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NBA Daily: Jabari Parker And The Second Comeback

With Jabari Parker on the verge of returning from a second ACL surgery, he might end up being a huge help to the surging Milwaukee Bucks.

Ben Nadeau

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Not many athletes return to full strength after an ACL tear, but Jabari Parker is ready to do it all over again for the second time.

Following a year-long absence, Parker, 22, will rejoin the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday for their game against the New York Knicks. The Bucks’ up-and-down campaign culminated with the dismissal of head coach Jason Kidd earlier this month, but Parker could be just the catalyst that this hot-and-cold running roster needs. In 2016-17, just over two years after his first ACL injury, Parker looked ready to make the jump to league-wide stardom. Averaging 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 49 percent from the floor in 50 games, Parker had re-arrived in impressive fashion.

But on Feb. 8, disaster struck as Parker gathered awkwardly while attacking the hoop — just like that, the promising light had been extinguished once more. One year later, as he prepares to make yet another season debut, Parker knows that this is just the next step in his long-winding odyssey back to basketball.

“I feel good, even when I come back at some time, it’s just gonna still be a journey for me,” Parker told Bucks media members last week. “Taking it step-by-step, I’m not there, so every moment is an opportunity to get better.”

Through two horrific setbacks, these opportunities have come to define Parker’s career so far.

Once perceived as a weak three-point shooter, Parker made massive strides from deep upon that first return from injury. In fact, over his first two NBA seasons — although his rookie year was cut short after just 25 games, of course — Parker sported a mark of 13-for-51 (25.5 percent) from three-point range. But during that fantastic 50 game start to the 2016-17 season, Parker knocked down a respectable 65 of his 178 attempts from behind the arc.

Furthermore, Parker still very much looked like an elite scorer, taking defenders off the dribble with ease or pulling up from mid-range. But when discussing his imminent return, Parker clarified that he hasn’t gotten too far ahead of himself just yet.

“I just want to stay in tune with what I can control and the things I want to accomplish. If I think that I’m there, then I stay content — and therefore, I don’t try to get better,” Parker said. “But if I feel like I got a long way to go, then I still improve.

“I want to still keep that mentality ‘cause I don’t know how I’m gonna fit, so I just do everything that I can, in my will, to do what’s right for me and the team.”

Since Kidd was fired, the Bucks have matched their longest winning streak of the season at four games, defeating the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls and a Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers squad in the last nine days. All of a sudden, Milwaukee has risen to 27-22 and are behind the spiraling, third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers by just two games in the loss column. To this point, Antetokounmpo, a sure-fire MVP candidate, has been flanked by Khris Middleton — averaging career-highs in points (20.4), rebounds (5.3) and assists (4.3) to boot — but the thought of adding Parker into the mix must be absolutely salivating.

Naturally, the 6-foot-8 scoring machine will be eased back into the rotation, starting with a 15-minute limit and then rising from there, according to Matt Velazquez of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to believe in Parker again.

* * * * * *

For those uninitiated, ACL is short for anterior cruciate ligament and it helps to connect an athlete’s knee to the femur and tibia. The ACL, along with the MCL, LCL and PCL, work in harmony to provide stability to the knees, a crucial component for excelling in a demanding, change-of-direction sport like basketball. Cutting, pivoting and leaping are important skills that basketball players must utilize constantly during a game, so a pair of healthy ACLs are understandably key for success on the hardwood.

These often non-contact injuries can happen in an instant and change a promising career trajectory forever. The typical year-long recovery requires difficult physical therapy and a range of motion exercises, all done in hopes of regaining that explosive ability once again. In many cases, sadly, that explosiveness never returns.

The list of NBA players to suffer an ACL tear is not a short one and the majority of athletes aren’t quite the same afterward. But over the last decade or so, the injury has stopped being a complete career killer. Ricky Rubio (2012), Rajon Rondo (2013) and Lou Williams (2013) have all bounced back from season-ending ACL tears in the last six years alone. To his credit, Parker has already climbed this mountain once — but what about those that have torn an ACL twice?

There’s the memorable story of DeJuan Blair, a former NBA forward that was left with no ACLs after two surgeries in high school. Despite averaging 15.7 points and 12.3 rebounds during his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh, Blair dropped into the second round of 2009 draft and lasted four years with the San Antonio Spurs. After joining the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards for a few seasons, Blair would then appear in both China and the D-League. As of today, Blair is still playing with San Lorenzo de Almagro, an Argentinian franchise, more than 10 years after his ACL operations. Suffice it to say, however, Parker must be aiming higher than that.

