Is optimism even possible following a 22-win season? A 5-19 start, a head coach firing in December and another missed postseason a year later, Chicago once again has a reason for hope.
After drafting exciting rookies and signing established veterans, the Chicago Bulls are looking to regain relevancy in the Eastern Conference through a stable core bolstered by a pair of potential first-time All-Stars. It may not translate to team accomplishment just yet but, for the first time in a while, there is a real path to success in the Windy City.
Basketball Insiders began their yearly, substantial team previews, so if you’re looking for your favorite franchise — it’s almost certainly coming down the pipeline this month. But until then, we look at if Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are enough to get the Bulls back in the playoff hunt or if they’re doomed to another lottery-bound season for now.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Baby Bulls might be one of those teams that give the opposition headaches this year. They’re returning the majority of their pieces and have added multiple solid pieces in the offseason with Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. Granted he stays healthy, Lauri Markkanen may be poised for a potential Most Improved Player award. We know how solid Otto Porter Jr. is, and Zach LaVine can score the ball with the best of them. Bringing Coby White into the fold as the franchise’s point guard of the future on top of all of this should make Chicago a fun watch. We’ll see if head coach Jim Boylen can round up his guys and take a step forward.
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Bulls enter the 2019-20 season with a lot to look forward to. There is a good amount of young talent in Chicago: Coby White will immediately be the most talented point guard in Chicago since pre-injury Derrick Rose, Wendell Carter Jr. should improve on an underrated rookie campaign and Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr. will help carry the load for the Bulls in terms of leadership and production. And, of course, there’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, on whom their success will hinge. If the duo makes additional strides this season, the Bulls could leapfrog the Detroit Pistons for third place in the Central Division. This season is probably a little early in their development for it, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction and should get a taste of the playoffs soon – but not this season. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Chicago.
4th place – Central Division
– Drew Maresca
The Bulls actually have a nice young nucleus in place. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are budding stars. After the midseason trade, Otto Porter Jr. put up career numbers, while Wendell Carter Jr. was solid as a rookie before his injury. Chicago also lacked a real point guard, and they’re hoping that Coby White can develop into one. While also not a true point guard, White did display some nice playmaking ability during the summer exhibitions — better, the Bulls can afford to wait for him to develop. Depending on how these players perform, it’s not at all far-fetched to see the Bulls possibly fighting for perhaps the eighth seed, if all goes right.
4th Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for their work this offseason. For years, the Bulls seemed more concerned with qualifying for a bottom-four seed playoff position than constructing a team that could actually contend for a title. Coby White falling to seventh is more fortunate than anything else, but it’s a nice result regardless for the Bulls, who were in desperate need for a long-term answer at point guard. I also like the signing of Thaddeus Young and sign-and-trade for Tomas Satoransky, who could be a nice placeholder at point guard while White develops. Drafting Daniel Gafford in the second round was another solid move, especially considering that Robin Lopez left the team in free agency. Adding White and Gafford to a core featuring Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison is a solid outcome for the Bulls, who suddenly have a path to building a future contender.
4th Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Bulls have had enough swings at the NBA Draft pinata, they have got to come out of one of them with the gem. Is that gem Coby White? There is so much young talent in Chicago right now that it’s hard not to be optimistic that one of those guys turns into a real star, and that might be all Chicago needs to jump out of the basement. If not, the Bulls might have the best collection of trade chips in the NBA if a major star player hits the market. The Bulls sniffed at Anthony Davis this past summer but were unwilling to meet the asking price, that could change if the current bunch of youth doesn’t turn the corner. The Bulls could be the sneaky play to be in the hunt for the eighth seed in the East. Last year it was Orlando that turned the corner — this time, it could be Chicago.
4th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Bulls used their cap room to bring in players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, joining the team’s core of Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Porter has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $28.5 million, but he doesn’t have to decide on it until next June. That’s probably too large an amount for him to turn down, but that’s certainly a key decision point in Chicago’s future planning.
