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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 Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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