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NBA Saturday: Plenty of Blame to go Around in Chicago

From the front office, to the coaches, to the players, there is plenty of blame to go around in Chicago.

Jesse Blancarte

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With 11 games remaining in the regular season, the Chicago Bulls are 36-35 and two games back of the eighth seed Detroit Pistons. While the Bulls had some skeptics entering this season, few people, if any, would have predicted that they would be at risk of missing the playoffs with 11 games left in the regular season. After losing back-to-back games to the 30-43 New York Knicks, some of Chicago’s players vented their frustration.

“Hell yeah, I’m embarrassed,” Taj Gibson said after losing to the Knicks on Thursday night. “I take pride in wearing this jersey. I love wearing the Bulls jersey. Especially what we’ve been through, I take pride in playing for Chicago. When I wear that jersey, I try to go out there and play my heart out. And it’s frustrating when we come up short, and we look at ourselves, we’re losing to … I don’t want to criticize any[body], [but] trash teams. Everybody’s in the NBA for a reason, but we’re playing against teams that are not playing for anything, and we’re just laying down. It feels like now we’re a target. It feels like teams are not taking us serious.

“Teams are more eager to play us. [In years prior,] it was vice versa. They knew we were coming in to punch people in the face and keep playing. It’s just, it’s hard, man. It really eats me up inside. It’s really hard to sleep at night knowing it’s coming down to the wire, and our effort isn’t there. It’s really frustrating.”

Gibson, one of the few Chicago players whose effort and focus isn’t in question, is spot on. Under Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls were consistently one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. This season, the Bulls are 13th in defensive rating, according to NBA.com, and are 22nd since All-Star weekend.

To be fair, the defensive decline started last season under Thibodeau, but things have only gotten worse this season. Under rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg, the Bulls have looked out of sorts all season and rarely resemble the gritty team that overachieved for years under Thibodeau. Chicago was never really the class of the East over the last few years, but they were consistently near the top of the conference. Like the grit-and-grind Memphis Grizzlies of years past, no one wanted to see the Bulls in the playoffs.

Now, as Gibson said, no one fears seeing this team in the playoffs. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers probably prefer to see the Bulls climb back into the eighth seed so they don’t have to face Stan Van Gundy’s feisty Detroit Pistons, who have won seven of their last 10 games, have a stud at center in Andre Drummond and have beaten the Cavaliers two out of three match-ups this season.

The Bulls certainly have some factors to point to as partial explanations for their substandard play this season, such as injuries. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. missed the first 49 games of the season. Dunleavy, Jr. may not be a top-tier player, but his shooting and defensive impact are important assets for the Bulls. Derrick Rose looked physically out of sorts to start the season and only recently is showing a few signs of his former athletic abilities. In addition, Joakim Noah went down for the season with a shoulder injury in mid-January. Noah may not be the tenacious player he once was, but even on a bad day he is still a viable defensive center and serves as the team’s emotional leader. And now Jimmy Butler is struggling with a knee injury that reportedly could require offseason surgery.

“Is my knee the same as it was before the injury? No,” Butler told the Sun-Times.

“But I want to play, man. And at times I feel like I’m hurting this team. That’s the most disappointing part because I’m not the player I was. I don’t know if there’s something really wrong in there, but it’s not really right, either. But I’ll be fine. I have to figure out a way to help us win playing with this. That’s all I’m worried about.’’

The Bulls clearly haven’t been the luckiest team when it comes to injuries this season. However, every team deals with injuries to a certain extent and several teams this season have endured much better than the Bulls have.

Teams like the Toronto Raptors, Miami HEAT, Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, among others, have lost key players for extended periods, but have managed to adjust. Losing players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Chris Bosh or Blake Griffin are the types of setbacks that can knock a team from playoff contention to the lottery. But these teams have adjusted and found ways to fill the voids left by their injured players. For the Chicago Bulls, injuries can only explain their issues to a certain extent.

As Kelly Scaletta of Bleacher Report pointed out earlier this week, despite ranking second in rebounds per game, the Bulls are ranked 22nd in adjusted rebound chance percentage (the percentage of rebounds collected when a player is within 3 ½ feet of the ball) and 25th in adjusted defensive rebound change percentage. The result is that the Bulls are surrendering the second-most second-chance points per game, which is sinking their defense.

As Scaletta points out, the issue isn’t so much getting stops, but it’s securing the loose ball afterwards. That second-effort to secure the ball could go a long way towards shoring up the Bulls’ defense, but it’s the sort of required effort that we haven’t seen from this team consistently this season.

The players obviously carry a lot of blame for all of Chicago’s struggles this season, but there is plenty of blame to spread around the organization. The front office issues that led to the ouster of Tom Thibodeau is an easy example. Thibodeau is stubborn and demanding, and it can be argued that he had simply run his course in Chicago. But he is also one of the best defensive coaches in the league, surprisingly creative with his offense and continually managed to get his banged up Chicago teams to overachieve.

The Bulls replaced Thibodeau with Hoiberg, a rookie NBA head coach who showed promise in his time as the head coach at Iowa State. But not every rookie head coach is going to come into the league and find instant success like Steve Kerr did last season. Rather, Hoiberg has dealt with a divided locker room, players reportedly demanding that he reincorporate some of Thibodeau’s schemes and Butler questioning his coaching in the media. None of these things are necessarily Hoiberg’s fault and he still could become a solid coach moving forward, but a veteran coach may have been able to remedy this unstable situation earlier in the season. Whether Thibodeau could have been that person is something we will never know. However, running Thibodeau out of Chicago is just one of many issues the Chicago front office has made for itself and the franchise.

Failing to capitalize on the trade value of guys like Noah and Gasol before the trade deadline may be decisions that come back to the haunt the Bulls. Yes, Noah got hurt before the deadline, tanking his value. But failing to move Gasol, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and will command a significant annual salary, was, at best, a shortsighted decision. Gasol certainly helps the Bulls compete this season, but if there was ever a year to be forward-thinking, this would be it with the Warriors and Spurs playing historically well and the Cavaliers and Raptors overshadowing the East. Now, both Noah and Gasol very well could walk away after this season for nothing, or will likely be overpaid to stay in Chicago.

At some point, every good or great team runs its course and the window of contention closes. The Bulls’ window may finally be coming to a close, especially if key players like Noah and Gasol leave this offseason. But there is still time to make a push and see what kind of damage this team can do in the playoffs. But with all that we’ve seen from this team, especially since the All-Star break, there isn’t much reason to believe in that sort of late-season resurgence.

On Thursday night, Gibson summed up the Bulls’ performance against New York and by extension their performance over the season rather astutely.

“Tonight, I’ve never been so frustrated and mad before,” Gibson said. “It was disappointing, man, just real disappointing. I’m just tired of having these same talks with [the media] every night. About how we got to do better. … [Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg’s] right. We got to look ourselves [in the mirror]. I look at myself in the mirror every night, and I try to do different things every night. Still got how many more games left? We’ve got 11 more games left. It’s really do or die, and it’s really frustrating. We got to want it. We got to want it. Sometimes I feel we want it, sometimes I don’t know if we’re kidding ourselves or not.”

Seventy-one games into the season and we are still waiting to see if the Bulls are willing to fight and beat the odds like they did so often over the last five seasons. If they don’t make it into the playoffs, everyone from the front office, to the coaches, to the players can look in the mirror and understand that they all share part of the blame for what has been a very disappointing season in Chicago.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision.

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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