Without Porter, the team could have up to $33.7 million in cap space next summer. Otherwise, the team will probably be over the cap, barring trade. The team also has Kris Dunn going into the final year of his contract. Both Denzel Washington and Dunn are eligible for extensions before the start of the season, but neither seems likely. The Bulls will presumably pick up the team options for Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen before November.
By acquiring Satoransky via sign and trade from the Washington Wizards, the Bulls are hard-capped at $138.9 million, well above their team payroll of roughly $114 million.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine
Let’s not overthink this – Lauri Markkanen may be Chicago’s best player, but Zach LaVine has earned the title of top offensive player to this point. Last season, LaVine averaged 23.7 points on 18 shot attempts per game. He finished with a true shooting percentage of .574, barely missing his career-high despite shooting at a higher rate and with more field goals going unassisted. He carried the offense for long stretches last year, posting the seventh-highest usage in the league. Plus, forced into a playmaking role, LaVine showed an improved ability to create for teammates with a 22.5 percent assist rate, putting him in the 95th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass.
The only thing that held LaVine back last season — similar to much of the Bulls — was injury. LaVine has played 87 games in two years since being traded as part of the Jimmy Butler deal and only reached 47 games in Minnesota the season before that. The good news is that, although he’s entering his sixth year in the NBA, LaVine is still only 24. With good health this season, LaVine could be looking at his first All-Star bid – and many more in the seasons ahead.
Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.
Just as we predicted last year, Wendell Carter Jr. was and is the best defensive player in Chicago. Carter led the team in blocks per game at 1.3 and block rate at 4.5 percent. He had the highest defensive box plus-minus and was one of the few players with a positive impact despite his status as a rookie. Carter also rebounded the ball well, posting seven double-doubles in his shortened rookie season and averaging right at ten rebounds per game per 36 minutes.
Carter has been compared to Al Horford, and he showed flashes of that defensive flexibility last season. Carter was able to fit well next to the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen because of his fairly solid ability to guard smaller, quicker players. This becomes all the more important down the road, where playoff games can be won and lost on a big’s ability to contain guards. Of course, Horford has been doing this for years. If last season’s small sample size was any indication, Carter could be well on his way.
Top Playmaker: Tomas Satoransky
Stepping in for the injured John Wall, Tomas Satoransky enjoyed a 3.33/1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He averaged five assists per game in only 27 minutes every night. Even better, he did so with a low usage rate of only 14.1 percent, meaning that Satoransky was a capable playmaker without having the ball as often as many point guards.
Last week, Basketball Insiders touched on Satoransky’s knack for using pace to open up opportunities for himself and others. His ability to seamlessness blend into an offense, while still being assertive and putting his teammates in spots they can succeed, bodes well for the inexperienced Bulls this year. But Satoransky can be a leading man too – he’s currently averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game for the Czech Republic in the FIBA World Cup.
Top Clutch Player: Zach LaVine
This is another tough one, but we’re going to give the edge to LaVine over Markkanen here as well. Clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or less. LaVine played 36 more clutch minutes than Markkanen, scored 1.3 more points per clutch situation and scored 39.6 percent of Chicago’s points in crunch time compared to Markkanen’s 22 percent.
Throwing out small sample sizes, LaVine trailed only James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard in clutch usage, per NBA.com.
LaVine also gets a small advantage because of his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim late in games. There is no better example of this than Mar. 6, when he capped off a 39-point night with a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia.
Markkanen will surely get his chances in clutch situations now that he’s back and healthy. In fact, the Bulls’ best option in these situations will likely be a pick and roll between LaVine and the Finish standout. But, for the time being, LaVine is Chicago’s top clutch performer.
The Unheralded Player: Shaquille Harrison
Second on the team in defensive box plus-minus and first in defensive win shares, Shaquille Harrison is an important rotation player that is often forgotten. Per Cleaning The Glass, Harrison is in the 98th percentile in steal rate at 2.7 percent, tied with Jimmy Butler and ahead of Kawhi Leonard.
