The Washington Wizards are here to play solid but not spectacular basketball, reach the playoffs, win a series and then graciously bow out — just as they have in three of the last five years. More or less, the Wizards sport a former All-NBA point guard with an All-Star-minded sidekick and compete in the weaker conference, but they’ve never managed to defeat their massive second-round hurdles. To their credit, however, Washington keeps trying to improve wherever they can each offseason instead of fruitlessly blowing it all up.
Due to financial constraints, Washington could only make middle-tier moves this summer and did so by trading Marcin Gortat for Austin Rivers, signing Dwight Howard and drafting Troy Brown Jr. On top of that, they added Jeff Green and claimed Thomas Bryant off waivers. Those moves won’t make them championship challengers, but there’s still hope that they’ll finally become conference contenders — a fate they’ve chased since John Wall arrived in 2010.
Supported once again by Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr., is this the year that the Wizards fulfill their destiny or will they be just another bump in the road on the way to the Eastern Conference Finals?
To start us off, here are some thoughts from the Basketball Insiders team about the Wizards’ upcoming season.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this offseason. The Philadelphia 76ers are already a top Eastern Conference team with two young stars on track to become superstars and a core of talented young players. The Boston Celtics are getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury this season. Meanwhile, the Washington Wizards acquired Austin Rivers and Dwight Howard. To be fair, Rivers and Howard are both capable players who have limitations in their respective games but could help Washington this season. However, it’s hard to argue that Washington did anything to push themselves ahead of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. For some teams that doesn’t matter a whole lot since they aren’t currently trying to contend for a championship. The Wizards are and there doesn’t seem to be any path for them to push ahead of their top Eastern Conference rivals at this point, much less the top Western Conference teams.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Jesse Blancarte
John Wall and Bradley Beal should be one of the best back courts in basketball. Otto Porter Jr. should be the perfect compliment to that talented duo. The Wizards should be a top team in the Eastern Conference. But they haven’t been and it’s hard to understand why. Last season, Washington was at its best when the team lived by the “Everybody Eats” mantra. If they just abide by that, they should be able to accomplish what they want. Maybe swapping out Marcin Gortat for Dwight Howard will do the trick? Who knows, but Scott Brooks is running out of time to elevate D.C. to where it’s supposed to be. Winning the Southeast Division would be a good start.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Spencer Davies
The Wizards are going all in this season. Usually, adding Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers to your supporting cast would be seen as a good thing. Instead, most NBA audiences laughed at the Wizards because of Rivers’ and Howard’s reputations as locker room cancers. That wouldn’t have been a problem if it weren’t for the Wizards having a very tense locker room situation last season. Even if Rivers and Howard are on their best behavior, there’s no guarantee that adding them will pay off. For all the talent that they have, Washington has failed to maintain any consistency in the John Wall-Bradley Beal era. If things don’t improve, this could be it for them.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Matt John
At this point, it seems like we have a pretty good idea of what the Washington Wizards are. At their very best, they can compete with nearly anyone in the East – but they’re rarely at that level for a number of reasons, and look like little but a middling playoff team in the weaker conference when they’re not on. Their offseason, which included bringing in the mercurial Dwight Howard as well as Austin Rivers, likely won’t do much to stem that inconsistency. It starts at the top with point guard John Wall, who shows flashes of greatness nearly every game…when he isn’t leading the league in time spent walking on the court, that is. Unless Howard is truly revitalized (long shot at this point) or the Wizards get major internal development from someone like Kelly Oubre or Bradley Beal, it’s hard to see them really challenging the Bostons and Torontos of the East – even if they take home another division crown.
1st Place – Southeast Division
– Ben Dowsett
On pure talent, the Wizards should be among the top teams in basketball; on pure talent. The problem is there is something that’s just not right with the Wizards. Maybe they break through this year and not only stay healthy, but learn how to compete as a unit. The problem is there just isn’t enough evidence to think that’s going to happen. On talent, the Wizards should be the second or third best team in the East, but until they show they can make that happen, it’s hard to put them much higher than top four.
