The Detroit Pistons hit the reset button on their culture this offseason without making significant roster changes. The Stan Van Gundy era officially ended after the 2017-18 season. With new head coach Dwane Casey at the helm, the Pistons hope to achieve more success in the form of playoff wins; the Pistons did not win a single playoff game – let alone series – in Van Gundy’s four years as coach and general manager.
But Van Gundy didn’t leave the cupboard entirely bare. While the Pistons are unlikely to compete for championships in the near future, the team has enough talent on the roster to surprise people this season. And the team hasn’t even been together long enough to appropriately set expectations.
The trade that redefined the Pistons just prior to last season’s trade deadline netted it Blake Griffin, who represents a clear upgrade in talent. Yes, the team’s lost 2018 first-round pick stings, as does Griffin’s contract, which stretches until 2021-22; however, the team’s roster is better positioned for success in 2018-19 than it was entering last season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Detroit Pistons were relatively quiet this summer but have reason to be optimistic heading into the 2018-19 season. The Pistons named Dwane Casey as the team’s new head coach with the hope that he can provide the same kind of internal improvement he generated in his tenure with the Toronto Raptors. Casey has talent to work with, including Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond. It’s unclear how far Casey can take this team as constructed but outside of the Celtics, 76ers and Raptors, the Eastern Conference is essentially wide open. Detroit has the opportunity to jump into the second tier of Eastern Conference contenders and make some noise in the postseason. However, that will require Casey to generate significant chemistry between his core players and instill a culture that allows him to maximize the talent he has available on the roster.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Stan Van Gundy era may be over in Detroit, but his aura still lingers all over the roster. This is a capped-out roster paying nearly $75 million to Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson alone, and that’s a scary thought when you consider that the Pistons went just 11-14 with Griffin in the lineup following their acquisition of the big-name power forward from Los Angeles. Does a culture change in the form of Dwane Casey do enough to overhaul things and turn this group into a legitimate contender in the East? The Pistons had very few options to improve the roster over the summer, mostly tinkering around the margins on the personnel side. They’ll be counting on renewed continuity from the core plus some ingenuity from Casey to propel them a lot further than last season’s disappointing 39-win showing.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Ben Dowsett
Could we be underestimating the Pistons? They will have their roster back fully healthy, Blake Griffin should be fully acclimated, and Dwane Casey is the reigning Coach of the Year. Even if it’s not a contender, that roster still has good talent to work with. Andre Drummond’s notable growth as a player fell under the radar thanks to the Pistons’ struggles last season. Should Detroit improve from last season, he could make the All-Star team without having to be a replacement. Also, outside of Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have plenty of trade-able contracts at the helm. Expect the front office to be on the lookout if someone good becomes available.
3rd Place – Central Division
– Matt John
Might a change in philosophy and leadership be the answer in the Motor City? We’ll find out. Dwane Casey has decided to take on the task of being the head coach of a Pistons team that always seems to stay where it’s at in the middle of the pack. Health is going to be what defines their season. Between Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin, the two missed 61 total games combined. Detroit will need these guys in order to progress towards the goal of the playoffs. Though he’s a double-double machine and two-time All-Star, it’s not like Andre Drummond can do it by himself. Still, bringing in Casey will benefit all parties involved for the long haul. Can they put it together?
4th Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
$123 million; that’s what the Pistons have in guaranteed contracts going into the 2018-19 season. That’s seems like an awful lot for a team that may not win 45 games. The Pistons are trapped in a lot of really bad decisions, and unfortunately as good a coach as Dwane Casey, this roster just seems like a look of square pegs and not many square holes. There is a good possibility that Blake Griffin emerges as an elite All-Star in the East, he has that kind of potential, but its hard to envision that this Pistons team isn’t going to be much more than .500 and that means playoffs at best, but an early exit in May.
5th Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin
This one is a no-brainer. Griffin is the only career 20 point per game scorer on the roster. He is entering his ninth season, and his game is still incredibly effective despite relying on his athleticism. Only he no longer relies exclusively on athleticism.
Griffin has slowly but surely morphed into a true point forward: initiating fast breaks, throwing lobs and shooting from distance. When healthy he can score the ball effectively, create for others, shoot the ball and finish around the rim better than almost anyone not named Russell Westbrook. If he can produce like he has in years past, the Pistons will present problems for many Eastern Conference foes.
Top Defensive Player: Stanley Johnson
Johnson has not developed exactly as the Pistons had hoped, but his upside remains – especially on the defensive side of the ball. NBADraft.net favorably compared Johnson to Kawhi Leonard and/or Ron Artest in its 2015 NBA Draft scouting report.
This prognosis has obviously not come to fruition, but Johnson remains a long, smart defender who can still lock down good wings. In fact, Coach Casey suggested at his own introductory press conference that Johnson is the best defensive matchup for the league’s best player, LeBron James.