Via NBA.com, Harrison was fourth in the entire NBA last season in steals and deflections per 36 minutes and tied for first in loose balls recovered. He was fantastic defensively and thrived under Boylen, who increased Harrison’s minutes to around 20 per game after taking over in December.
For a team that finished 25th in defensive rating and 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Harrison was a sparkplug and the team’s best defender, routinely putting pressure on opposing guards all over the court.
The Bulls added Satoransky and rookie Coby White, plus retained LaVine, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt. Still, there is a reason they brought back Shaq Harrison as well.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young/Otto Porter Jr.
Is this cheating? Yes, because Otto Porter Jr. arrived last year. However, he only played 15 games – and what an impressive 15 games it was. Porter averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over that stretch and shot a scorching 48.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts per game. Porter was a pricey acquisition, but he adds consistency, versatility and a veteran wing presence to a young team trying to get back to the playoffs.
And what does Thaddeus Young bring to the table? The same thing! Chicago signed Young to a three-year, $41 million-dollar deal this offseason to shore up their bench and add a player with playoff experience to the roster. Young has been to the playoffs in eight of his 13 seasons, including the past three in a row with Indiana.
Both Porter and Young are exactly what these Bulls need heading into 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lauri Markkanen
Finally, a place to give the Finnish big man some unaccompanied love. As mentioned, Markkanen is probably Chicago’s best player. He has shown flashes of brilliance in two seasons and health is really the only thing holding him back. In 52 games last year, Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of .553. He is a modern big who takes 67 percent of his field goals either from three or at the rim and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line for his career. The Bulls are plus-5.2 points better with him on the floor than off, good for the 89th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Like LaVine, an injury-free year could lead to Markkanen’s first All-Star appearance.
2. Coby White
The seventh overall pick in this year’s draft is an explosive scorer and prolific shooter. He averaged 16.1 points per game in his lone year at North Carolina and shot 35.3 percent in 232 attempts from three. His production this year will be vital to Chicago reaching their ceiling, but with Satoransky in tow, White can progress at his own pace.
3. Daniel Gafford
The Bulls’ other rookie should also make an impact this season. Gafford showed tremendous athleticism at Arkansas and in summer league and will look to provide quality back-up minutes and rim protection in his first season. In Las Vegas, Gafford brought the thunder by averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 68.3 percent from the field in just 24.9 minutes per game. Rim-protection is a serious need for postseason-ready franchises and Gafford, at some point, has all the tools to fit the bill.
4. Denzel Valentine
After missing all of last season with an ankle injury, Valentine is back with more opportunity than he has seen in his career. No longer forced to stand and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo, Valentine now has a chance in his third year to show why he was college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan State.
– Drew Mays
Chicago will have a full offseason to prepare under Boylen and they have even more young talent than last year. LaVine has a year under his belt as a primary offensive option, Markkanen and Carter will be healthy, and the trio of Satoransky, Porter and Young give the Bulls veterans to lean on. Whether Chicago can successfully marriage the roster splits between young and old remains to be seen, but it’s a solid problem to have, overall, and they’ll be in the mix out in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can.
– Drew Mays
Obviously, the Bulls need to improve on both ends of the floor. Last season, they were 29th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions at 104.9 and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 113.7. Detroit, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, finished 21st and 12th in those categories, respectively. While that large of a defensive jump is unreasonable, Chicago will need to make improvements in order to become a playoff team. If they’re functionally the same team as last year — but a little bit healthier and with White — then the Bulls will still struggle.
– Drew Mays
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Chicago go over their projected win total of 32.5?
An 11-win jump for the Bulls may seem unlikely. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from last year will be the favorites to make it again this spring, while Miami and Atlanta both got better this offseason.