1st place – Southeast Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal
With Wall on the shelf from late January to the end of March, Beal thrived in his featured role. During that period of time, Beal rang up 23.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game and earned his first-ever All-Star appearance. Despite his three-point percentage dropping from an elite 40 percent clip to a serviceable 37.5, Beal averaged 2.4 of them per contest over 82 games. In total, Beal knocked down 199 threes, even without his backcourt playmaker for half of them, and finished 13th-best in the NBA during 2017-18. When Beal is cooking, there are few players more unguardable — take, for example, the 41 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and 6-for-11 from three-point range effort he dropped on Oklahoma City just before February.
The sharpshooter even doled out a career-best 11 assists during a narrow three-point loss to the Indiana Pacers last year — so perhaps a larger share of the offensive possessions should be on the table moving forward. It’s hard to believe that Beal is just 25 years old and his best basketball is surely ahead of him, regardless of usage, role or responsibilities.
Top Defensive Player: Dwight Howard
Although Howard has become a maligned personality as of late, he’s still a capable NBA player — particularly so on the defensive end.
Almost incredulously, Wall led the Wizards in blocks per game last season at 1.1, with Gortat trailing shortly behind at 0.7. Over 14 years, Howard has always exceeded that mark, even posting six straight seasons of two-plus blocks per game from 2007-13. Those superhuman efforts are likely long gone for the 32-year-old, but his regular presence will help to mend a sub-par defensive unit. The Wizards allowed 45.4 points in the paint per game, which registered as the 12th-worst mark in 2017-18, while their 4.3 blocks were also toward the league cellar — two places Howard can definitively make a difference in.
Top Playmaker: John Wall
Headed into his ninth season, Wall remains one of the greatest playmakers this league has. Through 41 contests last year, Wall notched 9.6 assists per game, a tally that would’ve left him trailing just Russell Westbrook (10.3) had he officially qualified for the category. In the three seasons before that, Wall averaged 10-plus assists and landed in the top three league-wide each time too. In transition, defending Wall and his lightning-quick pace remains a total nightmare. Lag off and Wall will burn you, but guard him tightly and the unpredictable trailblazer will always find a wide-open three-point shooter.
Wall continues to be a frontrunner for the best point guard in the Eastern Conference and his fast-breaking distribution qualities are a huge reason why. The Wizards went just 20-21 without Wall in 2017-18, so they’ll be anxious to get a full campaign from their five-time All-Star and floor general. Quite simply, Wall puts his teammates in position to succeed — so don’t be surprised if Howard undergoes a much-needed career resurgence next to this playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal
Due to the extra volume Beal experienced sans Wall, this category comes out a little skewed. Undoubtedly, Beal made (38) and took (124) the most clutch-time shots for Washington in 2017-18 and converted on a 30.6 percent conversion rate. Of course, there’s room to improve, but with teams keying in on Beal, it’s a solid total for the soon to be seventh-year marksman. To put it in context, Beal was only beat out in overall clutch-time buckets by LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, Kemba Walker, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard — so, it’s still some great company to keep, all things considered.
In addition, a special shout-out goes to Oubre, who shot 16-for-32 in such late-game situations, including a 47.1 percent clip from three-point range as well — a promising outlook for the developing wing, but more on him below.
The Unheralded Player: Kelly Oubre Jr.
While the Wizards’ current stars and big money players earn the headlines, Oubre’s development is among the most important storylines heading into the new campaign. The merits of Wall, Beal, Howard and Porter are not up for debate but if the Wizards want to take the next step, they’ll look toward Oubre to elevate his game. Oubre, 22, can be a handful for defenders and the 6-foot-7 small forward averaged 11.8 points and 4.5 rebounds on 40.3 percent last season. When Oubre scored 14 or more points in 2017-18, Washington went 17-10 — so his consistency will be key for a bench unit that recorded only 35.6 points per game, 15th-worst in the NBA.
If Oubre can improve his 34.1 percent rate from behind the arc, there’s a chance that the potential-laden professional can breakout before he reaches restricted free agency next summer.
