The Timberwolves enter this season with a lot to look forward to, coming off a weirdly successful 2017-18 season. Its franchise player, Karl-Anthony Towns should continue to mature and develop. Jimmy Butler is still in tow as the team’s most dependable star on both sides of the court. Andrew Wiggins has yet to realize his full potential, but still possesses incredible upside. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s assumed desire to reconstruct his 2010-11 Bulls team is mildly entertaining – so much so that some in the media have taken to calling the team the Timberbulls – but what’s really interesting is that the 2017-18 Wolves team were a subpar defensive unit despite being coached by a defensive guru. What’s even more surprising is that the team was successful with that style of play. So much so that it entered its February 24th contest against the Rockets in fourth place in the loaded Western Conference – a game in which Butler was injured, forcing him to miss the next 17 games and do serious damage to its playoff standings. Still, the Wolves talent wouldn’t allow them to implode entirely. The team ended the season with 47-wins and the eighth seed in the playoffs.
But problems exist for the Timberwolves. Can the team overcome the hostility between Butler, Towns and Wiggins? Can Jeff Teague and Tyus Jones continue to lead the team from the point guard position? Will Andrew Wiggins lock in defensively and become the star he was projected to be? And will Thibodeau be able to develop a deeper rotation or will be continue overwhelming his stars with tremendous workloads in the 2018-19 season?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Minnesota Timberwolves have so much talent and so many issues, unfortunately. The biggest issue, of course, is the internal discord between Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns. If Tom Thibodeau can get his star players on the same page, this team could be one of the better Western Conference teams this season. If things fall apart early on, things could get ugly. I want to be optimistic and project that the key players on the roster will put the team first and focus on making a deep postseason run. However, I get the sense that this ongoing situation has gone too far and cannot be fully resolved at this point. I hope I am wrong, but only time will tell.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
As Tom Thibodeau continues his attempt to recreate his old Bulls roster and guys from the current group bicker somewhat publicly, it’s been a weird summer in Minnesota. This group clearly has the talent to be a playoff team in the West, and maybe even a top-four seed if everything breaks right and they get some internal development. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that despite that, this locker room feels primed for an implosion that sees them fall well short of the level their talent suggests they should attain. Butler’s renewed health along with the development of Karl-Anthony Towns will be two of the biggest factors, but so will the relationship between stars who have rumored to not exactly see eye to eye. Butler’s impending free agency in 2019 also looms large here.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Ben Dowsett
Whatever optimism there was headed into last fall has gradually faded away a short year later. The Timberwolves are an enigma. They have a stud All-Star big man in Karl-Anthony Towns, a no-nonsense All-Star swingman in Jimmy Butler and steady veteran starters like Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. Entering the first year of his five-year maximum contract extension signed in October 2017, Andrew Wiggins has to bring forth better production than he did last season. Chances are after a run with Butler for a full season, he might have a better feel for that role. However, with the Northwest Division in high competition, Minnesota could find itself on the short end of the stick.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
It might be time to declare that we jumped the gun on the Timberwolves. For the past few years, they’ve been hyped as the team of the future. Once they added Jimmy Butler, it seemed like their potential would finally be tapped. They may have made the playoffs last season, but the red flags definitely manifested themselves. Nobody appears to be happy. Butler appears ready to skip town. Thibs appears to not have learned his lesson from Chicago. The Timberwolves should be back in the hunt this year, but they are in a very competitive division within an even more competitive conference. If the discord is legit, it’s hard seeing them returning to the postseason.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
We’ll see… that’s the only way you can honestly look at this Timberwolves team. On paper they should emerge as an elite team in the NBA. They have two bona fide All-Stars in Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, and if Andrew Wiggins can find that next gear they should have three. The problem is the noise about the young guys and Butler is very real, and while Tom Thibodeau is a solid head coach, we’re seeing that the coach in charge of everything model isn’t working, so we’ll see. Too much is being made of the TimberBulls thing because adding quality veterans that the coach knows and trusts is a common thing, regardless of where they played. The real question for the Wolves is can their Big Three play like a Big Three and not three high level guys trying to do their own thing? The Wolves could be special, they have some special players, but as we’ve seen elsewhere, having good guys doesn’t always equate to success. Especially when egos and contrasting needs and wants factor in.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Karl-Anthony Towns
The Wolves have a number of strong offensive players, but none with as many gifts as Towns. Towns fits the unicorn mold as a seven-footer who can shoot from deep, punish opponents in the post, pass the ball and run the court. Towns is a mismatch for opponents nearly every night. He posted a PER of 24.9 last season, with 21.3 points, 12.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. While his scoring dipped four points per game last season, he saw increased efficiency in his already strong three-point and free throw shooting. Further, Towns decreased his turnovers per game from 2.7 to 1.9.