But regardless of how you feel about head coach Jim Boylen, the defensive-minded coach has all of training camp to establish his philosophy, one that follows analytical trends and forces teams to play in the midrange. That plus the new roster additions and the health of LaVine, Markkanen and Carter Jr. have Chicago primed to overperform. We’re bullish on the Bulls and expect them to win over 32 games in 2019-2020.
– Drew Mays
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — March 6
With the All-Star break upon us, the Sixth Man of the Year award would appear to have a heavy favorite. Ariel Pacheco examines.
With the All-Star break upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the candidates for Sixth Man of the Year. In comparison to other award races, the race for the Sixth Man is a lot more clear-cut in terms of the favorite and their competitors.
There are certainly plenty of players that are having great seasons off the bench but, due to a variety of reasons, are out of contention for the award. Still, their play is deserving of recognition: Terrence Ross is averaging 15.5 points per game for an Orlando Magic team that has fallen out of playoff contention due to terrible injury luck. Montrezl Harrell, last year’s winner, has seen his numbers dip significantly with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — he’s still productive, but his 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game just won’t cut it this season. Tyrese Haliburton has been a surprise, but the rookie and his 13.2 points, 5.4 assists and 43.3 three-point percentage off the bench has been a bright spot for an otherwise bad Sacramento Kings squad.
That said, while they’ve performed well, none of those players — and many others — have a real chance to compete for the award. In fact, barring a major mixup in the season’s second half, the race to the award might come down to just three individuals.
3. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets are in the midst of what is currently the longest losing streak by any team this season. They’ve lost 13 in a row and have completely fallen out of the playoff picture. Houston’s poor record hurts Gordon’s case, but the 32-year-old is still putting up big numbers and, despite a hefty salary over the next few seasons, may even be a guy teams look to add at the trade deadline.
Gordon is averaging 17.8 points per game, the second-most by any bench player this season. He hasn’t been as consistent from beyond the three-point line as in years past, or when he won the award back in 2017, but Gordon’s still more than capable from distance and has been one of the league’s best at attacking the rim. Gordon has also provided some excellent on-ball defense.
Gordon has become a perennial candidate for the award — and for good reason. Still, at this point, it’s hard to justify him over the other two candidates in these rankings.
2. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors
The opposite of a household name prior to the 2020-21 season, Boucher has burst onto the scene and been a revelation for the Toronto Raptors. His play has been a needed spark for a team that struggled mightily out of the gate but has since turned their season around. So far this season, Boucher has, by far, been Toronto’s most consistent and important big — and he’s been so despite the fact that he plays just 23.8 minutes per game.
Averaging 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, Boucher has slid nicely into a role similar to what Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol fuflilled a season ago. And, despite a janky-jumper, Boucher has made his presence felt on the outside, hitting 44.5 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game and clearing major space down low for Toronto’s offense.
In almost any other season, Boucher would have a strong case for the top spot on this list. But, as it stands, may not even garner any first place votes for the 2020-21 iteration of the award.
1. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
Because Jordan Clarkson has just been that good.
This year’s runaway favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, there just aren’t many arguments that stand up to what Clarkson’s been able to do this season. He’s scoring the most of any candidate and doing so on great efficiency. Further, he’s proven the offensive fulcrum for the bench of the best team in the NBA.
Clarkson is averaging 17.9 points with a true shooting percetnage of 58.1 percent. He’s been consistent yet forceful offensive punch for the Jazz and their second unit, scoring in double digits in all but one of Utah’s games this season, including a 40-point outburst agaisnt the Philadelphia 76ers’ top-tier defense and 10 games with 20 or more. While All-Stars Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley deserve a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s success this season, Clarkson has also played an integral role.
Were the vote cast today, Clarkson’s selection for the Sixth Man of the Year award would likely be unanimous — again, he’s been that good. Utah recently gave him a four-year, $52 million deal and, if Clarkson can continue to play at this level, he’ll prove that deal a steal for the Jazz in short order.
