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Phoenix Suns 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

After an off-season that featured the top overall pick, a new coaching staff and litany of roster moves the Phoenix Suns look to be one of the rising young teams in the West, Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Phoenix Suns.

Basketball Insiders

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The Phoenix Suns had quite the offseason, to say the least. After winning just 21 games last season, the Suns landed the top overall pick in this year’s draft and selected Deandre Ayton. Phoenix also named Igor Kokoškov as the team’s new head coach, made a draft day trade for Mikal Bridges (Zhaire Smith (16th pick) and a Miami HEAT 2021 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers for the rights to Bridges (10th pick)), drafted Elie Okobo 31st overall, signed veteran forward Trevor Ariza to a one-year, $15 million contract, came to terms with Devin Booker on a five-year, $158 million extension, traded Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets for De’Anthony Melton and Ryan Anderson, traded Jared Dudley and a protected 2021 second-rounder to the Brooklyn Nets for Darrell Arthur and traded $1 million to the 76ers for Richaun Holmes. Notable players not returning from last season’s roster include Alex Len, Elfrid Payton and Tyler Ulis, as well as the aforementioned Chriss, Knight and Dudley.

The Suns were clearly one of the busier teams this offseason, but it’s not exactly clear that all of their activity fit within a well-reasoned vision of the future. With the Western Conference as talented and deep as ever, Phoenix could have invested all of its resources in young talent with an eye toward the future when some of the Western Conference powerhouse teams are on the downswing. Instead, the front office bolstered its young core while also pursuing veteran talent to compete this upcoming season. Only time will tell whether Phoenix’s offseason strategy will prove successful both in the short and long term.

With all of this in mind, let’s take an early look at what will be in store for Phoenix this upcoming season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Phoenix hasn’t won more than 24 games in a single season since the 2014-15 campaign, so it’s no wonder the team is aching to become competitive again. While I am not sure bringing in Trevor Ariza on a one-year, $15 million contract makes a ton of sense, I do think he can be a good mentor for younger forwards like Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and T.J. Warren. I also like that Phoenix overpaid Ariza on a one-year deal rather than committing to him for several season at a lower annual rate.

Bringing in De’Anthony Melton in the trade for Anderson is a nice addition. As of now, Phoenix projects to enter the season without a clear option at the starting point guard position. Booker could slide into that role but it’s not certain he could handle the lead guard position consistently the way James Harden and other non-traditional point guards have in the past. I would not be surprised to see Phoenix aggressively pursue a more established point guard while looking to Melton and Okobo to develop into starting-quality point guards in the near future.

Big picture: Phoenix did well long-term in adding young talent in Ayton, Bridges, Okobo and Melton but may regret investing so much of its resources into trying to be competitive this season in the stacked Western Conference.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If the goal was to take a step forward, then mission accomplished for Phoenix, I guess? The Suns certainly kept themselves busy since their season ended, adding plenty of dependable and/or promising wings and bigs. The one snag is that the overabundance of wings and bigs on the roster came at the expense of their guard depth. Phoenix doesn’t have many guards to complement Devin Booker with all they lost. If the roster stands as is, then the Suns may rely on positionless basketball, which could make them more fun to watch. Improvement is on the horizon, but for now, its baby steps for the Suns.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

Even in a loaded Western Conference, it seems the Suns are looking to become a bit more relevant on the court for the first time in several years. Signing a veteran like Trevor Ariza on a big one-year deal, then making a move for Ryan Anderson from Houston to round out a sneakily strong group of shooters, signaled aspirations of at least something more than what we’ve seen over the last few seasons. Moving Brandon Knight out in that same Anderson deal would seem to be an indication that the Suns are leaning toward putting the ball in Devin Booker’s hands as the lead handler from the get-go, and Phoenix will be banking on some new life injected into their youth by new head coach Igor Kokoskov – Booker first and foremost. If Kokoskov can continue to hone his young star’s already-potent offensive game while perhaps refining his play on the defensive side, the Suns will have the foundational piece they’ve committed gigantic money to for the next several years. Whether they’re able to threaten for a playoff spot this year or not, it’s clear the Suns are looking to turn the culture around moving forward.

