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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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How D’Angelo Russell Fits Within The Golden State System

After acquiring D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade, Steve Kerr and the Golden State staff will look to maximize his talents in their offensive system. The final product may take some time, but there is a reason to believe that he could thrive in the new role, writes Quinn Davis.

Quinn Davis

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For the first time in four years, the Golden State Warriors will enter the campaign as underdogs to win the championship. After losing the 2019 NBA Finals to Toronto, Kevin Durant joined Brooklyn and will spend a season rehabbing his Achilles before chasing a championship with new teammate Kyrie Irving. During Game 6 against the Raptors, Klay Thompson landed awkwardly on a fastbreak layup attempt, tearing his ACL and leaving his status uncertain for the entire upcoming season.

The Warriors were able to marginally re-tool by turning Durant’s departure into a sign-and-trade with the Nets, receiving 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell, along with Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham. Golden State also sent a protected 2020 first-round pick to Brooklyn as part of the deal, while Napier and Graham were flipped to Minnesota for cap purposes.

Of course, Russell is coming off his best season as a professional, having just led a feisty Brooklyn squad to the postseason with a barrage of pull-up three-pointers and nifty passing. He spent the season as the lead ball-handler for the Nets and was often asked to create shots for himself and others during his time on the court.

Now the young showstopper will need to coexist with Stephen Curry, a future Hall of Famer that happens to be a decent lead ball-handler in his own right. How head coach Steve Kerr fosters this relationship — and how Russell performs in the role — will be a major factor in the Warriors’ positioning come playoff time in the Western Conference. While it could take some patience, there is some reason for optimism in the Bay Area.

Since Kerr took over coaching duties in the 2014-15 season, the Warriors have been a bastion of ball movement. They led the NBA last season in both assists per game and assist percentage. Brooklyn, meanwhile, finished 21st and 18th in those respective categories.

When looking at just Russell, he was assisted on only 29 percent of his total shots, and just 53 percent of his three-pointers, putting him in the 91st and 96th percentile of those categories, per cleaningtheglass.com. Russell was liable to pull up from deep at any moment last season, one of the best among non-James Harden players at canning triples off the bounce.

Needless to say, Russell will not carry the same creative burden in Golden State. The gravity Curry creates, combined with the team affinity for passing, will lead to a plethora of catch-and-shoot opportunities — a skill in which the Ohio State product has shown proficiency on.

Per NBA.com, Russell hit a touch over 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season.  For comparison, Klay Thompson shot just over 40 percent on these attempts.

This is not to say Russell can stand in as a Thompson replica — that’s an impossible task. Thompson had almost double the volume on those attempts, while his lightning-quick release allows him to shoot in tight spaces and when coming off screens. The majority of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers came from a standstill position as teammates found him with the extra pass. What Russell can do is provide the spacing necessary for Curry to operate, plus drill open looks when given the opportunity.

While Russell cannot perfectly emulate one of the best shooters ever, the Warriors could utilize him in ways they weren’t able to with Thompson.

Russell’s largely-successful stint as the creative orchestrator in Brooklyn will afford him plenty of chances to run the show this season as well. Even better, Russell may find it easier to create with a two-time MVP attracting multiple sets of eyes out at the three-point arc. Unsurprisingly, Curry shot a blistering 44.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, so Russell should see a less-crowded paint when he penetrates toward another patented floater.

Additionally, there’s the interesting wrinkle of using Curry as a screener with Russell running the pick and roll. Curry is a great screener for a guard and the Warriors have thrived with him off-ball, a decision that often leads to — you guessed it — freer looks around the three-point line. In the past, Golden State opted for Curry setting on-ball screens, mostly with Durant as the ball-handler. Those scenarios watch Curry slip the screens and dart to the three-point line, always leaving defenses in scramble mode.