For now, this is where the race to the Sixth Man of the Year award stands — but anything could happen in the second half of the season. With that in mind, keep on the lookout for Basketball Insiders’ next peek at the race.
NBA Daily: Washington’s Positionless Rebuild
Drew Maresca explains why the Washington Wizards’ are closer to legitimacy than you might think
Upon first glance, the Washington Wizards look like an absolute train wreck. They traded away a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick to swap out John Wall for Russell Westbrook – whose contract will haunt them through the end of 2022-23 – and they are on the verge of chasing away their 27-year-old, thirty-point per game scoring guard, Bradley Beal. So insert your “Washington can’t get their stuff together” comment here while you can, because the opportunity won’t be here for long.
Before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s worth acknowledging that the Wizards have, in fact, botched the opportunity to build a winner around Beal thus far. But, when John Wall opted to have heal surgery and subsequently ruptured his Achilles, the door shut on that option, anyway.
There is an obvious silver lining – Beal is signed through the end of next season with a player option for 2022-23. Given what the Milwaukee Bucks gave up for Jrue Holiday last offseason, one could assume that the Wizards would get more than enough to jump-start a rebuild in exchange for Beal.
But a look closer at Washington’s roster would reveal they’ve quietly laid a foundation for the future. Specifically, the Wizards’ last two lottery picks, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, embody position-less basketball, as versatile, highly skilled players who can be plugged into almost any lineup. Both were recently named to the Rising Star challenge — although it won’t be played due to inherent limitations in the arrangement of the 2021 All-Star Weekend, NBA coaches clearly agree. Sure, there’s international appeal given Hachimura’s Japanese background and Avdija’s Israeli heritage, which one could surmise was a major motivator in naming one or both to the team, but coaches aren’t known for playing politics.
So let’s take a closer look at the young Wizards hoping to lead Washington into the future.
Avdija is a top-flight, Israeli prospect who played on for EuroLeauge’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv – alongside former pros Amare Stoudemire and Omri Casspi – as a teenager for the past two seasons. He entered the NBA as a highly-touted playmaker, capable of playing and defending multiple positions. Somewhat surprisingly, Avdija fell to the Wizards with the ninth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, as he was rated as the fourth-best prospect by the Wizards’ front office prior to the draft, according to sources.
The comparisons between Avdija and Luka Doncic were inevitable, as both are big, point forward types with a flair for the dramatic. That put obvious pressure on the young forward and, while he’s struggled for much of his rookie season – Avdija is averaging just 6.0 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game while connecting on 35.6% of his three-point attempts – his ceiling is obviously sky-high. He’s shown flashes of his greatness, like in a game in early March in which he recorded 10 points, 7 rebounds; or an early January game in which he collected 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
Further, no one should be discouraged by Avdija’s struggles. First, he shot just 27.7% on three-point attempts last season in the EuroLeague – so his three-point percentage this season should come as a huge relief. Further, Avdija is averaging just 21.4 minutes per game, often deferring to Beal and Westbrook (and, to a lesser degree, Hachimura and Thomas Bryant). So, as much as everyone wanted him to be the next Doncic, the opportunity simply hasn’t been there.
But the potential is.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks explained some of what’s went wrong for Avdija’s thus far: “It’s normal to have some good moments and some tough moments. Every player, every single player in this league. I’m sure Michael [Jordan] had a couple of bad games in his rookie year. Every player. Russell [Westbrook], I coached him his rookie year. He’s had a handful.”
“Deni’s gonna be a good player,” Brooks continued. “For all the rookies in the league, it’s never happened where you had no Summer League, really no training camp and then with the safety protocol, he missed three weeks in the middle of the season. That’s hard to overcome.”
To Brooks’ point, the lack of preparation has definitely made the transition for Avdija even harder. What’s more, it’s not just Avdija who’s struggled; Obi Toppin (New York) and Devin Vassell (San Antonio), two of the more refined prospects, have also struggled to get carve out a consistent role.