4th Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

For the first time in three years, it feels like the Suns are going to create an identity. There is a youth movement across the board from the players all the way to the coaching staff. It’s not going to all come together in the first year under Igor Kokoskov, but Devin Booker’s on the rise and Josh Jackson is coming into his own. On top of that, having top overall pick Deandre Ayton and fellow first-rounder Mikal Bridges learning under wily veterans like Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza should kickstart things in the desert.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

If the Phoenix Suns were in any other division, it would be easier to see them climbing out of the basement into the playoff discussion, but in the Pacific, they are still the basement, but with a much better forward-looking future. The draft yielded a ton. The new coaching staff should install a fun brand of basketball and the Suns’ future should be on full display every night. They may not win more than 25-30 games, but they look to be in a much better place than they were this time last season.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Devin Booker

At age-21, Booker already has the complete package on offense. He is a pure shooter who can knock down shots off the dribble, out of catch-and-shoot situations and while flying off of screens. Booker is also a solid playmaker and effective operator out of the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t have elite athleticism but he has a nice feel for the game and uses his change of pace to create space and attack the rim effectively. Coach Kokoškov is sure to build his offense around Booker and put his young star guard in a position to fully utilize his dynamic offensive skill set. Phoenix’s offense will go as Booker goes, especially until the team acquires an established starter at point guard.

Also, in case there is any doubt about Booker’s offensive talent, let’s not forget he scored 70 points against the Celtics in Boston on March 24, 2017.

Last season, Booker averaged 24.9 points and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 43.2 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three-point range.

Top Defensive Player: Trevor Ariza

Let’s be clear, Ariza is not the defensive player he was earlier in his career. However, at age-33, Ariza is still an effective defender on the wing and against bigger forwards in the post. Additionally, Ariza comes to Phoenix after being part of Houston’s elite defense, which ranked sixth overall last season in defensive rating. Ariza was a key part of Houston’s switch-heavy schemes, which managed to slow down the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and put Houston in striking distance of the NBA Finals.

Ariza isn’t going to lockdown opposing team’s star guards and forwards on a nightly basis, but he will hold his own and work within the team’s defensive schemes. Ariza could also act as a mentor to Phoenix’s young forwards, including Warren, Jackson and Bridges and could help them develop good habits and improve as defenders as well.

Top Playmaker: Devin Booker

Without a starting caliber point guard currently on the roster, Booker takes the nod as the team’s best playmaker. Booker has good vision, is an underrated passer and if often methodical while probing opposing defenses. His offensive abilities often cause defenses to scheme towards stopping him from scoring as a top priority, which can lead to easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. With more talent around him this season, Booker needs to make a more concerted effort to be a consistent playmaker and facilitator for his teammates. If he manages to do so, his offensive impact will hit another level, even if his per game scoring average takes a slight dip from last season.

Top Clutch Player: Devin Booker

In year’s past, players like Eric Bledsoe or Goran Dragic could have made a claim as being Phoenix’s top clutch player. However, Booker has hit some big time shots in clutch situations over his young NBA career and is the most capable scorer and playmaker Phoenix has at this point. Booker hasn’t always been the most efficient scorer in clutch situations, but there is little doubt that he is the most capable offensive player Phoenix has and the person who should have the ball in his hands when the game is on the line.

The Unheralded Player: De’Anthony Melton

When the Suns traded Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight to the Houston Rockets for Ryan Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, most of the attention fell on everyone but Melton. Melton is a talented combo guard who was sidelined all of last season at USC because of a federal investigation into the NCAA. Had Melton not been sidelined, he would have had more of an opportunity to show NBA teams that he was arguably worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Instead, Melton dropped on draft night and was selected 46th overall by the Houston Rockets.

Melton participated in the Las Vegas Summer League with the Rockets and had some standout performances. At Summer League, Melton averaged 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and four assists and demonstrated a nice feel for the pace and tempo of the game.

Melton will compete with Elie Okobo, Shaquille Harrison and Isaiah Canaan for playing time at the point guard position.

Best New Addition: Deandre Ayton

There are some skeptics who don’t believe Ayton has the skill set or drive to be a star player at the NBA level. However, the majority of scouts and other player evaluators had Ayton as the consensus top pick in this year’s draft – a conclusion Phoenix clearly agreed with.

Ayton stands at 7-foot-0 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He has a big, muscular frame but still has plenty of room to continue developing his body. Ayton is also extremely athletic, coordinated and nimble for a player his size. If Ayton can become a more consistent weak side defender, improve his consistency in making the correct defensive rotations and improve on his rebounding fundamentals, he could possibly become a Rudy Gobert level defensive anchor someday. No one should expect Ayton to reach Gobert’s level but it’s a possibility and that alone was reason enough to take him with the first overall pick.