Russell could slot into this role now, offering the ball-handling ability and pull up threat that Durant possessed. Last season, the Warriors scored 1.40 points per possession when Curry was the screener in a pick and roll, per NBA.com. They only had 0.6 of these possessions per game, but that is an elite number, and something they could look to for a basket in a close game.  Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ head coach, typically paired Russell with Spencer Dinwiddie and the fluid, intentionally confusing movement helped Brooklyn surprise the league over and over again.

It’s easy to picture Curry playing the role of Dinwiddie here, setting a screen for Russell to start the action, then relocating to the three-point line as Russell goes into a 1-5 pick and roll.

The Warriors are not only getting someone who could complement their stars, but also a player that could lead the offense when Curry is resting.  This is where Russell’s experience from this last season in Brooklyn will be most useful.

In 2018-19, the Warriors had a paltry 100.6 offensive rating with both Curry and Durant off the court, per cleaningtheglass.com. The backup point guard position was usually manned by Quinn Cook or Shaun Livingston. Both were serviceable, but not without their limitations. Cook operated as more of a floor spacer and was not asked to create for teammates, while the savvy Livingston moved the ball but mostly looked to score in the post. Russell will provide the combination of shooting and point guard skills to control the floor and bend defenses.

Per NBA.com, the Warriors ran the fewest pick and rolls in the league last season.  With Russell now in the fold, they could add some of that to their playbook for a little more offensive diversity. Russell showed a keen ability to manipulate a pick and roll last season and these clips show the type of playmaking he could bring to his new team.

Presumably, Kerr will want one of Curry or Russell on the court at all times, especially until Thompson returns. It’s also possible that Curry is asked to spend some time with the bench, with Russell and the remaining starters playing while the superstar rests. Either way, the staggering of their minutes will be an important puzzle for Kerr to solve this offseason.

There are still areas of concern for the Russell addition. While all signs point to easy offensive assimilation, it is not a foregone conclusion that Russell can slide into the role of secondary playmaker and floor spacer after a full, All-Star-worthy year as the lead dog. That said, Kerr has dealt with multiple stars every year and always passed with flying colors — on top of that, Curry is as selfless as they come. What might become a major concern for other teams may not even register as a speed bump for this Warriors franchise.

Still, there is also the other half of the game and Russell will not be able to replace what Thompson brought defensively. Although Draymond Green is a master at covering for teammates mistakes, a Curry-Russell backcourt could be problematic on that end. Even the impenetrable Green will struggle to plug every gap for this year’s iteration of the Warriors.

Notably, Russell did do a good job last season of not fouling, finishing in the 91st percentile in this category per cleaningtheglass.com. A 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to contest well and swipe the ball from unsuspecting opponents.

If he can improve his off-ball instincts under the tutelage of the Golden State’ staff, and exert a little more energy on that end, he could mitigate some of those defensive concerns.

All in all, the positives easily outweigh any concerns here. Russell will bring extra playmaking to the Warriors that was sorely needed with the Durant departure, and he can also slide in next to Curry rather seamlessly.

There will be work to do for Kerr and his coaching tree, but his track record signifies that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.  If Russell keeps evolving at his newest hurdle — and the Warriors have a healthy Klay Thompson come playoff time — the fight for supremacy in the conference could be hotter than ever.

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NBA Daily: Bobby Portis Ready For Anything After Hectic Offseason

Bobby Portis rightfully earned his first-ever NBA payday this summer, but he’s ready to settle in with the New York Knicks and play his role — whatever it may be — writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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NBA free agency can be a stressful time for players, that often goes without saying. It can be a waiting game as teams put their time and resources into the big-name guys, while the rest of the league is left to twiddle their thumbs until the dominoes begin to fall.

This offseason was no different as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, among others, hit the open market. For players like Bobby Portis, who was experiencing free agency for the first time in his career, the initial process can seem like a whirlwind.

At the start of the 2018-19 season, Portis was entering the final year of his rookie contract with the Chicago Bulls. As a player who has improved every year since he started playing regular minutes, Portis was in line for a solid payday this summer.

Before the start of the season, Portis and the Bulls were unable to agree on a contract extension, so Chicago moved him to the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline. Several teams were interested in Portis once free agency hit, but the young big man came to a quick agreement with the New York Knicks.