Further, Avdija isn’t the first lanky foreigner who needed more than a third of a season to acclimate to the NBA; Dirk Nowitzki averaged just 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie; Manu Ginobili averaged just 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game; Danilo Gallinari averaged just 6.1 points in 14.6 minutes per game. The list goes on.
Once he gets an actual opportunity, Avdija’s bandwagon should fill up quickly.
If Avdija is Washington’s future facilitator, then Hachimura is its finisher. And, while questions plague Avdija’s performance, Hachimura is being praised for his.
To be fair, Hachimura is farther along in his development, with one NBA season already under his belt (and three years at Gonzaga). Hachimura, already 23, is a bit more refined and it shows in his output: 13.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists this season.
That said, a closer look at Hachimura’s play shows room for improvement – with a below league-average 12.9 PER and a 29.2% three-point percentage serving as his most glaring weaknesses. But, like with Avdija, the upside is clear as day. We’re talking about a second-year player who scored 15 or more points 11 times so far this season – just 26 games. He’s strong, polished and bouncier than advertised prior to the 2019 draft.
Further, a closer examination of his shooting numbers reveals that while his three-point shooting clearly needs work, his mid-range game is spot on. Hachimura is connecting on 41.2% of his shots from between 16 feet and the three-point arc – better than noted midrange expert Carmelo Anthony (37%) and just hair behind All-Star forward Jayson Tatum (42.9%).
But Hachimura’s offensive abilities have been known for what feels like forever, partially due to the ridiculously long 2019-20 season. What’s surprising, though, is how he’s continued to improve on the defensive end – so much so, in fact, that Brooks specifically called out his defensive development after a recent game.
But no one should be that surprised. Hachimura’s combination of speed and strength, along with his high motor, is tailor-made for defensive success. And, again, like Avdija, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura’s versatility is his major selling point. He boasts size, dexterity, touch and handle. And, while his skill set has become far more common in the NBA, plug-and-play guys of Hachimura’s build are still relatively rare. And, most importantly, they allow teams to get creative in roster construction, enabling the addition of players whose deficiencies could be covered up by players like Hachimura.
Ultimately, neither Avdija nor Hachimura is a guarantee. Both possess serious upside and could grow into perennial All-Stars, but neither is a sure thing. Their attitudes and approaches will be a major determining factor in their success, or lack thereof.
The Wizards could look very different as soon as next season. But, as of now, Washington looks ready to tackle its rebuild — and, between these two, they may already have a headstart.
Blink and you might just miss their entire rebuild.
NBA Daily: Three Teams Failing Expectations
Expectations were extremely high for three teams entering this season. A variety of factors have derailed their trajectory but there may still be time to address their issues and turn their seasons around.
Every offseason presents the opportunity for organizations to revamp their rosters in hopes of improving their team for the upcoming season. Between the NBA Draft and the free agency period, executives are busy around the clock. The flurry of phone calls and internal discussions among management is key to molding the future.
But the league found itself in an unfamiliar position this past year with the delayed season, the playoffs in the Orlando “bubble” and a shortened offseason that went by in the blink of an eye. The first preseason game tipped off exactly two months after the final game of the NBA Finals. The turnaround was quick and complicated for everyone involved.
That said, several teams were able to capitalize on the abbreviated turnaround. The Phoenix Suns knocked it out of the park with the Chris Paul trade and signing of Jae Crowder. The Charlotte Hornets nailed the draft and free agency, as Michael Jordan landed both Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball. The New York Knicks found success in the draft with Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin. The Brooklyn Nets added excellent role players in Bruce Brown and Jeff Green while re-signing Joe Harris, who has been worth every penny.
Some teams appeared as though they had hit a home run, only to see the ball being caught at the warning track. The hype and buzz surrounding these teams were well warranted at the time, but things just haven’t panned out for a variety of reasons. With the All-Star break finally here, these three teams would welcome the idea of hitting the “undo” button on their offseason moves.