Ayton also has a surprisingly diverse offensive skill set but he isn’t great at any particular thing yet on that end of the court. However, Ayton is a big-time threat as a rim-roller and should get plenty of opportunities to finish lobs from teammates over the course of the season.

Ayton may not be ready to contribute at a high level in his rookie season, but he has star potential and that alone makes him the team’s best new addition.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Devin Booker

For all of the reasons we have already discussed above.

2. Deandre Ayton

In Ayton, Phoenix finally has a second young prospect with star potential. There is no guarantee that Ayton ever becomes anything more than a starting quality center but between his physical gifts and improving skill set, it’s possible he could become an All-Star caliber player in the near future. Additionally, if Ayton reaches his defensive potential, he could become the defensive anchor that Phoenix needs as Tyson Chandler is no longer the defensive ace he once was and is only under contract for this season.

After seemingly missing the mark by using top picks on big men like Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, Phoenix is hoping that Ayton’s game will translate to the modern NBA. If it does, Ayton could become part of a formidable duo with Booker.

3. Mikal Bridges

Phoenix traded a promising player in Zhaire Smith and a valuable Miami 2021 first-round pick for Bridges, which is a somewhat steep price to pay. But it’s not hard to understand why Phoenix was willing to pay this price for Bridges. He is a prototypical 3-and-D prospect with the potential to develop into a capable playmaker. When I think about Bridges, I think of Kris Middleton. I don’t know whether Bridges will ever develop into the kind of player Middleton has become, but he has deep range on his jumper, is a confident shooter and looked comfortable getting his shot off quickly at the Las Vegas Summer League.

Depending on how Bridges and Smith develop over the next few seasons and what becomes of that Miami draft pick, Phoenix may come to regret making this deal. But Bridges is a quality prospect that should make a lasting impact in Phoenix.

4. T.J. Warren

Warren is now entering his fifth NBA season and while he has shown some flashes of his unique offensive skills, he has yet to establish himself as a reliable starter at the forward position. Injuries have limited Warren, who has never played in more than 66 games in a season. However, this could be the year where Warren starts to fully and consistently utilize all of his offensive skills, including his ability to score off the dribble, in the midrange and at the rim. Warren is a poor shooter from three-point range but his brand of offense keeps opponents off balance, making him a tough matchup for many players who are used to running players off the three-point line and trailing them to the rim rather than guarding them in the midrange and in the post.

STRENGTHS

Young talent. The Suns feature one of the better young cores in the NBA and are now guided by a promising head coach in Igor Kokoškov. While the Suns brought in Ariza and Anderson to add veteran experience and depth to the roster, it’s unlikely they alone will be able to help the Suns maintain pace in the Western Conference playoff picture this season. However, if Ariza, Anderson and Chandler can help mentor the younger players and build a strong team culture, this team could conceivably outperform expectations. But even in the best case scenario, the playoffs don’t seem like a realistic goal for Phoenix this season considering how many young players the team is relying on to play heavy minutes and how stacked the Western Conference is.

If the Suns see meaningful development from their young core players, this season should be seen as a success even if Phoenix misses the postseason.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Point guard. As previously discussed, the Suns are projected to enter the upcoming season without an established starter at point guard. Booker could slide into the lead guard position but there is no guarantee he is ready to take on that taxing role. Phoenix has promising prospects in Okobo and Melton, but neither player is likely ready to take on the starting position and perform at a league average level consistently. Phoenix is rumored to be seeking out a quality point guard but until such a deal has been agreed to and finalized, point guard play is likely going to be an area of concern for the Suns.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Phoenix regret investing significant resources into veterans like Trevor Ariza?

Phoenix wasn’t a team that was one or two quality veterans away from becoming a contender, which is why some people in and around the league have questioned the wisdom of Phoenix’s signing of Ariza and trade for Anderson. Notably, Ariza’s contract is only for this season and Anderson’s deal will become more movable after this season. Additionally, Phoenix could flip either player for assets midseason if a team feels either player would help them move into contention or separate themselves from the other contenders. However, Phoenix could also end up winning more games than they would without veterans like Ariza, which could hurt them in next year’s Lottery. Is winning a few more games this season worth potentially ending up with a lower draft pick?

