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NBA Sunday: The Chicago Bulls’ Crossroads

Another early summer vacation has the Chicago Bulls searching for answers, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton



Basketball Insiders chats with Cliff Alexander at the 2015 NBA Draft Combine.

The Chicago Bulls’ Crossroads

James Harden had arguably been the Most Valuable Player for Scott Brooks and his Oklahoma City Thunder during the course of their improbable run to the NBA Finals. To this point, the Thunder had knocked off both the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs and would now face LeBron James and his Miami HEAT.

Quicker than you can say “beard,” the Thunder found themselves on the wrong side of a 4-1 loss in the NBA Finals, but it was all good. With the rare combination of youth and experience on their side, it seemed this would not be the last time we heard from this group.

In the NBA, there is a thin line between dynasty and doom’s day. And now, the Chicago Bulls will see that first hand.

The Tom Thibodeau era is rumored to be over. Joakim Noah is now 30 years old and Pau Gasol is closing in on 35. Derrick Rose got hurt again and the franchise will be forced to pay a king’s ransom to retain Jimmy Butler this summer.

With the right set of circumstances, an NBA championship was within their grasp.

There is a thin line, indeed.

* * *

In today’s NBA, head coaches have become increasingly disposable. What most front offices have overlooked over the past 10 years or so is how the implementation and establishment of a culture affects the attitude and the morale of a team’s locker room. Moreover, it is impossible to build chemistry amongst a 15-man roster without having a constant voice of reason and leader guiding the pupils.

There is no team across the entire league that has done more to defy odds and obstacles than the Bulls, and Thibodeau deserves all of the credit for not only being on watch while this happened, but for forging the identity of one of the league’s toughest teams.

Over the years, I have had multiple conversations with Butler and Noah. In fact, in one of the Thibodeau-era Bulls’ finest hours, I spoke with each.

The Bulls had somehow just pulled out a seven-game series win. Game 7 was at Barclays Center and back in 2013. Somehow, despite battling plantar fasciitis, Noah managed to out-hustle and out-muscle the Nets, even on one leg. He ended Game 7 with 24 points and 14 rebounds.

Butler—long before he was a bona fide max player—performed admirably over the course of the series. His 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and three assists per game went a long way toward helping the Bulls pull off the upset, even without Rose.

I remember quite well, in the aftermath of Game 7, with the Bulls muted celebration in their locker room, I turned to Butler and asked him how in the world this team managed to be this tough and this strong.

His answer, in a nutshell, was Tom Thibodeau. Back then, Butler told me, that Thibodeau made his players want to run through a wall for him. The secret, according to Butler, was that, “Coach simply makes no excuses for anyone and treats everyone exactly the same.”

On both sides of the ball, Thibodeau treats his players like an assembly line. If one man goes down and is unable to perform, the next man steps up and will be demanded to fill in capably and admirably. When one man fails to pull his weight, no matter who he is, he warms the bench. Carlos Boozer knew that, all too well.

Thobideau got things out of this team and this roster than neither of his two predecessors Scott Skiles and Vinny Del Negro were able to. Under him, and perhaps even because of him, Noah and Butler became All-Stars and Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in league history.

By all objective measures, removing Thibodeau as the team’s head coach would seem to be asinine, yet, that is exactly what the Bulls are reportedly pondering.

In 2015, though, in a world where Monty Williams and Scott Brooks are both shown the door after objectively “good” seasons, nothing should surprise you. Not even this.

* * *

In the aforementioned Game 7, on one leg, back in 2013, Noah was the best player on the floor for Thibodeau and his Bulls. To this point and very much so since then, the question for Noah was not whether he was capable of performing admirably when he was hurt, but why he always seemed to be hurt.

Entering this season, with Gasol in tow and the Bulls being considered by many to be the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, the solution was to put Noah on a 30-minute-per-game minutes restriction. The hope was that he would be at or near 100 percent when the playoffs began.

As a result, Noah played just 30 minutes per game and turned in averages of just 7.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Somewhat impressive still, those numbers were a far cry from the 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game he averaged over the course of the 2013-14 NBA season. The 7.2 points per game were his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season, when he averaged just 6.7 points per game while playing behind Drew Gooden, Brad Miller and Tyrus Thomas.