The Timberwolves would love to lock Towns up long term, which they can do soon if they agree to a contract extension prior to October 15. Towns is eligible for a five year max extension worth between $158 and $190 million. Will Towns sign the extension this late in the offseason? Will he and the Wolves agree on a shorter contract, which puts pressure on the team to get creative? Or might he wait until next offseason to make a decision? Only time will tell.
Top Defensive Player: Jimmy Butler
The Minnesota Timberwolves are among the few NBA franchises whose best defender is also the team’s leader and best player. Fortunately for the Wolves, the 2018 All-NBA defender is a maniacal worker who is incredibly dedicated to his conditioning and his craft. The Wolves are also fortunate that Butler’s defensive workload doesn’t affect his ability to contribute offensively. In fact, Butler led the Wolves in scoring last season with 22.2 points per game. He also tallied a personal best in steals per game (2.0) while regularly guarding the opposing team’s best guard or wing.
But last season was the first since his rookie year that Butler failed to play in at least 65 games. Butler proved that his knee was healthy following a February 2018 meniscus tear, but is the grind of carrying such a heavy workload on both sides of the court beginning to result in unsustainable fatigue? And will last season’s missed games prove to be the rule now and into the future or the exception to it?
Top Playmaker: Jeff Teague
By default, a team with as much infighting as the Wolves must have an effective playmaker to spread the floor and distribute the ball. Fortunately for the Wolves, Teague is a veteran who is used to sharing the ball with multiple starts. Remember, Teague was the starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks teams, which featured Al Horford, Josh Smith and Joe Johnson – all of whom were legitimate scoring threats in the early 2010s.
Teague might not be a vocal leader like Chris Paul, but he is capable facilitator. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.0 assists per game last year while captaining the Wolves offense. And despite the team’s internal struggles, he fed his three main offensive weapons the rock, with Butler, Towns and Wiggins averaging 22.2, 21.3 and 17.7 points per game, respectively. If Teague can continue to play as reliably as he did last season, the point guard position looks to be in good hands for now.
Top Clutch Player: Andrew Wiggins
While this may seem slightly counterintuitive – after all, the word on Wiggins is that he has developed less through this point of his career than many had hoped – Wiggins actually has the stats to back it up. Believe it or not, Wiggins is the only member of the Timberwolves to hit a buzzer beater last season. But he didn’t win only one game with his heroics. He hit two buzzer beaters in 2017-18: a three-pointer on October 22 against the Thunder and an 18-footer on January 24 against Phoenix. Does this mean he has Mamba blood coursing through his veins? Not exactly. But it does mean that when asked to come through in the clutch, he can do so with the game on the line.
The Unheralded Player: Taj Gibson
The majority of the Wolves roster is easily classifiable as a star, former star, role player or rookie. And then there is Taj Gibson. Team President Thibodeau overpaid the veteran with a two-year, $28 million dollar deal beause Head Coach Thibodeau values Gibson’s on-court contributions. And it’s not Gibson’s fault he was offered a lucrative contract. Besides, he registered an above average PER of 15.4 last season. He put up 12.2 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, which represent the second best scoring and rebounding outputs of his career. And he even set a single-season team record, shooting 57-percent from the field.
But it’s important to remember that Gibson’s biggest contributions are harder to measure. Yes, he can score when needed. In fact, he scored 16 or more points in 23 games. But he was also the Wolves best post defender, and possibly their most versatile one, too. He covered an array of all-star-quality talent from James Harden to Nikola Jokic. Gibson is a good shot-contester. He was actually the twenty-second bes shot contester in the league last season. He also works his tail off and is a good locker room presence for a team that needs a positive influence. Most importantly, he impacts the game without being featured in the offense. But can Gibson impact remain as strong as he enters his tenth season? If he can, look for Gibson to log heavy minutes and make nightly contributions.