– Jesse Blancarte

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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 the Chicago Bulls 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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NBA Daily: Who Deserves Coach of the Year?

As the season enters its final stages, Matt John takes a look at who are the prime candidates for Coach of the Year.

Matt John

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Last year, this writer started his tenure with Basketball Insiders writing about who had the best case for Coach of the Year. One year later, we’re revisiting the same discussion. This time, with an entirely new slate of candidates.

The Coach of the Year Award produces one of the most fascinating races in the NBA that doesn’t get as much attention. What makes it fascinating is that there are a variety of reasons for why a coach can win the award. Why it doesn’t get enough attention is because fans understandably care more about the players than the coaches, which is nobody’s fault.

This season, we have coaches with different reasons for why they are viable candidates for Coach of the Year. Some aren’t necessarily coaching the best team, or are making the most progress, but they’re making a good enough case that they should be in the discussion.

Please note that these are ranked in alphabetical order, not by who deserves it the most.

Mike Budenholzer

A few weeks ago, this writer detailed why the Bucks’ front office deserved credit for building the contender that they did, and he stands by it. However, while it’s on the front office to assemble a great team, it is on the coach to make the pieces work. That is what Coach Bud has done, and he’s done it marvelously.

Milwaukee sits atop the Eastern Conference with a 53-19 record, they have the best net rating in the NBA and Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the center in one of the most intense MVP races of all time. With the exception of the most recent untimely injuries to Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, this season could not have gone better for the Bucks.

Milwaukee always had the talent to be one of the league’s best teams. They just needed the right guy calling the shots. They have their man. Let’s be fair though. The Bucks needed Mike just as much as he needed them. So far, it’s worked for the best for both sides because now, Coach Bud has a very believable chance to join his mentor Gregg Popovich among the very few coaches who have won the award multiple times.

Dave Joerger

Anytime you make the NBA’s doormat look the most promising it’s been in over a decade, you automatically get your name among the NBA’s coaching elite.

Coming into the season, many thought the story surrounding the Kings was going to be about how good of a pick they were going to give Boston or Philadelphia in the lottery. That was proven wrong. Somehow, with 11 games left in the season, the Kings are still fighting for a playoff spot. Miraculously, they’ve become the NBA’s little engine that could.

Much credit should go to the improvement of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, along with the exciting play of Marvin Bagley III among others, but young talent can grow together without being cohesive. Joerger deserves credit for the youth’s improvement and cohesion getting Sacramento results. The one knock against Joerger is that the Kings probably aren’t going to make the playoffs, but they’re finally trending in the right direction.

For that, Joerger absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. Let’s just hope those rumors of tension with upper management turn out to be nothing more than gossip.

Michael Malone

It’s arrived later than they would have wanted, but hey, better late than never! The Nuggets’ new era has finally started, and it has started gloriously.

The Nuggets currently place second in the Western Conference and have clinched their first playoff berth since 2013. They have the third-highest offensive rating in the league, and one of the best all-around offensive bigs the league has ever seen in Nikola Jokic. The improvements of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, along with the surprising productivity coming from Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, have given the Nuggets a team swimming in depth.

This season has shown that just because you have depth on your squad does not mean that everything will fall into place – See Celtics, Boston – which is what makes Malone’s work in all the more impressive. It’s helped that he’s gotten more games out of Paul Millsap – who has the highest net rating on the team (plus-8.4) – but Malone has mixed and matched the roster about as well as Denver could have hoped.

There is a fair amount of skepticism as to whether the Nuggets will keep this up in the playoffs. Even if they don’t, Malone did his job extraordinarily.

Kenny Atkinson

Atkinson has been on the radar for a couple of years now since he’s had to clean up Brooklyn’s mess for the previous two seasons. This season, the Nets are starting to reap the benefits from the winning culture he has created.

Besides Joerger, Atkinson has the least impressive record of the coaches put on this list. Much like Joeger, in Atkinson’s case, it doesn’t matter because the jump his team has made from last season makes his case all the more legitimate. DeMarre Carroll and Ed Davis have been dependable veterans, and the leaps that Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert have taken are too good to go unnoticed.

