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NBA AM: The Chicago Bulls Finding New Glue

The Chicago Bulls miss Luol Deng, but his teammates found his exit to be something that brought the team together… Why the hype around Dante Exum?

Steve Kyler

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The New Glue: There are times when asking the tough questions in an NBA locker room gets awkward. You never really know how a player is going to respond to a probing or uncomfortable question and knowing how much the Chicago Bulls locker room loved Luol Deng, there were doubts about how those guys would address the team’s decision to trade him to Cleveland.

As each player was asked about the impact of losing the ‘big brother,’ you could see their body language change. For the most part NBA players accommodate questions. However, in this case the Bulls players seemed eager to talk about losing Deng.

Bulls’ rookie Tony Snell talked about his leadership and advice. He talked about how much Deng helped him off the court and to adjust to what would be expected of him in Chicago.

Swingman Jimmy Butler talked about the workload he felt he needed to shoulder and that there was a void that he felt he had to be part of filling.

» In Related: The Chicago Bulls Salary Page

Player after player talked about how much the team has come together after trading the player who was constantly labeled the ‘glue guy.’ Pretty amazing that losing the glue has brought the team closer together.

The Bulls now find themselves at somewhat of a crossroads. It’s going to be time to re-tool a little this summer. It seems inevitable that the Bulls will use their one-time amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer’s final $16.8 million contract, assuming of course that they cannot find a trade partner for him in the offseason.

After Boozer’s money comes off the books, the Bulls should be looking at roughly $47.32 million in salary cap commitments. That should get them roughly $14 million in spending power, depending on where the final 2015 salary cap gets locked in at.

The prevailing thought is that Chicago would go after that one major free agent. Names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and even Rudy Gay get kicked around, but what’s more likely is trip through the value player bin or major even acquiring a solid player in trade that’s already under contract.

The Bulls may also end up with a draft pick in the mid-teens. Historically the Bulls have been better than most at turning low tier picks in highly productive players. Taj Gibson was the 26th pick in 2009. Jimmy Butler was the 30th pick in 2011 and Tony Snell was the 20th pick last year in 2013’s NBA Draft.

Equally, the Bulls could use a mid-level draft pick as means to trade their way into a veteran.

» In Related: Six Things To Know About The Chicago Bulls

The combinations and possibilities are almost endless and that’s why the Bulls ultimately traded Deng.

In the modern NBA economy, flexibility is king and you are seeing more and more teams trying to make sure they have the ability to not only add players every summer via free agency, but to stay under the luxury tax to continue to make easy trades and move players. The days of having four guys locked into mega contracts seems to be going away in the NBA, simply because the economic module almost encourages it.

The Bulls had no flexibility with the roster they had assembled this year and while it’s fun to dream of another major star joining your favorite team, in Chicago the truth might be that the $14 million Chicago is looking at in July gets spent on three or four smaller items, to better set the team up for the future and to insure flexibility as they re-tool.

» Did you miss something on launch night? Get caught up on your reading: The new daily NBA Rumor Round Up 1/17, checkout our new daily feature Out Of Bounds. Yannis Koutroupis has an updated 2014 NBA Mock Draft. What is Basketball Insiders? Read our story here. Tommy Beer takes look at the latest Top 100 Fantasy players. And that was just a small sample of all the great content that dropped last night. Expect a lot more throughout the day.

The Appeal Of Dante Exum:  By way of full disclosure, I am a Dante Exum fan. I know you’re going to now write off my view of the 6’6 guard from Canberra, Australia as being a homer, but let me explain.

I have covered the NBA Draft as a talent evaluator for the last eight years. I held down the draft for USA Today for the last five years and consistently have had one the better averages in predicting first round talent in the business. ESPN’s Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony are the kings, all hail the kings. They usually get me by maybe two players each year.

As part of my process I spent a lot of time in practice environments with guys and watch them train and prepare. I sit and I talk with them and I try to understand what they are really about.

» In Related: Check out the latest 2014 NBA Mock Draft.

How you play is not nearly as important as how you ‘prepare’ to play. In my career I have probably watched more than 150 would-be NBA players training for the draft and it becomes glaringly obvious who is going to have success and who is going to struggle based on how they approach training.