Although he made his decision in the early days of free agency, the entire process was still a little hectic for Portis.

“It was crazy, every day hearing the different teams that were interested in me, really not knowing what’s going to happen,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “Luckily, on the first day of free agency, I was able to pick where I wanted to go and it was a blessing. It was just kind of crazy leading up to it though, hearing from different teams and just not knowing. But I’m blessed.”

For the past several years, the Knicks have been on the lower end of the NBA’s totem pole and they last made the playoffs back during the 2012-13 season. Since then, it’s been lottery season after lottery season with seemingly nothing to show for it.

Things look like they might changing a bit, however. This past season’s lottery finish yielded a highly-touted prospect in R.J. Barrett. Last summer’s draft brought them Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson. While Knox remains raw, Robinson emerged as a legitimate building block for the future.

They also struck gold with Allonzo Trier, who went undrafted last summer. And David Fizdale, who will be entering his second year as head coach, has brought with him the same no-nonsense attitude and solid culture that he had in Memphis. In fact, it was conversations with Fizdale that really helped sway Portis to the Knicks.

“Just the feel, they have a great coach in David Fizdale, they got a lot of young pieces out there I think I can come in and fit with,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I love that they signed Julius [Randle], that’s another guy that can bang and really play at a high level. I love everything David was talking about with me in the meeting that I had with him.”

Portis wasn’t the only big free-agent addition that the Knicks added to their roster, actually making a flurry of signings once the period got underway. They addressed some of their playmaking and shooting woes with the additions of veterans like Wayne Ellington, Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton. They also bolstered their frontcourt with Julius Randle, Marcus Morris and Taj Gibson.

To some pundits out there, the Knicks’ free-agent moves came across as a head-scratcher, especially their frontcourt signings. While Gibson will undoubtedly come off the bench, Portis, Randle and Morris each have strong cases to be the starting power forward.

All three have very similar skillsets in terms of versatile big men that can do a little bit of everything on the court. Portis admits that it’ll be a challenge at first when it comes to establishing roles and figuring out minutes in the rotation but, ultimately, he’s confident it will all figure itself out.

“It’s going to be competitive every day, it’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be difficult at first, but I think as things slowly progress, it’s going to go really, really well for us. I think we’re going to be really good,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “We got a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things with the basketball.

“In today’s NBA game, you need a lot of guys who can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, put the ball on the floor and make plays for others. I think we have a lot of versatile guys on our team and I think that’s where our team is at right now.”

When it comes to his own role in the team, Portis is confident about what he brings to the table. As the offseason winds to a close, and training camp right around the corner, he’ll be entering his fifth year in the NBA. He’s still only 24 years old with his best basketball ahead of him.

With massive steps forward every campaign, Portis has officially established himself as a legitimate stretch big man who can thrive in the modern landscape. This past season, he put up career-highs of 14.2 points per game, 8.1 rebounds and 39.3 percent shooting from three-point range.

With other versatile big men on the roster, Portis is willing to adapt to whatever role the Knicks ask him to play.

“I bring energy, I love to score the basketball, I can score from all three levels. Driving the basketball, shooting the three, posting up, finding the mismatch, just being who I am,” Portis told Basketball Insiders. “I think I’ve done a good job since I’ve been in the league of being who I am, knowing my role on the team and playing it to a tee. I think I can hone in on any role that Coach Fizdale wants me to play.”

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NBA Daily: Team USA Facing More Adversity Than Just On-Court Competition

Lots of current and future NBA stars pulled their names from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, but the bigger challenge comes from the game’s ever-increasing global presence. Drew Maresca examines how Team USA might be facing a perfect storm of adversity.

Drew Maresca

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The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup is upon us. The World Cup takes place every four years with — usually — two years between it and the Olympics. But FIBA made some changes to the tournament last year, moves that included delaying the World Cup one year and announcing that it would become a broader qualifying event for the Olympics. In years’ past, only the winner of the tournament automatically qualified. The United States is looking to defend the gold after having won the past two tournaments in 2010 and 2014.

