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The Chicago Bulls Are Building, Not Rebuilding

Trading Taj Gibson signaled a different kind of building in Chicago – not a rebuild, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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When the Chicago Bulls traded Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a second round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow at the deadline, it appeared Bulls management had decided to start over. But a look at Chicago’s young players in increased roles since the All-Star break hints that the Bulls’ front office had a plan more nuanced than “blow it up.”

“[We’re] building with Jimmy,” Bulls VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson told The Associated Press. While some observers considered a Jimmy Butler trade the inevitable next step in an impending rebuild, Paxson insisted that Chicago is determined to put the right pieces around the team’s star.

At first blush, the trade was absurdly lopsided. After all, Chicago gave up its leading rebounder and third-leading scorer in Gibson, and second-leading three-point shooter in McDermott for three players on the fringes of OKC’s rotation. Payne missed time due to a right foot fracture. In only 320 minutes this season, the Thunder were outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Payne on court, a team-worst net rating. Morrow is a career journeyman, and Lauvergne has yet to crack an NBA rotation.

So how is the trade defensible? How could anyone possibly ascribe a rational thought process to Chicago’s front office? The answer lies in both changes in role and an overall commitment to a new style of play. While Gibson was productive throughout his time in Chicago, his inability to connect on shots away from the basket allowed defenders to sag in the lane and clog potential driving lanes. With Chicago ranking dead last in three-point percentage — and with noted slashers Butler and Dwyane Wade on the roster — Gibson’s inability to knock down midrange shots was incompatible with one of Chicago’s main strengths.

In the modern era, teams are often successful when they surround a single interior player with four teammates that can hit from outside. Looking at the numbers, within 8 feet of the basket, Gibson has been efficient, hitting 231 of 382 shots (60.5 percent) this season. From eight to 24 feet, Gibson has shot just 61-for-178 (34 percent).

So the big decision for Bulls management was whether to continue to pair Gibson with Robin Lopez, another player who produces primarily on the inside. With Gibson entering free agency, Chicago knew it would have to make a significant financial commitment this summer to keep Gibson in a Bulls uniform. The deciding factors were likely Lopez’ contract status (signed through 2019 for a reasonable $14 million per season) and the comparative diversity of his shot profile.

Inside 8 feet, Lopez has connected on 178 of 342 shots (52 percent), a far less efficient clip than Gibson. However, Lopez distinguishes himself in the midrange. From eight to 24 feet, Lopez has shot 106-for-243 (44 percent). Neither percentage is exceptional, but both are respectable. This means you have to guard Lopez at more spots on the floor than Gibson. And that appears to be the decision that Bulls management made. They made a lopsided trade in terms of production, but it opens up driving lanes just as Al Horford’s arrival in Boston has done for Isaiah Thomas.

While moving on from Gibson isn’t going to suddenly make the Bulls a competent three-point shooting team, the organization made a commitment to spacing that is forward thinking. In addition to this shift in philosophy, Chicago also committed to an expanded role for its young players. While a five-game sample since the All-Star break is too small from which to draw firm conclusions, Thursday’s upset of Golden State combined with Saturday’s loss to the Clippers provided an interesting glimpse at both the potential and limitations of Chicago’s youth movement.

Payne opened the second quarter against Golden State with three straight floaters — the lefty’s preferred shot — hitting two. Payne also had a nice shovel pass to Paul Zipser in semi-transition for a layup, part of a 10-2 Bulls run before halftime. Overall, Payne’s on/off numbers in 52 minutes as a Bull have been just as bad as they were in OKC. But the Bulls got a prospect on a rookie scale contract rather than seeing Gibson walk in free agency without compensation.

Zipser, a 23-year-old rookie from Heidelberg, Germany, showed control with a single bounce to keep from traveling on Payne’s assist. Later in the second, he faked a three to get Klay Thompson in the air, then hit a pull-up from just inside the arc. Zipser showed nice body control again as he recovered a ball Pat McCaw knocked loose from Wade, fired it back to Wade, then cut to the basket for a double-clutch layup.

The greatest beneficiary of Gibson’s exodus is Bobby Portis. As Brent Barry noted on the broadcast, Portis has spent over 51 percent of his minutes this season at center. With Gibson gone, Portis will now platoon with Nikola Mirotic to give the Bulls a pair of stretch four options. Portis scored 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting with six rebounds in the first half of the win over Golden State.

The second half featured a 10-0 Bulls run in the third quarter which included a pair of midrange jumpers by Lopez. This restart for Chicago also appears to have rejuvenated Rajon Rondo, who took advantage of the improved spacing to slash to the basket while also igniting the fast break. Mirotic had a corner three off a feed from Rondo, then drove to the basket and dropped it off to Cristiano Felicio for a dunk that put the Bulls ahead 84-79 with 7:19 to play in the third.

The fourth quarter showed both Chicago’s newfound commitment to spacing and the mixed results the team will likely continue to see. The Bulls shot 1-for-9 on threes in the fourth as Golden State briefly retook the lead at 85-84. But the Warriors missed nine straight threes in the quarter as Chicago added a win over the Durantless Warriors to its previous post-All Star win over the LeBronless Cavaliers. The most interesting thing was Fred Hoiberg’s lineup in the final three minutes of a back-and-forth game: Wade, Felicio, Butler, Zipser, and Portis.

The loss to the Clippers showed not only the limitations of Chicago’s youth movement at its current stage, but the limitations of the veterans the Bulls added during the past offseason. Although Jamal Crawford would punish Zipser in the second half with one of his non-guardable games, it was the inability of Wade and Butler to fight through screens and guard J.J. Redick on switches that kept the game from being closer than it could have been.

And while Chris Paul repeatedly picked on Jerian Grant — the promising point guard who leads Chicago in three-point percentage — Rondo looked a lot less poised against the Clippers. After trusting the youngsters with the GSW game on the line, Hoiberg opted to go with a veteran-heavy lineup with Portis joining Wade, Butler, Rondo and Lopez after Hoiberg pulled Grant six minutes in. The substitution patterns appeared to work, as Chicago led 61-55 at halftime with 23 points from the second unit. L.A. entered the game with four losses in five games since the break and appeared a step slow on the second night of a back-to-back.

While the Bulls lived on second chance and transition buckets in the first half, the Clippers tightened their defense and elevated their energy in the second. Chicago’s platoon of point guards was obviously no match for Paul. And while Portis shows promise, starting opposite a healthy Griffin is a reality check for any power forward. Mirotic and shooting guard Denzel Valentine had nice moments toward the end of the game but it was too little, too late. Of all the young Bulls to benefit from the post-trade minutes’ redistribution, Valentine has made the most of it. His +10.5 net rating after the All-Star break leads the team and is almost six points better than Butler, who is second at +4.6. It’s only a five-game, 110-minute sample for Valentine, but he only played 401 minutes through 32 games before the All-Star break.

The Gibson trade wasn’t so much hitting the reset button as reimagining what the Bulls can be. Chicago is building, not rebuilding. With Lopez and Butler under contract for two more seasons and numerous developing options at point guard, power forward and on the wing, look for the Bulls to be players again in free agency this summer. If Wade declines his option, Chicago could have the cap space to court current Atlanta Hawk Paul Millsap. If not, the Bulls could make a play in 2018 for potential restricted free agent Rodney Hood. So back down off that ledge, Bulls fans. The future looks brighter than almost anyone suspected.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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