So back to Exum; over the last two summers I have had a chance to spend time around him. He was a standout player at adidas Nations two summers ago and he was part of adidas Eurocamp this past summer in Italy. He also had a strong showing in the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit when matched up against the Harrison twins, but even more impressive was during practice that week he admitted to watching Draft Express’ scouting video of Sergey Karasev so that he could defend him better in practice. Karasev was his teammate in the actual game.

Not only does he possess a humble and easy to like personal demeanor. He absolutely gets what he is as a player. He has that confidence you like in a lead guard, but he also has the humbleness to say that he has a lot to work on. When you watch him work at his craft he is not the guy that backs down or takes plays off and his super array of skills is very enticing.

There are red flags.

Exum is rail thin, but go back and look at Kevin Garnett, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Durant, even Dwight Howard as rookies. Bulk coming into the draft is overrated, because most teams can add bulk to a player in a single summer. The question is does the player have a frame that could support more weight without compromising the skill set and in Exum’s case he does.

» In Related: Check out the latest Top 100 Player Rankings.

He is an international player. There is a long history of hot international guys coming to the NBA and not having that killer instinct to be great and they settle into average roles or average careers in the NBA. That’s absolutely true. But the problem with immediately dismissing Exum because of where he was born overlooks what he has done. Because the last five guys didn’t pan out doesn’t mean Exum couldn’t be the next that does. When you consider his frame, his ability to score the ball and his overall appeal as a marketable NBA player there is a lot to like.

Is he a true point guard? In the Chris Paul sense of the description, no he is not. In the Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose sense of the description, yes he is. A 6’6 scoring guard that can play the playmaker role, guard opposing point guards and put up 30 a game. That’s what NBA teams want from their guard spots. Exum won’t ever be mistake for Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo as pass-first guards, but when you consider the rarity of those kinds of players, game changing point guards are among the most coveted players in the NBA and that’s exactly what Exum is.

Now lastly and most importantly, he is an unknown to the masses. Outside of the Hoops Summit and the FIBA Under-19 Games this summer, most have not seen him play. NBA scouts and talent evaluators have been all over him, but the general public really hasn’t had a chance to see him. As most of the 2014 NBA Draft prospects are being micro-analyzed this season in college, Exum is a bit of an unknown because he is not playing college basketball. His stock is clearly getting a bump because the other players in the projected 2014 Draft class are coming down to earth. So there is no doubting that Exum gains from not being exposed. That may change when teams start working players out.

Why is Exum getting so much hype? Some of it is the unknown factor. Some of it based on real production he’s put on film at every level he’s played, but more importantly because when drafting for potential, how a player works, how his body is constructed and what his mindset is as an athlete plays heavily in the equation.

Always keep in mind, NBA teams no longer draft a guy based on what he’ll be as a rookie. They are drafting the guy based on what he’ll become in the next three to five years and when you project out the best case scenario for Exum, he could be one of the best players available in the 2014 NBA Draft and that says a lot consider who he’ll keep company with.

» IT is chat time at Basketball Insiders. Come drop a question for my chat at 10:30am EST. Alex Kennedy will chat at 4pm EST and Yannis Koutroupis will chat at 8pm EST. You can always find the new upcoming chat here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/upcoming-chats/ or if you are looking for a completed chat those are kept here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/previous-chats/

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: Three Trade Targets for the New York Knicks

Drew Maresca explores three restricted free agents-to-be who the Knicks should explore adding via trade before the March 25 trade deadline.

Drew Maresca

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Often the NBA’s biggest flop, the New York Knicks have been significantly better-than-expected to start the 2020-21 season. They’ve won eight of their first 16 games and have surrendered the fewest points per game on the season, placing them squarely in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

That said, they’re not out of the woods yet; with much of the season left to play, the Knicks are devoid of any meaningful offensive weapons. Additionally, the roster features a number of high-quality veterans whose deals are set to expire, the kind of players that contenders like to fill out their rotations with down the stretch, so the roster could look much different at the end of the year than it does now.

So, the Knicks are expected to be active on the trade front, again – no surprise there. But this year could be among the last in which the Knicks are sellers at the deadline. And, while moving some of those veterans for future assets is smart, the Knicks may also want to look at players they can add to bolster that future further.

Of course, New York shouldn’t go all-in for Bradley Beal — they’re not there yet — but there are a number of restricted free agents to-be that would fit both their roster and timeline nicely.