Subsequently, Josh Howard tore his left ACL shortly after being traded to the Wizards in early 2010. Howard reached just 61 combined contests over next two seasons. But following a right ACL tear while with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012, the 10-year veteran would never play another NBA game. Strikingly, there’s also the case of Michael Redd to consider, perhaps the Bucks’ last franchise cornerstone prior to the arrival of Parker and Antetokounmpo. Redd, a one-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, averaged 21.2 points per game before injuring his left ACL and MCL in 2009. He returned for the 2009-10 season, but tallied just 11.9 points over 18 games — a stark comparison — until he re-tore the ligaments on that same knee, which practically knocked Redd down for good.

The difference, notably, is that Redd was 30 years-old at the time of his second surgery and at 22, Parker, hopefully, is just getting started.

* * * * * *

Although the Bucks currently put up 105.2 points per game, an average that sticks them dead center in the NBA (tied for 15th), they’ve struggled all year from three-point range. Hitting them at a clip of just 35.5 percent, the Bucks nearly rank in the bottom ten for conversion rate. Even worse, Milwaukee only makes a paltry 8.7 three-pointers per contest, a poor tally that only the Knicks and Timberwolves beat out in futility.

Middleton has led the way thus far with 1.9 three-pointers per game, but his 34.7 percent average is his lowest mark since his rookie season. On top of that, the only rostered player to surpass two made three-pointers per game is Mirza Teletovic (2.1), but he’s been sidelined since November following his own knee surgery and the reemergence of pulmonary emboli in his lungs. If Parker’s three-point outburst in 2016-17 was not an outlier, then the Milwaukee offense could see a major bump in the coming months.

The mental aspect of recovering from an ACL injury can be just as difficult as the physical side though too, so expecting Parker to do it all again is a tall order. When Derrick Rose tore his ACL during the 2012 playoffs, outsiders wondered if the hyper-athletic leaper would ever regain his MVP-winning mojo. In the days after that injury, K.C. Johnson of The Chicago Tribune talked with Jamal Crawford, who tore his ACL in 2001, about how challenging it was to mentally recover from the worst injury of his 18-year career.

“Then, after surgery, you start rehab and start to see some progressions,” Crawford said. “You get a little more confident as it goes along. And then the last stage is the mental part: ‘Can I still do that move? Can I still do that cut?’ The actual leg you injure ends up being stronger than the leg that’s not injured. But you don’t believe that at first. You’re scared. You doubt.”

Since the initial injury, Rose has dealt with multiple issues on both knees and the point guard hasn’t played a 70-plus game season in seven years. Needless to say, Parker will hope to dodge that fate altogether. Unfortunately, according to a 2013 study from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, the likelihood of reinjuring a rehabbed ACL within 24 months of reconstruction is apparently six times greater than someone who has never endured that ailment before. Beyond what injuring that left ACL for the third time might mean, it will also increase the odds that Parker seriously hurts his right knee as well.

While it’s not unpopular hyperbole to say that most everybody is hoping for a full and permanent return to the court, the Bucks must wait and see for now.

In October, the Bucks couldn’t reach an agreement with Parker on a contract extension, a decision that will make him a restricted free agent this summer. Understandably, the Bucks want to see how Parker has recovered from another career-altering knee injury before promising him upwards of $150 million. If his impending return is anything like that first comeback though, Parker will surely be a key cog in Milwaukee for the foreseeable future.

Antetokounmpo recently remarked that he thinks Parker’s presence will “take this team to the next level” — but for now, the talented scorer is just looking forward to beating those stacked odds for the second time.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation

D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.

Matt John

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In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.

Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.

His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?

The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.

Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.

Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.

Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.

First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.

If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.

Of course things are different now.

After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.

It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.

This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.

It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.

What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.

Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.

Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.

More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.

In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.

Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.

There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.

This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.

It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.

So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.

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NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home

Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?

Ben Nadeau

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There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.

And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.

Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.

At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.

See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.

Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.

While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?

This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.

In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.

Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.

Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.

Utah Jazz

Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.

Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.

If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.

Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.

New Orleans Pelicans

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.

This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.

Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.

With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.

And he did all that in New Orleans.

Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.

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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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