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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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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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