Best New Addition: Dwight Howard
Howard arrives in Washington this fall after being traded by Charlotte to Brooklyn, wherein the Nets promptly bought him out — so he’s officially joining his fourth team in four seasons. Even if the experiment eventually comes up short, Howard appears to be a major upgrade at center. The future Hall of Famer has averaged a double-double in all 14 years of his career and, with little competition behind him, that streak isn’t in jeopardy. Gortat was no slouch (8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds), but rolling the dice on Howard is precisely the type of inexpensive, high-reward gamble this franchise must take.
Howard has played with loads of talented point guards in the past — James Harden and Kemba Walker included — but his fit next to Wall feels like its been years in the making. Howard can still (mostly) anchor a defense and catch lobs, so what else could you want? As an above average rim protector and shot blocker, Howard effectively addresses two weakness in one fell swoop.
If the locker room stays intact, this will be a no-brainer victory for the Wizards.
– Ben Nadeau
WHO WE LIKE
1. Otto Porter Jr.
One year removed from matching a max offer sheet from the Nets, the return on Porter has been acceptable, if not a tiny bit disappointing. Last campaign, his averages of 14.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.8 three-pointers on 44.1 percent from deep nearly replicated his statistics from the season prior. That type of output is a nice sign of consistency, but it’s also not the bump the Wizards would’ve wanted after committing all that precious cap space to him.
Still, there’s plenty to like about the Washington wing as he further grows into his all-around game. For starters, the economical 6-foot-8 scorer shot 50.3 percent in 2017-18, a mark only beat out by Michael Beasley (50.7), E’Twaun Moore (50.8), Kevin Durant (51.6) and LeBron James (54.2) for small forwards. Of those four, none of them shot the three at a better clip than Porter, who finished with the third-best rate in the entire NBA.
To this point, we all know what the Wizards’ stars are capable of but if they want to get past their Celtics and Raptors-sized obstacles, they’ll need Porter to take a giant leap. As one of the league’s exceedingly efficient shooters, he’s already won half the battle — but will the volume opportunities ever be there for him alongside Wall and Beal?
2. Markieff Morris
After setting a career-bests for three-point percentage in back-to-back seasons, Morris has been a steady contributor in the nation’s capital. Now just one year away from an important trip to free agency at the age of 29, expect the 6-foot-10 stretch forward to keep the good times rolling. At 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game — and with the fifth-most technical fouls in 2017-18 — Morris will likely become the last option on offense with Howard in tow. Certainly, that’s not particularly ideal for Morris, but it’s a solid situation for the Wizards, both offensively and defensively.
Morris is not elite on either end, but he’ll adequately chip in, won’t take touches away from the stars and, importantly, cares a whole lot about winning ball games. For a team looking to compete at the highest levels, Washington could do far, far worse than the reliable hand of Morris.
3. Austin Rivers
No longer a punchline, Rivers should be a fantastic fit for Washington off the bench. As an improved ball handler, a solid defender and an even better bucket-getter, Rivers’ final efforts in Los Angeles turned out to be his best statistical outcome yet. Rivers averaged 15.1 points, four assists and 1.2 steals over 59 starts for the Clippers, even knocking down a career-best 2.2 three-pointers per game on 37.8 percent from long range to boot. Obviously, he’ll be behind Wall and Beal on the depth chart and he won’t hit 33.7 minutes per game again, but his acquisition might turn out to be one of the most consequential, under-the-radar moves this summer.
Rivers will join forces with Oubre, Brown and Green to revitalize a middle of the pack second unit — but don’t be surprised if the veteran starts popping up in Sixth Man of the Year discussions come March.
4. Scott Brooks
Heading into his third season as head coach of the Wizards, Brooks has done a fine job of keeping his roster of strong personalities content — this season, it’ll be even tougher. Howard and Rivers don’t come without their own personal dramas, but Brooks has succeeded in the balancing act thus far. Last year was tarnished by Wall’s injury, but 2016-17 saw the Wizards rank ninth in offensive rating (108.5). If Brooks can get them back to that level of execution, then Washington could be in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round.
