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NBA AM: Time to Panic in Chicago?

The Chicago Bulls are seriously struggling. Can they turn things around or will their seven-year playoff streak end?

Cody Taylor

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Time to Panic in Chicago?

The thought of the Chicago Bulls being out of the playoff picture in March seemed very unlikely at the start of the season.

After all, this is a team filled with plenty of experienced veterans who have had their fair share of success in the league. The franchise is used to winning. They’ve made the playoffs in 11 out of the last 12 seasons and seemed poised for an eighth-straight trip to the postseason.

However, the last month of basketball for the Bulls has thrown a wrench into any postseason plans they might have had. The Bulls sat in third place in the Eastern Conference on January 28 at 26-19, but have gone just 4-11 since then and have now lost four games in a row.

Following last night’s 102-89 loss to the Orlando Magic, the Bulls are in 10th place and sit half of a game out of the last playoff spot. While it may not seem like all that much ground to make up over the final 22 games of the regular season, it does seem like a lot considering how the team has been playing lately.

During the team’s 4-11 stretch, the Bulls have the league’s third-lowest offensive rating and the sixth-worst defensive rating. To further add to the team’s troubles is the fact that it doesn’t seem like there are any obvious solutions to their problems.

With the team struggling to come up with wins, questions about first-time NBA head coach Fred Hoiberg are beginning to emerge. The team decided to let go of long-time head coach Tom Thibodeau over the summer after failing to make a deep run in the playoffs. They brought in Hoiberg from the college level to be a fresh voice after Thibodeau, and now his ability to coach the team is being scrutinized.

Defense was one of Thibodeau’s strengths during his time in Chicago, but now the Bulls’ defense is on the opposite end of the spectrum this season. Under Hoiberg, the team is giving up 102.8 points per game, which is down considerably compared to past seasons. Chicago ranked ninth in points allowed per game last season at 97.8 per game, while they ranked first two seasons ago at 91.8 points per game.

Things weren’t going smoothly when the team was playing well, either. Hoiberg was called out earlier this season by Jimmy Butler for being too laid back at times. Butler pointed to guys not doing their jobs during games and he believed that Hoiberg should have coached them harder during those times. Although Hoiberg has been regarded as a laid back coach, Butler believed it’s on Hoiberg to be more critical of his players.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Bulls right now is their chemistry looks to be non-existent. Players on the court look lost at times and the defense has notably slipped. The Bulls’ largest lead against the Magic last night was one point and lasted for all of about 10 seconds. The Magic were in complete control from start to finish.

The mood in the locker room following the loss was complete defeat. It was arguably as quiet as an NBA locker room can be. Hearing players attempt to offer up solutions on getting back on track didn’t sound encouraging.

“It’s frustrating, but at the same time it’s up to us,” Pau Gasol said. “Teams come in and they see us struggling. They know we’re struggling, so they see an opportunity. They come in confidently. … They smell blood and they go for it. That doesn’t make things any easier, but at the same time we got to step it up and try to set the tone earlier and make sure the games don’t start the way they have been.”

“It’s all about having goals as a team,” Derrick Rose added. “At the beginning of the year, we said we wanted to get into the playoffs and the question comes up, ‘Are we trying?’ If we are, we got to come out and play a lot different. Our actions should be everything.”

It obviously doesn’t help that the team is missing their leading scorer in Butler. Hoiberg said before last night’s game that Butler would be back in full practice tomorrow. He didn’t fully clear him to play on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, but it seems as though Butler will be back sooner than later. Getting Butler back will be a huge lift to this team, but they’re still going to have a lot of work to do over the rest of the season.

So, will getting Butler back fix the Bulls’ issues?

“I hope so,” Mike Dunleavy told Basketball Insiders. “If he can [get us back on track], then they better give him the MVP. He’s obviously a big part of what we do on both ends of the court. He’ll help us, but we got some stuff going on that we got to improve at that even he’s probably going to have a hard time fixing.”

Dunleavy’s candid answer shows that things aren’t quite right behind the scenes in Chicago. Each team goes through their own share of adversity during the course of the season and it feels like the Bulls might be near rock bottom at the moment.

The team has struggled recently at the beginning of games. They trailed the Magic by 10 points after the first quarter and seemed to already have admitted defeat by that point. By the time the Bulls overcame their slow start, the game was well out of reach.  

Tuesday night’s 129-111 loss against the Miami HEAT was perhaps the team’s worst outing on defense this season. They allowed Miami to shoot 67.5 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three-point range. In addition, they trailed by as many as 22 points in each of their last two games.