Best New Addition: Josh Okogie
Josh Okogie played two seasons at Georgia Tech, where he developed nicely. The 6’4” guard has elite athleticism that will likely carry him early in his career while he acclimates to the NBA game. He is a leaper who can run the court effectively on both offense and defense. He has numerous highlight-worthy chase-down blocks, for which he was aided by his freakish 7’0” wingspan. His energy and motor will be a valuable asset for a team that is lacking in both youth and depth.
Okogie’s peers think highly of his athleticism, too. He was rated the second most athletic rookie by the 2018 rookie class in their recent survey with NBA.com, which also named him second-runner-up in the best defender category. Okogie would be wise to make nice with Jimmy Butler and study his off-the-court procedures given their similar skill sets. Nothing is guaranteed – especially from a rookie – but Okogie should be a foundational building block if he’s willing to put in the requisite work.
– Drew Maresca
WHO WE LIKE
1. Keita Bates-Diop
Nabbing an impact player in the second round of the draft is always a cause for celebration. While doubts exist around most second-rounders, most of them are centered on a 2017 stress fracture in his left leg. But the 2018 rookie class seems to be fairly confident in Bates-Diop’s abilities. Through the above-mentioned survey, they named Bates-Diop as the biggest steal of the draft after watching him average 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in summer league action.
Bates-Diop has a relatively polished two-way game. The2017 Big Ten Player of the Year has a good touch. He is 6’8” wing with a 7’3” wingspan, which should allow him to develop into a versatile rim protector who can switch onto almost anyone on the court. The Timberwolves are thin up front and can benefit greatly from Bates-Diop, especially if he can mature quickly and improve his willingness to engage defensively on the low block
2. Tyus Jones
Tyus Jones stat line doesn’t come off as terribly impressive. Through 82 games in 2017-18, Jones averaged only 5.1 points and 2.8 assists per game., and was a mediocre three-point shooter at .349 from deep. But upon closer inspection, the Timberwolves’ fourth-year guard looks like he could be a keeper.
The team played better with Jones on the court in his 17.9 minutes per game than it did while he was on the bench. With Jones, the Timberwolves were 5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents, and only .4 points per possession better while he was on the bench. Further, the team’s four starters plus Jones in place of Teague was actually 23.6 points better per 100 possessions than opponents. – albeit in only 261 minutes action. Much of this success stems from the fact that Jones had a low usage rate, and Towns, Butler and Wiggins took more shot attempts with Jones stewarding the team instead of Teague. Further, Jones turned the ball over at a low rate and contributed positively to the team’s defensive efforts. But those are difficult stats to ignore.
Jones opportunities should grow dramatically in the near future, too. The Wolves unofficially parted ways with guard Jamal Crawford after his contract expired following this past season. Crawford accounted for 20.7 minutes per game of the team’s available playing time for guards. It is unlikely that all of those minutes go to Jones, but the NBA is a production-oriented league. If Jones continues to produce, he will earn more playing time and, therefore, more opportunity to prove himself.
3. Andrew Wiggins
Wiggins is an interesting case. He hasn’t lived up to the sky-high expectations he’s been shouldering since entering the league as the next sure thing. But he did average 17.7 points per game last season as the team’s third option, not too shabby for an disappointment, And considering he is only 23, he still has substantial upside.
Wiggins regressed last season, partially due to the presence of Jimmy Butler and the fact that they play similar roles on offense. Butler is the more efficient of the two, but Wiggins natural talent might be greater. If he can figure out how to remain engaged for longer periods of time, his efficiency should improve. Further, if he embraces the challenge of becoming a lockdown defender – a challenge he is perfectly capable of succeeding at – he will receive additional accolades for being a true two-way player, much like Butler himself. And the Wolves will certainly need that level of production from its only committed star this season and beyond.
4. Derrick Rose
Despite the injuries and the dramatic fall from grace, Derrick Rose is still a big name in the basketball world. He is incredibly polarizing: loved by many, hated by others. Regardless of what you think of him, Rose can still contribute, albeit in a lesser capacity than he once did.