The years have progressed and Noah has earned a reputation as being one of the most versatile and gifted big men in the league. He has not, however, earned a reputation as being a player whose durability matches his heart.

Historically, players do not become more durable after their 30th birthday. Noah will be entering the final year of his current contract and is scheduled to earn $13.9 million for the 2015-16 season. Over the years, his increasing productivity can be directly attributed to his place within Thibodeau’s offense. The Bulls have employed a triangle-centric offense that utilizes backdoor and off-ball cuts by wing players. A big man who can move with the ball in his hands and has good passing instincts is a necessary component. In many ways, the success of the team can be tied to the thriving and developing of Noah. The two have been intertwined.

However, if Thibodeau is moved along, his successor may have a different offensive philosophy. Concerns over Noah’s durability, his age, his cap-friendly contract and the fact that he is not far removed from being an All-Star contributor could certainly make him a candidate to be moved. It is difficult to imagine his trade value increasing from this point forth, especially if he is playing for a new head coach next year.

Noah is another uniform? As the Bulls approach their crossroads this offseason, it is certainly something that should, at the very least, be considered a possibility.

* * *

For NBA teams with cap space and hopes for returning to the status of contender, this time of year springs unlimited hope. The NBA Draft Combine officially introduces a number of youngsters who could help cellar-dwellers improve and free agency is right around the corner, as well.

Without question, Butler has played himself into being the number one free agent on the market.

And because Butler happens to be restricted, any team with even a remote hope of poaching Butler from the Bulls will be forced to not only tender him a maximum contract (about $60 million over four years), but also find creative payment schemes and incentives that could make the contract more painful for the Bulls to match.

There are at least two within the Bulls front office who have maintained since last July that there is “no scenario” under which Butler would not return to the Bulls next season, but the same was once said of restricted free agents Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons—all three of whom ended up changing teams.

In all likelihood, retaining Butler would push the Bulls’ payroll to somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 million for next season and would seem to marry the team to this current core. All things considered, especially considering the influx of capital that the league will see over the next few years thanks to its new television deal, the proposition seems relatively painless.

Butler will turn just 26 years old this summer and was one of the better two-way perimeter players over the course of this entire season. He made huge shots for the Bulls over the course of the season and did so in the playoffs, as well, perhaps showing that he is entering the stratosphere of “elite” player rather than simply being motivated by a potential payday.

Still, entering the summer, Butler is just another question mark for a team that seems to have quite a few of them.

With the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers just two of the teams out there that will be bidding for Butler’s services, he will continue to be the most talked about free-agent-to-be and until he signs on the dotted line. He will have a constant question mark hovering over his head.

* * *

With 1.5 seconds on the clock and Matthew Dellavedova inbounding the basketball, the Bulls stood on the precipice of throwing LeBron James and his Kevin Love-less Cleveland Cavaliers into a 3-1 hole. The overwhelming majority of NBA teams have tried, in futility, to overcome those daunting circumstances.

The Bulls were 1.5 seconds away from all but assuring themselves a great opportunity to square off against the Atlanta Hawks for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2015 NBA Finals. Maybe, just maybe, as Rose said as recently as a few weeks ago, these Bulls could emerge as improbable champions the same way the 2011 Dallas Mavericks once did.

But those 1.5 seconds proved to be enough. With a catch-and-shoot opportunity that seemed much too easy to convert, the Bulls instead found themselves locked in a 2-2 series against James and his team.

At that moment, it was a shot that yielded many questions. How did James get so open? Can the Bulls still win the series? What happens now?

And now, after finding some of those answers, a new one emerges.

Have these Bulls made their last stand?

As another early summer approaches and questions hover around Thibodeau, Noah and Butler, one must remember: be surprised by nothing.

Today, after all, James Harden is the franchise player of the Houston Rockets, Scott Brooks is looking for a new job and Kevin Durant may be plotting a defection to Washington, D.C.

Indeed, there is a thin line between a dynasty and doom’s day. And in short order, we will know which side of the equation the Chicago Bulls find themselves.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.


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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer



We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz



We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis



Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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