But why give away assets to acquire someone that the team could sign outright in just a few months? It may sound counterintuitive to add a player that’s about to hit free agency, restricted or otherwise, but procuring that player’s Bird rights, an exception in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players (not to mention offer them an extra contract year and bigger raises), can be key to securing a player’s services and building a long-term contender.

Further, the 2021 free agent market isn’t might not live up to expectation, with many presumed free agents already agreed to extensions. So, with that in mind, which players should the Knicks pursue via trade prior to the March 25 trade deadline?

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins’ production is down this season, but that has nothing to do with his ability. A 23-year-old stretch-four who’s shooting 35% on three-point attempts, Collins is big, athletic, can score the ball (16.7 points per game this season) and is a great rebounder (7.5 per game). He also connects on 80% of his free-throw attempts.

Despite those impressive stats, Collins was even more productive last season, averaging 21.6 points on better than 40% three-point shooting and collecting 10.1 rebounds per game.

But the Hawks rotation has become increasingly crowded this year. They added Danilo Gallinari and rookie big man Oneyeka Okongwu, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, to the frontcourt this offseason, while Collins was already vying for minutes with Clint Capella, who Atlanta added via trade last season. Cam Reddish, a second-year wing who is versatile enough to play some power forward, has also stolen some of Collins’ potential minutes.

So, as much as the Hawks seem to like Collins, he may be a luxury they can do without. He’ll obviously demand a relatively high-priced contract. The fact that Atlanta and Collins failed to reach an extension last summer would also seem to make a reunion less likely; would the Hawks invest so heavily in him now that they have three players at the position signed through at least the 2022-23 season? Further, could they invest even if they wanted to at this point? The Hawks are already committed to more than $100 million next season and, with Trae Young and Kevin Huerter extensions on the horizon, they might be hard-pressed to scrounge for the cash Collins would want in a new deal.

He won’t come cheap, for sure. But, while Julius Randle fans may not love the idea of bringing in his replacement, Collins is simply a better long-term solution.

Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans

The point guard position has been a sore spot for the Knicks for some time. And while Ball might not be the franchise cornerstone that many hoped he’d become, adding a young player with his upside is clearly a positive move.

Granted, Ball is inherently flawed. His jump shot appeared to be much improved last season and he’s showcased a significantly improved shooting form from years past. But he’s struggled in the new season, shooting only 28% on three-point attempts (down from 37.5% last season). In fact, he’s struggled on the whole on the offensive side of the ball, posting just 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game (a career-low). He’s also missed some time with knee soreness and moved to more of an off-the-ball role as new head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in the hands of Brandon Ingram more and more.

But, with New York, Ball would step into a significant role immediately. For his career, Ball is a net-positive player and, despite his shooting woes, has posted a positive VORP every year he’s been in the league, save for this season. He’s an above-average defender and, while he does need to ball in his hands, he doesn’t necessarily need to take shots to be effective.

Ball may never become the All-World caliber guard many pegged him as before the 2017 NBA Draft, but he’s better than any other option currently at the Knicks disposal. And, best of all, his trade value is arguably as low as it’s ever been. So, while the Pelicans won’t just give him away, New York should do what they can to acquire him for a reasonable price.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Last but not least, the surprise from the 2018-19 rookie class. Graham is possibly the hardest sell on this list, but it’s not for a lack of talent.

Graham burst onto the scene last season, posting an impressive sophomore campaign of 18.2 points and 6.4 assists per game. Unfortunately, those numbers have taken a drastic dip this season with the arrival of Gordon Hayward and the highly-touted rookie LaMelo Ball in Charlotte. Likewise, Graham’s struggles through the Hornets’ first 10 games limited his opportunities further.

That said, he would appear to be done slumping, as he’s connected on 43% of his attempts from deep in the team’s last two games.

But his efficiency wouldn’t be the main challenge when constructing a Graham trade. Instead, some in New York could be concerned with lack of size – Graham is only 6-foot-1 – and his inability to act as a facilitator at the guard spot.

But Graham is talented, plain and simple. In fact, he’s the exact kind of talent the Knicks should be looking to add right now. More specifically, Graham shot 37.3% on three-point attempts last season; the Knicks rank 21st in three-point percentage so far this season.