Look for Johnson to play a bigger role in 2018-19. If he’s successful, Johnson’s career trajectory could take a positive turn. And much of Johnson’s overall success, as well as the team’s, will be tied to his defense and motor.
Top Playmaker: Reggie Jackson
Griffin received serious consideration given his ability to create and lead fast breaks relative to his peers, but Jackson is the right answer. Jackson is a creative and confident lead guard. In his only professional season playing more than 60 games (79 games played in 2015-16), Jackson posted 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game en route to 44 wins and the team’s only playoff berth since 2009.
So while Griffin is the team’s best player and first option, Jackson’s influence is potentially as great in that he changes the pace of the game and creates scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. This is exemplified perfectly by the following statistic: when Jackson injured his left ankle on December 26, 2017 – which sidelined him for 37 games – the Pistons were five games above .500. The team went 20-29 following his injury.
Top Clutch Player: Reggie Jackson
It’s difficult to refer to any of the Detroit Pistons as clutch. Some are more so than others, though, and Reggie Jackson is the most clutch of the bunch.
Jackson is viewed as injury-prone more so than clutch. And to be fair, he has missed a combined 126 games in his seven seasons in the league. But Jackson is also a confident shooter who is not afraid of big moments. His swagger is infectious to teammates and fans. If Jackson stays healthy and can lead the Pistons to playoff victories, he can begin to change his narrative from fragile to clutch.
The Unheralded Player(s): Ish Smith and Glen Robinson III
The Pistons have two players who could easily overachieve this season. The first is Ish Smith, a journeyman guard who has played for 10 teams in his eight NBA seasons. But don’t let Smith’s transient nature mislead you into thinking he doesn’t get results. Smith is a crafty six-foot tall guard with a motor that more than makes up for his lack of size. He is a good finisher who can get buckets in a hurry. He averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 assists per game while posting a 15.4 PER in a full 82 games last season, 35 of which he started. Smith is reliable and dynamic in ways that a lot of backup players are not. His contract isn’t ideal at $6 million in 2018-19, but it’s far from the worst deal on the roster.
Glen Robinson III is the Pistons’ other sleeper. He was a second round pick and has mostly flown under the radar throughout his career. He was beginning to find a role in Indiana two seasons ago, where he logged career highs in minutes per game (20.7), points per game (6.1) and rebounds per game (3.6), but a poorly timed ankle injury prohibited him from continuing to improve. Robinson is an above-average three-point shooter who can still slash and finish around the rim. He is not a big time difference maker, but if the Robinson reaches his potential in the near future, consider him a steal at $4 million.
Best New Addition: Dwane Casey
The 2018 NBA Coach of the Year joined the Pistons shortly after being fired from his job in Toronto, but not before he led the Raptors to a franchise-best 59-win season in 2017-18. He possesses a calming influence few coaches have and is widely viewed as a player-friendly coach, unlike his predecessor, Stan Van Gundy. Coach Casey must now go about developing trust with the Pistons’ roster. If Casey can maximize the potential in the Griffin-Drummond-Jackson big three, then the team should have a relatively successful season.
Looking beyond next season, challenges remain in the form of the Pistons’ 2019-20 cap situation. Casey must focus on developing camaraderie and getting the most out of each player this season so his roster can hopefully continue overachieving the following season. After all, the Pistons are cash-strapped through 2020 and have limited resources to improve the roster via free agency next year.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Andre Drummond
The six-year veteran has been mostly effective throughout his career thus far save for free throw shooting. But who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Drummond shot a much-improved .605 from the free throw line last season after shooting a dismal .386 the year prior. In fact, prior to last season, he had never shot above .418. Will he continue shooting free throws at the same rate as last season? Might he improve? The Pistons hope so, because while he is an obvious target for intentional fouls, Drummond is also a difference maker. He posted a PER of 22.9 in 2017-18, which is just slightly higher than his career average (21.8). He is an above average athlete who is constantly among the league leaders in rebounds. He is also a strong finisher and an above-average shot blocker.
2. Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia
Simply because of their veteran know-how and grit, Calderon and Pachulia are assumed to be one addition for this piece. Neither is likely to log heavy minutes, but the Pistons roster lacked a veteran presence. In Calderon, the team added a high IQ player and a patient leader. Similarly, the team added savviness and fortitude in Pachulia. The Pistons need both to influence the rest of the roster as much as possible so the team develops poise.
3. Luke Kenard
Kenard performed as expected for a late-lottery pick – inconsistently. The 2017 first-round pick showed flashes, though, especially down the stretch. In the final three games of the season, Kenard scored 18, 20 and 23 points, respectively. Further, when given the opportunity to play 30-plus minutes, Kenard averaged 16.5 points per game. He is a strong three-point shooter, but needs to be put in the position to shoot more regularly. He should benefit from the leadership of Coach Casey and veterans like those outlined above. Thankfully for the Pistons, he remains relatively cheap for as long as the next three years given his rookie deal.