Rose should not be inserted into the starting lineup, nor should he be relied on to play too many minutes on a regular basis. But last we saw, he can still accelerate and finish around the rim better than most NBA players. He actually averaged 21.5 points per 36 minutes in the team’s five-game playoff series against the Houston Rockets in 2018. He can enter the game and prop up an otherwise stagnant offense for a short period of time. Assuming realistic expectations are in place, Rose can be an effective piece of a competing team – so long as he remains healthy.
– Drew Maresca
Superstars are traditionally viewed as foundational pieces for NBA teams. In the modern NBA, a team needs more than one superstar to be competitive. The way teams rank players is subjective, but its generally thought to be better to have more widely-considered great players than not. Sports Illustrated recently published its top 100 player rankings, and the Timberwolves’s Butler, Towns and Wiggins all ranked in the top 100 at 10, 19 and 74, respectively. They all complement each other nicely. They are all athletic and versatile. At 7’0”, 6’8” and 6’8”, they boast a good amount of size and length. Sure, Butler and Wiggins are a bit redundant. But if they can get on the same page, they are the closest thing to a present-day Michael and Scottie.
On paper, the team should be competitive with most teams in the league. They kept most of their talented players and added in two serviceable rookies. The roster should have no problem propelling the Wolves back into the playoffs, but unfortunately the games are not decided on paper.
– Drew Maresca
The Minnesota Timberwolves are top heavy. We’ve established that the team is built around its three core stars. Towns and Wiggins are both young. Butler is 29, which means he is likely in the middle of his prime. Beyond those three there is very little youth on the roster, discounting the addition of the two rookies. Their point guards are Jeff Teague (30 years old), Tyus Jones (22) and Derrick Rose (29). Its forwards include Gibson (33), Anthony Tolliver (33) and Luol Deng (33). And its only serviceable backup center is Gorgui Dieng (28), an athletic, but limited, player. The Wolves do not have a backup shooting guard other than rookie Josh Okogie.
Coach Thibodeau’s strategy of relying on his starters will be tested this season. Hopefully it holds up for at least one more year. If not, the Wolves will need to rethink its philosophy on the fly.
– Drew Maresca
THE BURNING QUESTION:
Can Minnesota keep its core together?
The Minnesota Timberwolves find themselves in a precarious situation. On the one hand, the Wolves just completed its first winning season since 2004-05, ultimately posting its best season in years. And two of its franchise players, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are only 22 and 23 years old, respectively. The Wolves should theoretically be in great shape to continue improving this season.
On the other hand, the team enters the 2018-19 season with drama surrounding its core. The Wolves’ most productive player – Jimmy Butler – has taken offense to the casual approach of its other two superstars. According to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, Butler is all but fed up with the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, especially Karl-Anthony Towns. Further, Sean Deveney of The Sporting News reported last season that Butler had problems with Wiggins, his work ethic and his approach on the defensive end of the floor.
Unfortunately for the Wolves, Wiggins is the only one of the three to be signed to a long-term deal at $146.5 million dollars. Towns hasn’t yet accepted the contract extension offered to him in July. The opportunity to extend Towns evaporates as of 6 pm EST on October 15. Further, Butler becomes a free agent following the 2018-19 season. Unfortunately, Minnesota gave up a lot of value to pry Butler from Chicago last summer, and yet it seems as though the Wolves’ relationship with Butler might be irreparable – especially considering his rumored desire to pair up with Kyrie Irving.
Minnesota can go in one of two very different directions: it can re-sign Towns – and try to sign Butler – and continue to build around its existing core, or it can lose one or both of its soon-to-be free agent stars. This season and next offseason carry massive implications for the franchise. The three stars do not have to become friends with one another, but they need to co-exist on the court for the Wolves to be successful.
– Drew Maresca
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 the Chicago Bulls 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.
NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?
As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.
Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.
The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.
This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.
Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.
A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.
Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.
Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.
Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.
Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.
Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.
For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.
It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.
The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.
This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.
There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.
Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.
Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.
But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.
Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.
Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.
First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.
The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.
Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.
The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.
It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.
Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.
Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.
Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.
To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.
For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.
It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?
Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.
The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?
By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.
This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.
There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.