“To see yourself on the outside looking in, you have to be mentally tough,” Hoiberg said. “You have to fight through these times. You can’t put your head down and feel sorry for yourself; nobody else in this league is going to do that. You got to come out with great urgency and that’s got to be the constant.”

It seems as though that has been the message for quite some time now and it just hasn’t seemed to sink in yet. Teams in any sport rarely use injuries as an excuse, but that seems like that’s been a big part of the problem for the Bulls. While Butler looks to be nearing a return, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic have all missed time recently, with no real timetable for any of those players to return.

“There are no excuses,” Rose said. “Whoever steps onto the floor, they got to come in and do their job and try their hardest to come out here and compete every night.

“The season is not over with. We still got 20-something games left. We still got a shot of being in the playoffs. This is foreign ground. I know a lot of us in this locker room, including myself, got to find ways to make it up.”

Between the head coach and the players in the locker room, it just doesn’t seem like anyone has any kind of answers on how to turn the season around. Butler’s return will be a huge addition for the team, but can he get them over the hump and back into the playoffs? 

It’s clear Chicago will face an uphill battle for the remainder of the season. Positions five through 11 in the East are all separated by just five and a half games. The Bulls will be battling several teams in the standings the rest of the way, which will only further complicate things.

Out of their final 22 games, only nine of them are against teams at .500 or better. By comparison, teams like Atlanta, Detroit and Orlando all have at least 11 such games. At this point, the Bulls will take all of the help they can get, but in the end it may not be enough.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: The HEAT Are Building Character By Necessity

With so many player games lost to injury, the Miami HEAT have had to look within themselves to keep a good season going.

Buddy Grizzard

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The injury situation for the Miami HEAT has gone from bad to worse with point guard Goran Dragic missing the last two games after suffering a bruised knee against the Milwaukee Bucks. The HEAT were able to gut out a 106-105 win in Charlotte Saturday before falling 99-90 to the Rockets in Houston Monday.

HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra said after the win over the Hornets that the test of going deep into the roster to find contributors with so many players out has forced his team to grow.

“We’ve had so many guys in an out, [a] revolving door of injuries,” said Spoelstra. “We’ve been through a tough stretch. But you use these opportunities to test yourself, measure yourself and see if you can develop some competitive character collectively when the chips are down.”

In addition to missing Dragic, the HEAT lost Dion Waiters for the season, likely won’t have Rodney McGruder back until February and are awaiting the return of starting shooting guard Tyler Johnson, who suffered an ankle injury that thankfully wasn’t as bad as it looked initially. Miami is on pace to lose the most games to injury in the NBA for the second season in a row. Spoelstra talked about the role of luck in Charlotte.

“You have to make shots and you have to be lucky,” said Spoelstra. “This league is tough. You need all of it sometimes. You need a great connection, you need good karma, you need to play to your identity and then you need the right breaks.”

One thing that has broken in the HEAT’s favor is the play of shooting guard Wayne Ellington, whom the team has needed more than ever with Waiters and Johnson out. Spoelstra preferred to use Ellington off the bench, but moved him into the starting lineup against the Hornets by necessity. Fortunately, Spoelstra said he never had to worry about Ellington handling whatever is asked.

“Wayne is the true embodiment of pro,” said Spoelstra. “He’s reliable, always early, he’s got a great work ethic, he exudes an incredible positive energy always, whether the game is going well for him or not, whether he’s playing or not.

“I just love the guy. If I would have told him hey, we’re not going to start you and I’m not going to put you in until the middle of the second quarter, he would have looked at me and said, okay, whatever it takes to win.”

While Ellington has slid seemlessly into the starting shooting guard role, covering for Dragic hasn’t been as easy. Against the Hornets, power forward James Johnson and small forward Josh Richardson alternated bringing the ball up and initiating the offense.

Further down the roster, Kelly Olynyk has provided some much-needed offense, but Justise Winslow, whom Johnson singled out as a player that could step up in the absense of others, has continued to struggle. Winslow, who missed 15 games earlier in the season due to a strained knee, shot just 1-for-4 against the Hornets and was frequently matched up against Nicolas Batum, who had a game-high 26 points.

Told that Winslow threw his shooting shirt and towel into the air in frustration after exiting the game late in the fourth quarter, Spoelstra was coy.

“He was probably throwing his jersey to a fan,” said Spoelstra. “He’s just getting back into the mix. He’s fine. He’s a competitor and he wants to be out there and fill in the gaps.”