But most impressive of all, Atkinson seems to have unlocked D’Angelo Russell. After both the turmoil and the injuries that D-Lo has had to deal with since entering the league, he now has emerged as one of the league’s brighter young stars. It’s important that young talent be molded correctly otherwise it can stunt a player’s growth. We’ll never know if that would have happened in LA, but we now know that Russell’s move to Brooklyn was vital to his progress.

Brooklyn believed Atkinson was up to the task when he was first hired, and now, their faith is being rewarded.

Nate McMillan

Of all the coaches that were put on this list last year, only two resurfaced this season. You probably already know who one of them is, while McMillan is the other.

First off, hats off to McMillan for reviving his career as a head coach. Many were skeptical when Indiana replaced Frank Vogel with him. Since then, he’s only made them eat their words. His work last season was already impressive. He’s only continued to do so this season.

The Pacers are currently 44-29. If they just go 4-5 over their last nine games, they’ll match their record from last season. That’s remarkable considering they lost Victor Oladipo, i.e. their best player halfway through the season. They were on a 56-win pace before ‘Dipo’s injury, but his numbers actually declined this season, which shows that the team itself has grown.

Indiana currently is tied for the second-best defensive rating in the league (105.9) thanks to the likes of Myles Turner, which has mitigated Oladipo’s absence. They haven’t been great since Victor went down, but they’ve done well enough to stick with Boston and Philly in the playoff race. For that, Nate deserves recognition.

Nick Nurse

The new kid on the block had a tall order when the Raptors replaced Dwane Casey with him as head coach. So far, he’s run with it.

It’s likely Toronto won’t be able to match last season’s regular season win total. Their defense has stayed the same, but their offense has taken a step back this season, going from the second-highest in the league to the seventh. Nobody seems too concerned about that because the general feeling is that this is the best Raptors team ever assembled.

Kawhi Leonard has looked as good as ever. Pascal Siakam has exploded onto the scene as perhaps the team’s second-best all-around player. Serge Ibaka’s having his most efficient season in years. New additions Danny Green, Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin have fit in without much trouble. The list goes on.

Nurse had a lot to juggle when he was appointed head coach, and so far, he’s filling in well for the departed Casey. We’ll have to see if he gets Toronto past its playoff demons, but what a season he’s had.

Gregg Popovich

Just when you think the Spurs are down for the count, they find ways to stay relevant. They’ve done this so many times that you’d think the national media would learn not to count them out. Somehow we still do, and we’re always wrong.

To recap, Coach Pop lost his best player (Leonard) during the summer. He lost his most promising young player (Dejounte Murray) just before the season started. Two of the most iconic Spurs ever – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – left the team. His two best players – LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan – are not reliable three-point shooters in a league that’s become increasingly reliant on floor spacing. It was supposed to be the start of the Spurs’ descent.

For a while, it looked that way, but as the season is winding down, it appears San Antonio isn’t going anywhere. They’ve won nine of their last 10 games, they have the sixth-highest offensive rating in the league, and most ironic of all, they have the best three-point shooting in the league at almost 40 percent.

It’s fair to say that this has been fantastic work by Popovich, but when was the last time he fell short of that description?

Doc Rivers

Rivers has plenty of evidence to support that he’s one of the league’s best coaches. He won Coach of the Year back in 2000 and led one of the most dominant basketball teams in the 21st century in 2008, but this season might just be his best work yet.

The Clippers looked like they were about to start rebuilding, but instead opted to build a winning culture. Doc’s coaching has put guys who know who they are in positions to thrive. Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – all of them, no matter where they are at in their career, have played excellent in the role Doc gave them. Oh, and has it been brought up that the Clippers traded their best player and haven’t slipped at all?

By doing this, Doc went back to his roots during his days as the head coach of the Magic. There were no elite players on the team, but guys who knew what they were supposed to do. What makes this Clippers team more impressive team than that Magic team is the Western Conference in 2019 is much tougher than the Eastern Conference was in 2000.

This could do so much for the Clippers. After the Magic’s impressive run in 2000, they landed Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and almost Tim Duncan. If Doc continues to impress, a certain LA-native and Canadian resident might be donning a Clippers uniform.

There are some tough omissions, such as Quin Snyder, Brett Brown and Billy Donovan. The difference between them and the others mentioned is that they’ve reasonably met expectations. All of them are coaching playoff teams. It’s just that their respective teams or where we thought they’d be.

That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve consideration. It’s just that their case isn’t as strong as the others mentioned above.

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