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Knicks’ Struggles Show They Must Get With the Times

The Knicks’ antiquated offense and lack of impact guards are the biggest reasons for their struggles this season.

Tommy Beer

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The New York Knicks traveled to Golden State on Wednesday and, unsurprisingly, got demolished. It was the Warriors’ 50th straight home win and as has happened in so many of those 50 consecutive victories, the Warriors’ backcourt embarrassed their opponents. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson outscored the counterparts (Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic) 53 to six.

While getting annihilated by the incomparable combo of Curry and Thompson is certainly forgivable, this has been (unfortunately for New York) a constant theme all year long.

Earlier this month, the Portland Trail Blazers’ starting guards (Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum) poured in a combined 55 points at MSG in a Portland win. This defeat in particular highlighted what ails the disappointing Knicks, which lies in stark contrast to what has powered the surprisingly impressive play of the Blazers.

Specifically, the incredible importance of guard play in today’s NBA.

New York and Portland are two teams constructed quite differently. The Blazers have a below-average frontcourt (Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Moe Harkless), but have an terrific backcourt led by Lillard and McCollum. Portland has been one of the NBA’s most pleasant surprises this season. Despite losing five of their top six scorers from last season’s team, they are sitting at sixth in the Western Conference with a 35-33 record.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have a strong frontcourt (Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis and Robin Lopez), but have failed to overcome below-average guard play (and an antiquated offensive system – more on that later) all season. The Knicks are 28-41 and 13th in the Eastern Conference.

The moral of the story is that it’s very difficult to score efficiently enough to consistently win in today’s NBA if you do not have talented guards who have the ability to penetrate into the paint (setting up scoring opportunities for themselves and others) and knock down shots from behind the arc.

This certainly wasn’t always the case. For most of the league’s history, talented big men have been crucial cogs on championship teams/dynasties. Having a top-tier center was all but essential for sustained success. The league’s most important and most celebrated players were often big men who dominated the paint. This was especially true during the NBA’s formative years.

From 1957 through 1980, 22 of the 23 players named MVP were centers. Yes, only once over the course of that 23-year period did a non-center (Oscar Robertson in 1964) take home MVP honors. And in the 1990s, big men were again front and center. For instance, in 1993-94 (the first season following Michael Jordan’s initial retirement) four centers finished in the top five in MVP voting (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing).

However, the NBA has undergone a metamorphic change. Traditionally dominant back-to-the-basket centers are all but extinct. Guards and wings dominate the league in 2016. A center hasn’t taken home MVP honors since the early 2000s. In fact, over the last 11 years, only once has a center even cracked the top three in MVP voting.

Rule changes, both big and small (introduction of the three-point shot, allowance of zone defenses, elimination of hand checking that allows guards to more easily penetrate into the paint, etc.) have resulted in limiting the impact of post players. Consequently, the relative importance of guards and wings has skyrocketed. Today, the teams that are able to take advantage of this shifting landscape are the ones that often stand atop of the league standings.

Whereas it was once seemingly essential to have a dominant pivot, there is now a very strong correlation between league’s best teams and the teams with the best guards.

Take a look at the standings. There are six teams (the Warriors, Clippers, Thunder, Raptors, Spurs and Cavaliers) that have tallied more than 40 wins thus far this season. These six squads aren’t reliant on a dominant center and feature five of the better point guards in the NBA today (Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Kyrie Irving).

There are currently 10 guards in the NBA with a Player Efficiency Rating north of 20.5. All 10 of them play for teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today.

Of the top six teams in each conference, the average PER for those 12 point guards is 22.2.

In contrast, the 12 starting point guards for the teams with the 12 worst records in the NBA is just 13.2.

On a similar note, another differentiating statistic is the number of three-pointers each team makes. Interestingly, in a nod to the changing landscape of game, the 2015-16 campaign is on pace to become the first season in NBA history in which there are more three-pointers than free throws attempted. The teams that take and make the most threes tend to be the teams that rack up the most victories. Those near the bottom of the NBA in long-range attempts and makes tend to lose more often than they win.

Ten of the 11 teams that have made more than 600 three-pointers this season have winning records and would qualify for the playoffs if the regular season ended today. In contrast, nine of the 13 teams that have made fewer than 550 made three-pointers this season have losing records and will likely find themselves on the outside of the postseason picture looking in.

The late, great Al McGuire once said that every great team needs an “aircraft carrier,” a big man around which to build a franchise. Back in McGuire’s day, that was true. These days, you need a smaller, faster, quicker Naval fleet. Aircraft carriers serve to anchor an offense, which only slow teams down. In today’s NBA, a group of speed boats are preferable to a lumbering, larger ship.

Many of the players who are considered the best centers in the NBA this season play for teams far-below .500. Anthony Davis is an incredible two-way player, yet he can only carry the New Orleans Pelicans (25-42 record this season) so far by himself. DeMarcus Cousins’ Sacramento Kings are 15 games below .500. Brook Lopez’s Brooklyn Nets are 30 games below .500. Rising superstar Karl-Anthony Towns has exceeded even the loftiest expectations, yet the Minnesota Timberwolves are 25 games below .500. The Milwaukee Bucks (Greg Monroe) and the Orlando Magic (Nikola Vucevic) will also fail to qualify for the postseason.