Despite finishing a five-game road trip, including a stretch of five games in six nights, with a 2-3 record, the HEAT survived to remain the fourth seed in the East with the eighth-best record in the NBA. Only the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors in the East and Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and Spurs in the West currently have a better record than Miami. As such, Spoelstra was able to look at the positives after the team finished the road trip with a loss in Houston.

“There’s a lot of good things going on,” said Spoelstra. “Our locker room knows that. We’ve got to get back, get some rest and maybe we’ll get some guys back. If not, get ready for another battle on Thursday night.”

Missing so many bodies, the HEAT have had to rely on the team’s depth and character to excel despite adversity. If Miami can have a little bit of the luck and good karma Spoelstra spoke of, the team will be well-positioned for the stretch run of what has already been a suprisingly-good season.

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NBA Trade Watch: Point Guards

David Yapkowitz looks at five point guards who could be involved in trade deadline activity.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve got a new series dropping this week here at Basketball Insiders. With the trade deadline about two weeks away on Feb. 8, we’re taking a look at some of the players, position by position, most likely to be traded. For our first installment of this series, we’ll identify the point guards who might find themselves moved as the deadline draws near. There are a few point guards that could definitely help some playoff teams in the stretch run that could be dealt. Here’s a look at them.

1. Kemba Walker – $12,000,000

Kemba Walker has played his whole career in Charlotte. For the past few years, he’s been one of the point guards in the league. He’s got career averages of 18.7 points per game and 5.4 assists. This season he’s putting up 21.7 points and 5.8 assists. In many ways, he’s the engine that makes the Hornets go. He’s been their franchise player since arriving in Charlotte.

The Hornets just haven’t been that good of a team. Since their inception as the expansion Bobcats in 2004, they’ve made the playoffs three times in the 14 years they’ve been around. Last week, reports surfaced that the Hornets were open to trading Walker. Compared to the contracts given out since the increase in the NBA’s salary cap, Walker’s contract is a steal. He’s an All-Star level player who can certainly push a team that much closer to the promised land. For any team on the verge of playoff success, it’s a good idea to kick the tires on what it would take to land Walker.

2. George Hill – $20,000,000

When the Sacramento Kings landed George Hill in the offseason, it was considered quite a success. He was one of the most coveted free agent point guards on the market. It was assumed that he’d come in and start right away while being a mentor to De’Aaron Fox. However, the futility of Sacramento’s season seems to have got to him a bit as he voiced his frustrations earlier this month.

Despite that, he’s still having a relatively productive season. His scoring is down a bit from recent seasons at 10.5 points per game, but he’s shooting well. He’s at 46.1 percent from the field, and 45.2 percent from three-point range. His contract is rather large, perhaps making him a little more difficult to move, but for one of the better two-way point guards in the league, he’ll probably have a few suitors. Recent reports have mentioned the Cleveland Cavaliers as being interested, where he could either come off the bench or slide over into the starting shooting guard spot. In any case, he’d bring them a much-needed defensive presence.

3. Emmanuel Mudiay – $3,381,480

When he first came into the league in 2015, Mudiay looked like one of the Denver Nugget’s brightest young stars. He played in 68 games, starting 66 of them, and 12.8 points per game, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds. Since then, however, he’s struggled a bit and at this point, he’s lost his spot in the rotation to Jamal Murray.

This month alone, he’s played in only four of the Nuggets ten games. His name’s been mentioned often in trade rumors, and perhaps this is deadline where he finally gets moved. It’s still only his third year in the league and he’s only 21 years old. It’s not farfetched at all to think that he’s got his best years ahead of him. Like many players before him, all he may need is a fresh start and someone to give him a chance. For any team looking to take a flyer on a player that is a high-reward, low-risk kind of guy, Mudiay is a name worth inquiring about.

4. Devin Harris – $4,402,546

Devin Harris isn’t a name that’s appeared in trade chatter such as the other guys on this list, but he’s a guy that’s worth inquiring about. With the situation in Dallas very apparent in regards to the direction of the team, Harris is kind of an odd man out. Dennis Smith Jr. is clearly the future at point guard for the Mavericks. They also have a younger, cheaper option as a backup with Yogi Ferrell. He’s actually been a part of the rotation, but if the Mavericks get decent offers for him, they should strongly consider moving him.