The Knicks could ultimately sit tight, swap a few veterans for future draft picks and rest assured that they’ve made enough progress by simply adding coach Tom Thibodeau. But they could and should be aggressive while they can. If New York can add one or more the players mentioned, they may not only build a brighter future, but improve on what the team could do this season. Either way, the Knicks look to be on a good trajectory, but every move they make from here on out can and will affect how quickly they make the leap from laughingstock to respectable contender.

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NBA AM: The Utah Jazz Are Showing Continuity Is Key

Is Utah’s early success an indicator of things to come? Between Donavon Mitchell, a stingy defense and hot three-point shooting, they may just be the real deal.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Utah Jazz are riding high on a seven-game winning streak, hotter, at this point, than all hell. 15 games into the season, the Jazz have been the third-best team in the Western Conference. The key for them has been continuity as they have 11 guys who were on last year’s team. The only addition they made to their rotation this offseason was Derrick Favors, who was with the team for nine seasons before a one-year departure. 

Quinn Snyder is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, and he’s showing why this season. The Jazz are currently in 7th in both offensive and defensive rating. Beyond that, there are only three teams who can say they are top 10 in both: The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Often, teams that finish in this select category are historically serious contenders. 

Moreover, the Jazz have been on a shooting tear. Using Gobert’s rolling ability to collapse opposing defenses and find open shooters, Utah’s offense is clicking right now. It’s worked tremendously too, considering the Jazz have attempted and made the most three-pointers of any team this season – and hitting on 40.3 percent as a team. Royce O’Neale, Donovan Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles and Mike Conley are all shooting above 40 percent; while Bojan Bogdanovic is almost there at 37.8.

Basically, the Jazz are just shooting the ball at a ridiculously well rate right now and good ball movement has propelled them. 

Mitchell seems to have taken another jump in his development, although it is subtle, and his growth as a playmaker has benefitted everyone. He’s made teams pay for overhelping, often initiating the ball movement that has led to open looks. He’s also taking fewer mid-range jumpers, converting those attempts into three-pointers. The budding star’s play has been more consistent overall, and he’s been effective out of the pick-and-roll. 

Mike Conley’s improved play this season has been needed – now he’s settled and red-hot. Coming off a disappointing season last year, there were questions as to whether he was declining. While it’s safe to say he’s no longer the guy he was in Memphis, this version of Conley is still a good one. He looks a lot more comfortable in his role and the Jazz are reaping the benefits. In a contract year, Conley is averaging 16.3 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three.

Jordan Clarkson is a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, fitting in perfectly as the Jazz need his scoring and creation off the bench – even leading the league in such scorers from there. But the Jazz’s bench is more than just Clarkson though, as they’ve gotten strong minutes from Joe Ingles, Georges Niang and Derrick Favors too. They’re a solid group that plays both ends of the court, and all fit in nicely with the starters as well. 

Sorely needed, however, Bojan Bogdanovic’s return has helped tremendously. He gives them another big wing who can shoot and is a scoring threat, and before he got hurt last season, he was averaging 20 PPG. While he isn’t at that level this season, he gives them another reliable scoring option that they badly need. Better, it also allows Ingles to remain on the bench, where his playmaking ability can really thrive.

The Jazz have been playing stylistically a little bit different this year and it has worked. They don’t run often but when they do, they have been potent. Playing at the same pace as last season, Utah is scoring almost five more points per game in transition. Additionally, they are taking six more threes a game too. This all amounts to a 6.1 net rating, which is good for fourth-best in the NBA. 

Lastly, their defense has been impossible for teams to penetrate, inviting opponents to try and finish over Rudy Gobert in the paint. Gobert is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a reason – his presence alone almost assuredly guarantees his team will be a top 10 defense, which the Jazz are. Favors’ addition has helped stabilize the defense when Gobert sits, which was a major issue last season. Overall, they are just a very disciplined defense that makes teams earn their points, rarely committing cheap fouls.

As it stands today, the Utah Jazz are solidifying themselves as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. It remains to be seen if the hot shooting is sustainable, but the way they are generating those open looks seems to be. The defense is legit, and if they can remain healthy there’s reason to believe that this team can continue to compete at this level. The Utah starting lineup has outscored opponents by 58 points, but they’ve also had one of the best benches in the league – needless to say, the Jazz’s continuity has been a big part of their early success.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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