Basketball Insiders’ Douglas Farmer recently covered the potential free agency implications of players participating in Team USA. And while a select few NBA clubs will probably benefit from the synergy and friendships generated while playing with the roster, the team itself might struggle to maintain the gold standard – no pun intended – set by previous iterations.

Team USA has lost a good deal of the talent that it might have assumed to have on its roster as of a few months ago: Marvin Bagley Jr., Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, De’Aaron Fox, Eric Gordon, James Harden, Montrezl Harrell, Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Paul Milsap, JJ Redick, Julius Randle , P.J. Tucker and Trae Young. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration those who pulled their names from consideration prior to this summer.

The above-mentioned players opted out of Team USA for a variety of reasons, from load management to injuries and so on. But the overarching takeaway is that personal success and professional priorities take precedence over international basketball.

And that’s understandable. Many of the players who opted out have either experienced previous achievements with Team USA or are young enough to look ahead to future opportunities to do so.

But where does that leave Team USA this summer? Who is left to build around? Well, there’s Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Donovan Mitchell. Those five are probably the most talented players left on the USA’s roster. On paper, that group represents a dynamic and talented core that can compete with virtually anyone.

But that doesn’t guarantee success. First of all, there is a significant drop off in talent from previous years. During the most recent Olympics, Team USA had nine reigning All-Stars, but this current collection only has two – the lowest total since 1998, a lockout year for the NBA in which the professionals mostly opted out.

And the competition in the 2019 FIBA World Cup isn’t just anyone.

Sure, there is still talent on Team USA – albeit less than there was on past teams – but the real challenge for this team is the ever-increasing talent and competition overseas.

The competition being produced by Europe, Africa, Australia and Canada is far better than it’s ever been before. For reference, there were only 70 foreign-born players in the NBA at the start of the 2008-09 season, according to Basketball-Reference, the season that immediately followed the Redeem Team’s first-place finish in the 2008 Summer Olympics. That number jumped to 108 during 2018-19, representing an increase of more than 50 percent in only 10 years. In fact, 108 isn’t even the record for most foreign-born players on NBA rosters on opening night as that accomplishment belongs to the 113 in 2016-17.

Not only is there more foreign-born talent, that new competition is only getting stronger. There were only 17 foreign-born All-Stars in the 64 seasons prior to 2010; there have been 13 in the nine years since 2010 and three in 2018-19 alone.

But truly elite talent and volume are different. The NBA has crowned three different foreign-born MVPs over the past 14 seasons — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash — and only one during its first 48 years of existence (Hakeem Olajuwon).

And while there is more high-level international talent in the NBA than the league has ever seen, it’s undeniable that some countries produce significantly more of it. For example, there are far more NBA players from France, Canada and Australia than from China or Mexico – meaning that international talent is centralized in a select few countries.

Notably, as of 2018-19, there were 42 Canadian-born NBA players, 30 Serbians, 30 French, 25 Australians, 22 Croatians, 18 Germans, 17 Brazilians, 17 Nigerians and 12 Argentinians, among others.

So, obviously, Team USA has its fair share of competition. America still currently produces more top-tier talent than any other country — but without its best players available, the US could be in big trouble.

But this is a natural progression for a game that has become increasingly more global. According to the NBA, 127 current and former players and coaches visited 40 different countries this offseason to continue growing the game. And what’s more, 2018-19 NBA broadcasts reached one billion unique viewers. 35 percent of NBA.com visitors hail from outside of North America and NBA League Pass is available in 200 countries around the globe.

To call the NBA’s international footprint vast would somehow still undersell the sport’s rapid growth around the planet.

So it is logical to assume — while the United States will continue to produce elite players — that the rest of the world is on a more aggressive trajectory in creating their own other-worldly competitors. And it probably won’t be long before Team USA’s advantage on the hardwood becomes a thing of the past and other nations enter international tournaments as the favorite – regardless of whether the best in this country are participating or not.

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