For a guy who’s been around the league for 14 years now, he’s having a pretty decent season; 8.4 points per game off the bench is solid. He’s also shooting 35.1 percent from the three-point line. He’s not going to be the double-digit scorer he once was, but he can still help a team. He’s on the last year of his contract, too, so if a team trades for him and it doesn’t work out, they can cut their losses at the end of the season. For any team looking for a veteran backup to help them in the playoffs, Harris is a player they should give the Mavericks a call about.

5. J.J. Barea – $3,903,900

Harris’ teammate in Dallas, J.J. Barea is only a year younger and shouldn’t figure into the Mavericks’ future plans either. As an undrafted player out of Northeastern in 2006, Barea has enjoyed a successful NBA career, one that saw him win a ring with the Mavericks in 2011. At age 33, he remains a solid veteran backup, one that could play a big role on a playoff contender.

For someone on the backend of his NBA career, Barea has actually turned in career seasons the past few years including this one. He’s putting up 11.8 points per game this year, the most since leaving initially leaving Dallas for Minnesota in 2011. He’s dishing out 6.0 assists and pulling down 3.1 rebounds, both career-highs, while shooting 37.5 percent from the three-point line. He’s played in all but one of Dallas’ 45 games at 23.0 minutes per. He’s got one more year on his contract after this one, and even then it’s a relative bargain. His name hasn’t come up either in trade rumors, but like his teammate Harris, he’s definitely worth calling about for a playoff team needed veteran point guard help.

Sometimes trade rumors are just that — rumors. It’s common for many of the deals rumored and leaked to fall through and never materialize once the deadline hits. But every so often, some big deals do happen. Most of the guys on this list are not “big names” so to speak, but they are certainly capable of contributing to a playoff team for the stretch run. Be sure to check us out tomorrow as our series continues with the shooting guards most likely to be traded. And make sure to follow us at Basketball Insiders for all your latest trade news and rumors as we get closer to the deadline.

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NBA Daily: Things Are Getting Interesting On The NBA Trade Front

Some big names have hit the rumor mill, that’s typically the fuel that starts the Trade Deadline fire.

Steve Kyler

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Things Are Getting Interesting

With the February 8 NBA Trade Deadline getting closer, some bigger name NBA players have started to surface, which tends to fuel the fire of trade rumors. While league sources think its unlikely any of the named guys get moved, there are some things to know about each situation.

Jordan Talks Kemba Walker

In an exclusive interview with the Charlotte Observers’ Rick Bonnell, Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan tried to set the record straight on where his club was with star guard Kemba Walker.

“I’m not looking to trade Kemba, but I would listen to opportunities,” Jordan told Bonnell.

“There have been teams asking about players. Also, we’ve been asking about players. We ask teams who they like on our roster, and they always say Kemba.”

Jordan tried his best to defuse the notion that the Hornets were actively considering trade for Walker. The jist of his stance is that anything sort of a proven All-Star wouldn’t get much attention. However, there is a growing sense that if the Hornets could find a way to pry Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard out of San Antonio, they pull the trigger.

League sources that have engaged the Hornets on Walker scenarios said they believed the Hornets’ stance was more fact-finding and option gathering than anything serious; they also doubted that Charlotte would do anything with Walker based on their conversations.

The running narrative in NBA circles is that any deal involving Walker would also have to clear out a bloated contract while returning a fairly high-level draft pick.

The likely outcome of the Walker situation in Charlotte is the team will try to engage Walker on a contract extension this offseason, and if they can not reach a long-term deal, they would look to move him around the 2018 NBA Draft.

Walker becomes extension-eligible after this season. Involving him and his agent in the trade process could yield a lot more value to Charlotte if Walker ends up being traded somewhere he’d agree to an extension or a new deal. That is a factor in what teams are said to be willing to offer for him at the deadline.

Damian Lillard Wants Answers

According to Chris Haynes of ESPN, Portland star Damian Lillard requested to meet privately with Blazers owner Paul Allen, seeking some answers from ownership on the direction of the team.

In a meeting that took place without anyone in the organization’s knowledge, Lillard is said to have re-committed to remaining in Portland but wanted answers and assurances from ownership that becoming a title contender was the goal in the near term.

There had been growing concerns in Portland that Lillard, who has pledged loyalty to Portland at every turn, might be souring on the situation.

League sources said recently that Allen had taken a much more hands-on approach to many things around the Blazers, including having his top-level staffers gauge the league’s opinion on not only the job team president Neil Olshey was doing, but that of head coach Terry Stotts.

Olshey received a multi-year contract extension in late August of 2017 that is to carry him through the 2020-21 season. Stotts is also signed through the 2020 season.