Every conference contender needs a great coach: the Celtics have Brad Stevens, the Raptors had Dwane Casey and the 76ers have Brett Brown. Brooks frequently goes unmentioned in this category, but he’s proven himself in the postseason before — now he may finally have the roster to do so again.
5. Troy Brown. Jr.
The selection of Brown at No. 15 overall this June came as a surprise with their backcourt starters locked down for the foreseeable future. For now, Brown won’t help much in the three-point shooting department — 29.1 percent at Oregon — but he’ll provide plenty of bench versatility nonetheless. In Las Vegas this summer, Brown averaged 18.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals over five games — an exhibition of skills that’ll hopefully keep him out of the G-League and well-supplanted in Brooks’ rotation soon enough.
He’s got legitimate promise as an NBA-level scorer and at the age of 19, Brown is the fourth-youngest player in the entire league, so this might be a name you’ll see for a very long time. To start the campaign, Brown will be buried behind Porter and Oubre, but keep an eye on him. His three-point efforts will need to improve if he wants to carve out a bigger and better role this season and beyond. However, Wizards fans should be awfully excited about this rookie.
– Ben Nadeau
When Wall is healthy, the Wizards often rank near the top in transition points per game, even finishing in the top four in 2016-17. Ultimately, the previous campaign was a struggle without Wall for half the year and their record — 43-39, eighth seed — reflected that. This time around, Wall is not only injury-free but the additions of Rivers and Brown, plus the furthered development of Porter and Oubre, should conceivably have the Wizards in the conversation once again.
Out on the fast break, Wall makes the Wizards a dangerous dark horse candidate in the conference without question. Both Morris and Porter will extend the floor around Wall and Beal, while Howard is gifted at cleaning the glass. Even the bench, which has been remarkably thin in recent seasons, is looking deeper than ever.
If they stay healthy and get back into their signature transition game … you’ve officially been warned.
– Ben Nadeau
The Wizards made just 9.9 three-pointers per game in 2017-18, the 10th-worst mark in the entire league. Wall will get his teammates into high-value shot attempts, naturally, but the jury is still out on the point guard’s career-best 37.1 three-point percentage from last year. Rivers’ 2.2 three-pointers per game will help ease those worries, but they came with starter’s minutes, a number that’ll decrease playing behind an All-Star-worthy backcourt. The Wizards’ strongest competition in the conference all made three-pointers with success last season — Raptors (fourth-best), Celtics (seventh) and 76ers (12th) — so the D.C.-based team has some catching up to do.
Beyond that, those large personalities will need to be watched closely, particularly so after adding Howard and Rivers. In an already weirdly-contested locker room, all this has the potential to be a beautiful, unifying partnership or a regrettable mess.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
Are the Wizards a member of the Eastern Conference elite?
While the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers have the best odds of controlling the top postseason seeds again, there’s definitely an argument for Washington to join the pack, if not for a few caveats. Again, they must stay healthy. Generally speaking, Wall has done so since 2013, but we’ve seen how average this team ends up being without him — and would be again, even with their improved depth this time around.
Furthermore, the locker room must keep it together — another gimme, clearly, but this is no cakewalk. It’ll be up to Brooks to build a rotation that caters to everybody’s strengths and weakness while also maximizing their window for success, which is obviously easier said than done. However, this is probably the most talented roster the Wizards have had in over a decade.
Unfortunately, the Wizards also must deal with the pesky Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks and Miami HEAT in the conference’s second-tier, so they’re no longer the same shoo-in they’ve been before. Washington will absolutely improve on their barely .500 record from 2017-18 and they’ve got an outside shot of competing with the very best the East has to offer.
But even with the measurable upgrades in Howard, Rivers and Brown, it’d be tough to pick against their conference rivals like Boston or Philadelphia in the playoffs.
– Ben Nadeau
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?
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.
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.
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.
NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls
Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.