The Raptors find themselves sitting two games under .500 entering the All-Star break. While they are certainly not out of contention, they are a far cry from where most people thought they would be at this point. It began with a rocky start to the season, where they dug themselves a massive hole with a 2-8 record.
The crux of their struggles came with their frontcourt issues. Both Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka took the Kawhi Leonard route from Toronto to Los Angeles in the offseason. Losing one of their big men hurt, but losing both of them was crippling. The signings of Aron Baynes and Alex Len looked okay on paper, but the fit could not have been worse. Toronto currently ranks dead last in rebounding as a team.
Toronto ended up waiving Len, while Baynes has seen his role reduced even more. Fortunately, the emergence of Chris Boucher and Norman Powell has helped the Raptors turn their season around. Draft picks Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris haven’t had a major impact, but Pascal Siakam finally snapped out of his bubble fog and Kyle Lowry is healthy once again as well.
One good thing that the Raptors were able to do in the offseason was retain their sensational guard Fred VanVleet. Toronto has seemingly turned things around over the past few weeks and, considering they are playing all of their home games 1,400 miles away from their arena, they are positioned for a much better second half of the season.
Last season, the Mavericks boasted the best offense in the entire league, led by MVP-candidate Luka Doncic. The goal for them in the offseason was to acquire a defensive presence that could get this team more balanced. It appeared as though they addressed that when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson. Unfortunately, that has not been the case early on.
Dallas was also looking for an upgrade at the center position, but they missed out. They ended up having to settle for bringing back Willie Cauley-Stein on a two-year deal for $8.2 million. As a team, the Mavericks rank 24th in rebounding. James Johnson has been a solid addition, but he alone was not nearly enough to upgrade their porous defense.
Kristaps Porzingis has been quite inconsistent this season, so it is difficult to know what they are going to get from him every night. He is nowhere near the defensive presence that he was during his time in New York. Richardson is the guy that Dallas has been waiting on to provide outstanding perimeter defense, but he too has been unable to piece it together on a nightly basis.
The Mavericks did not find anything in the draft and it seems as though, once again, Doncic is having to do everything for this team in order for them to have success. His 36.2 percent usage rate is the highest in the league and that doesn’t appear to be going down anytime soon. If you are going to give the keys to the entire offense to someone, he is a good choice but Dallas struck out in terms of giving their franchise player more help this season.
No team had won the offseason quite like the Hawks. The organization was able to surround its franchise player with truckloads of talent in free agency. They added elite shooters like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari. They added key defensive guards in Kris Dunn and two-time champion Rajon Rondo. They even scored more talent in the draft, taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick.
Atlanta lost no players of significant value, either, as general manager Travis Schlenk added to his already loaded young nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter. The problem here is that there are just too many overlapping pieces.
The veterans that were brought in either haven’t been able to get on the floor or are taking up valuable minutes for the younger players, potentially stunting their growth. The workload has been spread thanks to their depth as they deal with all of the injuries but there is no chemistry on the floor. In a season where practice time is near non-existent, that is a real problem.
Kevin Huerter on Lloyd Pierce: “Obviously, our problems extend a lot further than Lloyd, so in a lot of ways, he was the one that kind of took the hit for it.”
Huerter says he sent Lloyd a text thanking him for his time in Atlanta.
— Sarah K. Spencer (@sarah_k_spence) March 3, 2021
The Hawks hit the All-Star break in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a disappointing 16-20 record. The game is being played in their backyard, yet they don’t even have a player to represent them. And, in recent days, it’s gotten even worse; the team officially fired head coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday, with Nate McMillan set to take over as interim coach.
Atlanta has played 36 games this season. Their nine best players have missed a combined 143 games. Not including Dunn, who hasn’t played all season, that number is still well over 100 games missed. This locker room is a mixed bag of players that lack leadership and desperately need guidance. Pierce wasn’t the answer and Vince Carter isn’t walking through those doors anytime soon.