to infer that a few of those upset by the statements were guys he shares the court with – his camp and Butler’s have long been rumored to be at odds. The potential departures of Gasol and Noah this summer in free agency have only added to the strain.

Different teams react to these stressors in different ways, and for Chicago, the damage is embodied most in an utter lack of consistency. The broadest example can be found with a quick glance at their game log to this point, a streaky mess with at least one bad loss present for every strong win. But it can also be found within individual quarters and stretches, and even on a possession-by-possession basis.

“There’s no question we’ve been inconsistent,” veteran Kirk Hinrich told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve shown we can be really good… we just have to make sure we control the simple things – our effort, our execution. You’re not going to be able to control making shots every night, but come out with the right effort and the right mindset every night, and hopefully the consistency will follow.”

Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that the Bulls have struggled mightily to right their collective approach. Every team tends to allow more points in losses than in wins, of course, but Chicago’s discrepancy here is extreme; the 94.2 points per game they’ve allowed in victories versus the 109.5 they’ve hemorrhaged in defeats creates a 15-point chasm that’s among the five largest in the league (most teams allow roughly 8-10 more points in losses than wins, for reference). These figures match a trend that’s visible to the naked eye: The Bulls simply don’t come to play every time out, particularly on the effort-heavy defensive side of the ball, and the results on those off nights can get ugly.

More granular data gives a clearer picture of just how damaging the collective malaise has been at times. Defensive rebounding has been an issue, with the Bulls checking in as a bottom-10 team here most of the season. Worse yet, though, they don’t seem to be winning battles on the glass. Per Nylon Calculus data through late January, the Bulls are 24th in the league for “win percentage” on contested defensive rebounds – that is, they secure just 47.4 percent of defensive boards where both a Chicago player and an opponent are within rebounding distance of the ball. They’re just 5-11 when they collect under half of all available rebounds in a game.

Other indicators abound. The Bulls are drawing assists on over 58 percent of their made baskets in wins, a figure that drops to 54 percent in losses. A “my turn, your turn” dynamic often develops between Rose and Butler in big moments. As a team, Chicago has allowed opponents to shoot just 48.4 percent at the rim with a defender nearby, per Synergy Sports, second-best in the NBA. That drops to an ugly 52.6 percent in 21 losses, another instance where Chicago’s gap is among the largest in the league.

Many franchises look to their in-house veterans and leaders in times of crisis, but Butler thinks everyone on the roster is on the hook.

“Nah, it’s on everybody,” he said. “Everybody’s out there playing, not just the leaders. I think we’ve gotta stay in this together, it’s not on one person more than the other.”

With a fragmented locker room has come a lack of responsibility, a common consequence. The best team cultures are those where veterans and rookies alike can constructively criticize each other in the name of progress, where liability for on-court errors is internalized and turned into positive output. The Bulls have struggled with every step of this process.

“You have to have that,” Hoiberg said. “It has to be something where the guys can look at each other in the face, and be able to hold each other responsible and accountable when they’re not doing it on the floor, and to be able to take that.”

The direction of the franchise hangs in the balance as the current group tries to iron things out before it’s too late. Noah’s absence has hurt as much due to the sharp realization that he’s likely finished in Chicago as any on-court damage. The team’s frontcourt would be in the hands of Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis if Noah moves on and Gasol, as has been rumored, opts out of his final year this summer.

Trading Rose is a common topic to the casual observer, but the reality remains that he’s among the least valuable high-dollar contracts in the league. Moving him would almost certainly come at the cost of another asset, and might just be flat-out impossible for a player who, while well-intentioned, doesn’t seem to have realized that his MVP days are well behind him. Rival executives see Rose leading the Bulls in usage percentage by a healthy margin over Butler and Gasol, and justifiably wonder whether this will ever be a player who could positively impact a team as a secondary or even tertiary option.

The Bulls might be stuck with their main pieces for now, and the guys on the court are determined to make it work – at least publicly. Monday night’s negativity was accompanied by frequent assurances that common goals remain shared, intentions remain positive. The return of veteran Mike Dunleavy is highly anticipated, particularly by Hoiberg, who referenced stability as a specific benefit the savvy swingman can bring back into the fold.

A few good weeks could put these struggles in the rear view mirror. By the same token, a few more like this could damage things beyond repair. There’s still a chance to right this ship, and the path there is one best taken together.

“I think that’s how you stay positive, you continually have each other’s backs,” Butler said. “You stay in this [thing] together. And when you do, it’s going to turn around. We’ll figure it out, we’ve got a good team. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, change this thing around.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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