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Fixing The Chicago Bulls

Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.

Spencer Davies

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Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.

In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.

Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.

There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.

What Is Working

If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.

The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.

Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.

Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.

What Needs To Change

Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.

Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.

As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.

Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.

Focus Area: The Draft

Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.

Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.

Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.

If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.

Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.

The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.

Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.

Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.

There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.

All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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