4. Bruce Brown Jr.
It remains a long shot that Brown develops into a serviceable player for the 2018-19 season. Brown dropped to the second round due in part to a foot injury that cost him much of his sophomore season. But the 6-foot-5 point guard impressed the Pistons front office as well as others around the league with his summer league performance. In four games, Brown averaged 12.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Brown must work on shooting more consistently, but he is a tenacious defender whose ceiling is a poor man’s Russell Westbrook. But Brown must ignore those comparisons and focus on becoming the best version of himself. If he develops properly, he could be the Pistons’ next starting point guard.
– Drew Maresca
The Pistons possess two of the better big men in the league: Blake Griffin and Andrew Drummond. Griffin enters his first full season as a member of the Pistons with ample experience playing alongside an athletic, albeit limited, center. Drummond is similar in many ways to Griffin’s former frontcourt mate, DeAndre Jordan. And the two complement each other equally nicely. Griffin is an excellent passer and Drummond is a strong, agile finisher.
But the Pistons must exploit mismatches as much as possible prior to the final minutes of close games. While the team is hoping that Drummond’s free throw shooting continues to improve like it did last season, he is still a liability, shooting .605 from the line. Further, as teams continue to play with smaller, more versatile lineups, how can Drummond stay on the court when opponents attack him in pick-and-rolls? Unfortunately, that means the team will likely need to limit late game minutes in which Griffin and Drummond are on the court together.
– Drew Maresca
Unfortunately for the Pistons, they play in the NBA and not the Big3. The team has a solid core centered around Drummond, Jackson and Griffin that can score points, block shots and clean the glass. But the team’s effectiveness will likely be compromised as games wear on.
The Pistons are especially thin at the wing positions, with Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson as projected starters. Neither has been a consistent contributor, and it only gets worse from there. Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Glenn Robinson III are likely to be the back-up wings. And while all have strengths and upside, the Pistons need proven players, not assets.
Additionally, the Pistons’ roster lacks a reliable backup center. Yes, the team signed Zaza Pachulia, but he is as much a locker room voice as he is a contributor at this stage of his career. Lucky for the Pistons, the league has deemphasized the need for meaty bigs. But if the Pistons fail to address any of its depth issues, the team’s core will be run ragged from the strains of the 82-game schedule.
– Drew Maresca
The Burning Question:
Can the Pistons’ stars stay healthy?
Yes, the team has talent. No, it’s not likely to be enough to propel them deep into playoffs. But for most teams in the NBA, making noise in the playoffs constitutes a successful season. While the playoffs should be as near a sure thing as exists in the NBA, all of the team’s success is contingent on health.
And the Pistons are headlined by two oft-injured stars: Jackson and Griffin. In fact, they have missed 67 and 107 games over the last two seasons, respectively. But the other side of that argument is when all three of the Jackson-Drummond-Griffin triumvirate played together – only 44 minutes in 2017-18 – they outscored opponents by 13.7 per 100 possessions.
Jackson and Griffin must remain on the court alongside Drummond as much as possible for Detroit to reach its potential. They are all impactful separately, but the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The Pistons’ front office recently identified injury issues as a point of emphasis. The team attempted to combat them by bringing back former strength and conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, this offseason as an injury consultant. Kander has historically emphasized stretching and range of motion exercises. While this alone does not guarantee any player’s health, it shows that the team is taking its players’ health seriously.
Further, Van Gundy’s preference for long, grueling practices can lead to fatigue, which can easily cause injuries. Conversely, Casey’s philosophy on practice is to wrap them up more quickly in at attempt to preserve his players’ bodies. If the Pistons can remain healthy, they could see themselves back in the playoffs in a less top heavy Eastern Conference.
– Drew Maresca
NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation
D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.
In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.
Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.
His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?
The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.
Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.
Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.
Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.
First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.
If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.
Of course things are different now.
After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.
It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.
— D'Angelo Russell (@Dloading) March 23, 2019
This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.
It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.
What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.
Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.
Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.
More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.
In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.
Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.
There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.
This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.
It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.
So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.
NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home
Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?
There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.
And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.
Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.
At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.
See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.
Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.
While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?
This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.
Los Angeles Clippers
With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.
In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.
Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.
Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.
Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.
Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.
The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.
If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.
Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.
New Orleans Pelicans
Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.
This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.
Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.
With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.
And he did all that in New Orleans.
Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.
With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.
It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.
That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.
So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?
What is Working
Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.
The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.
He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.
Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.
There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.
More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.
What Needs to Change
The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.
Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.
Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.
The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.
And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.
Focus Area: The Draft
As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.
Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.
Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.
Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.
Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.
Focus Area: Free Agency
While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.
Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.
Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.
The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough
Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.