There are 12 centers in the NBA with PERs above 17, yet only three of these centers play for teams that are playoff-bound.

Having a top-tier point guard is more important than it’s ever been.

Which bring us back to the Knicks.

Jose Calderon is simply no longer a starting-caliber point guard. Sasha Vujacic has started alongside Calderon in the New York backcourt for five straight games. They are unarguably the worst starting guard pairing in the NBA.

Further complicating matters, Phil Jackson has installed Kurt Rambis as his interim head coach and the Knicks stubbornly continue to run the Triangle Offense, despite the diminishing returns it has produced.

The Knicks remain stuck in the past, relying on an offensive system that flourished when executed by legendary, all-time great players in an era when the rules and pace of play were far different from the reality of the NBA today. The Triangle Offense relies far too heavily on mid-range jumpers and rarely incorporates pick-and-rolls.

Unsurprisingly, when ESPN ranked NBA franchise according to the extent to which each team has embraced analytics, the Knicks landed on the lowest rung of the ladder, and were labeled “non-believers.” Of all 122 professional sports franchises ranked, the Knicks came in at 121, ahead of only the Philadelphia Phillies.

In an interview with the New York Times last February, Jackson explained he wasn’t ready to capitulate and implement changes into the Knicks’ offense.

“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” Jackson said, leaving no-doubt of his disdain for the point-guard-dominated concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two of three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”

The Knicks have not been winning in the two seasons since Jackson took control. And after digging deeper into the numbers, part of the reason is because the team seems to be running an outdated operating system.

New York’s inability and/or unwillingness to penetrate into the paint has been a monumental problem. Per NBA.com/stats, the Knicks rank dead last in drives per game. Twenty-eight of the 30 teams in the NBA average over 21 drives to the basket per game. Meanwhile, New York averages just 15.1 drives, which result in only 10.3 points per game. (NBA.com classifies a “drive” as any touch that starts at least 20 feet from the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.)

There are five teams in the league that average 30 or more drives per contest. Not to mention, every team in the NBA other than the Knicks averages at least 10.5 field goal attempts per game off drives to the bucket.

Another issue maddening fans in New York is the puzzling rotations the Knicks have employed this season. Coach Rambis is inexplicably starting Vujacic and playing Calderon heavy minutes, despite the fact that the Knicks are 13 games below .500, have no chance of making the playoffs and don’t own their first-round pick in the upcoming 2016 NBA Draft. New York selected Jerian Grant in the first round last summer, but the rookie floor general remains buried on the bench behind the aging vets. The Knicks need to find out just how good Grant is and start developing him. They aren’t going to learn anything about his potential or prepare him for prime time if he rots on the bench behind players who are obviously not a part of the franchise’s future. Furthermore, Grant has been far more successful penetrating into the paint and getting to the free-throw stripe than either of the veterans starting ahead of him.

Calderon and Vujacic have scored a combined 98 points in the paint in the 2,460 minutes they have played this season.

Grant has scored 138 points in the paint in the 980 minutes he has played.

Calderon and Vujacic have combined to take a total of 75 free-throw attempts this season.

Grant has attempted 97 free-throws.

Furthermore, an unfortunate by-product of the Triangle Offense is an over-reliance on mid-range jump shots. Per NBA.com, from 2010 through 2015 mid-range shots (made at 39.5 percent) have been worth just 0.80 points per attempt, while three-point shots (made at 35.5 percent) have been worth 1.06 points per attempt.

The Knicks attempt, on average, 27.7 mid-range shots each game, the most in the NBA.

Carmelo Anthony, in particular, is too often camped out in this unfriendly and inefficient No Man’s Land. Only one player in the NBA has attempted more than 480 mid-range jumpers: Carmelo, who has launched 509 shots from this range. Even if this is where ‘Melo is most comfortable, the Knicks are doing him a disservice by not putting him in a position to succeed.

In addition, New York doesn’t incorporate mismatch-creating screens nearly as often as the rest of the league. According to data from Synergy Sports, the Knicks execute pick-and-rolls in just 10.5 percent of their offensive possessions, which ranks last in the league. New York has scored a grand total of 581 points off screen-and-rolls this season, the fewest in the NBA. There are eight teams in the NBA that have scored more than twice as many points off pick-and-rolls.

The individual player most adversely impacted by the Knicks’ antiquated offense is their franchise cornerstone, Porzingis. As the Wall Street Journal detailed this week, Rambis has intimated that he prefers Porzingis to catch the ball deep in the post, with his back to the basket. This would be doing defenders a favor, as Porzingis is at his best when in space on the perimeter where, due to his ability to knock down threes and put the ball on the floor, the Latvian big man is matchup nightmare.

Porzingis is a beast who should be unleashed on the league. Instead, he’s playing for a coach – and in a system – that appears to be stifling his production. Per NBA.com, Porzingis has a been screen-setter on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops on just 14.4 percent of the offensive possessions for which he is on the floor. That’s a travesty.

Porzingis is a player blessed by the Basketball Gods with a skill set that is perfectly suited to dominate in today’s NBA.

But will he be able to fulfill his vast potential in New York? The answer may depend on whether the Knicks are able to procure an elite point guard for him to run with, and if New York embraces and implements a modernized offense that allows Porzingis and his future floor general to flourish.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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