The Blazers have run off a nice stretch of games, winning six of their last ten, but continue to linger in the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.

With Lillard facing what could be another All-Star snub, there is a growing sense that Lillard and his camp are pushing for some aggressive changes to try and jump start what’s become a ho-hum team.

The Blazers have been one of the more aggressive suitors for Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan. However, the Clippers continue to say they haven’t been offered anything they’d consider doing.

Kawhi Leonard And The Spurs

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s dropped a doozy this week suggesting that the San Antonio Spurs and All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard are growing increasingly distant over his lingering hip injury.

The short version here is that the Spurs are growing frustrated with Leonard’s inability to get right, almost as much as Leonard is frustrated with not being able to get right.

League sources said their calls on Leonard were shut down before they started, so it’s not likely that San Antonio is ready to do anything drastic with Leonard.

Spurs GM RC Buford told ESPN that there was “no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi.” However, whenever there is talk of unrest in the NBA, it brings the sharks out.

The Charlotte Hornets are rumored to have tried to engage on a Leonard deal built around Kemba Walker, which is where many believe the Walker rumors started.

Evan Fournier Likely The Guy

The Orlando Magic have been around the proverbial block with most of their roster according to league sources. The story surrounding the Magic is that virtually anything on the roster could be had in trade and that the Magic really are not seeking a ton in return.

The overarching theme from other teams is that the Magic are looking to shed salary and get out of players that do not fit the direction team leadership wants to take the team. Equally, the Magic are not overly interested in additional draft picks, understanding too much youth can and likely would slow down progress.

The ideal package seems to be some combination of ending contracts and players on rookie scale deals that are a little further along.

No one in Orlando likes the term fire sale, mainly because the Magic don’t seem to have a ton of urgency in blowing the team up at the deadline.

The general belief from most is that if Orlando can’t find the kind of deals they are looking for, they’ll simply run out the clock on this season and seek a more aggressive rebuild around the draft and in July when teams can absorb contract money into cap space.

The name most teams seem to have eyes on is guard Evan Fournier. There is a belief that of all the players that could get moved Fournier is the most likely. The Magic have also seriously gauged the trade value of point guard Elfrid Payton in advance of his free agency in July.

The Cavs Got Issues

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cleveland Cavaliers had a contentious and brutally honest team meeting before Monday’s practice.

The jist of the report is that no one was spared in what was a brutal assessment of a team that lost seven of their last ten and now find themselves six games out of the top seed in the East.

A big source of frustration seems to be the perception from Cavs players that Kevin Love was not ill and they wanted answers on why he left the locker room early on Saturday. Guard Isaiah Thomas has been a huge source of frustration for a Cavs team that said all the right things about Thomas when he came back from injury but, are growing increasingly frustrated with his poor effort on defense.

The Cavaliers have been aggressive exploring trades trying to dump off veteran players they feel may have become too complacent in Cleveland.

Forward Tristan Thompson and guard Iman Shumpert have been regular names in NBA trade circles for most of the season, with some suggesting that guard J.R. Smith and Thomas could both be packed into a deal if it returned the right upgrade.

With Love in the crosshairs of his teammates, his name will likely start to come up as the Cavaliers try and find their way out of the mess they have become.

Bucks Ramping Up To Shake Things Up

The Milwaukee Bucks opted to shake things up yesterday firing head coach Jason Kidd. The news was somewhat surprising given Kidd’s relationship with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

According to Kidd, who spoke with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Antetokounmpo was the one who told Kidd about the decision and offered to call ownership on his behalf. The Bucks have involved Antetokounmpo on almost everything, hoping to keep his buy-in on the team.

The Bucks are also ramping up efforts to trigger a significant trade, with eyes not only on Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan, but possibly Miami’s Hassan Whiteside.

The Bucks have been dangling big man John Henson and several of their rookie scale players under the guise of a willingness to take on unwanted salary.

League sources said the Bucks are weighing where they are with injured guard Jabari Parker, who continues to shuttle back and forth between the Bucks and their G-League team the Herd for practice time.

Parker is set to hit free agency in July, and there is a sense that he could get very expensive. It’s not out of the question that Parker becomes the jewel of a trade if it returns the right combination of proven players and future assets.

One thing is becoming very clear. The Bucks understand the urgency of proving they can compete and they want Antetokounmpo on board with the plan.

As the trade deadline approaches Basketball Insiders will start to drop position Trade Watch feature, starting with the point guard today and shooting guards tomorrow. If you want to know who could be had, make sure to swing by early and often all week as we map out who to watch at every position.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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