The so-called 2014 Plan has taken its place alongside the phrase “basketball reasons” among bitter Chicago Bulls fans who decried the team’s failure to retain Omer Asik, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer in the summer of 2012. But a key reason for letting Asik walk to Houston was the massive near $15 million cap hit the Bulls would have taken for his salary in the upcoming 2014-15 season if they had matched the Rockets’ offer sheet. Time has proven the wisdom of letting Asik go, especially considering how the success of Joakim Noah playing big minutes would have continued to render him somewhat superfluous. With the possible amnesty or trade of Carlos Boozer this summer, the Bulls go into the offseason as major players in the free agent market. So what should they do with their newfound flexibility?
Where the Bulls are Now
Under the most likely scenario going forward, the Bulls should open the 2014-15 cap year on July 1 with about $69 million in salaries committed for 2014-15. If the Bulls amnesty Carlos Boozer’s $16.8 million, that would leave them approximately $52.7 million in salary and cap holds, or approximately $10.3 million in cap room under the projected $63 million cap.*
*For the nerds, the analysis makes the following assumptions: 1. Joakim Noah’s and Taj Gibson’s cap numbers increase by $500,000 and $250,000, respectively, due to incentives reached or probably reached this year which are then included on next year’s cap as “likely” bonuses (scroll down). 2. Kirk Hinrich is renounced. 3. D.J. Augustin is renounced to reduce his small cap hold even further to the rookie minimum. If he’s re-signed, it will be through cap space or an exception anyway, as the Bulls do not have Bird rights for him. 4. Nikola Mirotic has a cap hold at the level of this year’s 23rd pick, unless he and the Bulls sign a letter saying he will not play in the NBA this year. If he does not actually sign a contract, the cap hold stays on the books until the parties sign such a letter or the first day of the regular season. 5. The 16th and 19th picks are retained and used, providing cap holds of 100 percent of the Rookie Scale amounts for those picks. Teams typically sign rookies to 120 percent of the Rookie Scale amount, but the Bulls could wait to do this until after other transactions were complete. Also, the Bulls have the non-guaranteed salaries of Lou Amundson, Mike James, and Ronnie Brewer that total approximately $4 million that could be used to facilitate a trade, after which they would be released by the acquiring team, but for simplicity they were not included.
Also key to the discussion is 2011 draftee Nikola Mirotic. We dealt with his situation extensively here, and I recommend reading that piece as a companion to this one.
How much would it take to get Mirotic at this point? Because Mirotic is limited to negotiating with the Bulls, they should be able to get him far more cheaply than on the open market. The best figures I have found on Mirotic’s current salary indicate he makes approximately $1.4 million per year, with a buyout of approximately $3.4 million. The Bulls can pay $600,000 of this buyout. It might then be realistic to sign Mirotic to a three-year contract starting at $3.5 million per year with the maximum allowable 4.5 percent annual raises. For this contract, his maximum 15 percent signing bonus of approximately $1.6 million, the maximum allowable salary advance of 25 percent of his $2.9 million base salary at signing and then another 25 percent on the earliest allowable date of October 1 would enable him to pay his buyout with Real Madrid assuming some modicum of flexibility from the Spanish club on the payment date. He would still keep about $1.5 million for 2014-15, followed by $3.1 million and $3.2 million the next two years. That would exceed his Real Madrid salary and allow him to move up the timeline on a second contract.* Moreover, he could likely deduct his buyout against income for tax purposes.
*Hopefully for Bulls fans, Real Madrid’s upset loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Euroleague Final would not leave Mirotic reluctant to leave Europe due to unfinished business there.
On the court, Mirotic’s shooting would be nearly unparalleled at the power forward position. He also brings excellent passing, the abilities to attack off the bounce on closeouts and post up smaller players.* His defense and rebounding will not be a strength, but he is tough and shouldn’t be any worse than, say, a younger Luis Scola in those facets. He is worth perhaps as much as $8 million a year on the open market, so securing his services for only $3.5 million a year to start is probably the most efficient possible use of the Bulls’ cap space short of acquiring a true superstar.
*Mirotic’s shooting could conceivably allow him to play together with Gibson and a center in an arrangement where Mirotic plays small forward offensively and Gibson guards 3s on defense.
This analysis will also assume, as the Bulls must, that Derrick Rose will be healthy and a reasonable facsimile of his former self. Rose’s contract is so large* that the Bulls have little other choice. Counting on Rose may be high-risk, but such strategies are often how championships are won.
*He cannot be amnestied since his contract was signed after the 2011 CBA entered into effect.
With all that in mind, let’s move on to the potential realistic* options, presented in order of desirability.
*This assumes Dirk Nowitzki and the Miami trio stay put.
Trade for Kevin Love
As Kevin Pelton noted at ESPN.com there is an argument that Kevin Love might be the most desirable player traded in nearly 40 years this offseason. Love’s shooting, passing, rebounding, post-scoring, and age (25) should make him the Bulls’ number one target. If he is willing to opt-in for the last year of his contract as a condition of a trade, the Bulls should move nearly any asset needed to pair him with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. They obviously will start by offering much less, but Chicago can put together a very attractive package featuring some combination of their two first-rounders this year, any future first-rounders, a top-10 protected pick from the Sacramento Kings, and Taj Gibson. They could also take back bad salary from the Wolves like Kevin Martin or Chase Budinger to make things more palatable. Boozer would of course be included for salary matching.
This package would probably be the best of any team with which Love might actually want to re-sign once he is traded. Other potential suitors might include Houston, Phoenix, and Golden State, but none feature the combination of Love-appeal and assets that the Bulls possess.
Trading for Love could be a risk if Derrick Rose suffers through another injury-plagued year or is ineffective, because he could end up leaving as a free agent. In effect, the Bulls would be doubling down on Rose’s health, and be bereft of assets if he cannot deliver and Love leaves. That, however, is a risk worth taking.
Sign-and-Trade Carlos Boozer and Assets for Carmelo Anthony
Of the non-Love options, this is by far the best. They shed the salary of Carlos Boozer—included for salary matching purposes–while staying over the salary cap. This would enable them to keep and use their bi-annual exception (BAE) of up to a two-year contract starting at $2.1 million and the mid-level exception (MLE)* consisting of up to a four-year contract starting at $5.3 million. The latter could be used in whole or in part on Mirotic (he must sign a minimum three-year deal if he signs anything above a rookie contract) while the remainder could be used to fill in holes at backup point guard and big man. Staying over the cap would also facilitate using the non-guaranteed $4 million salaries of Amundson, James, and Brewer to trade for additional salary or promulgate another smaller sign-and-trade for a mid-level free agent. If the Bulls get under the cap, they would have to release these players and forfeit the option of using them in a trade to acquire more salary.
*The BAE and the MLE may be used in the same year, in whichever order. Both can be split up to sign multiple players if the team so desires. Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that to use both the BAE must be used first.
A starting lineup of a healthy Rose, Butler, Anthony, Gibson, and Noah with Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy and other exception-added depth off the bench would certainly be a championship contender. While assets such as some of the Bulls’ first-rounders and Tony Snell would likely be necessary to induce New York to agree to the trade, it would be worth it to be able to attract Anthony by paying him the over $20 million he would likely demand. Meanwhile, the ability to stay over the cap and use the exceptions would be worth giving up some future assets, especially if it enabled the import of Mirotic.
While Anthony would be making a king’s ransom for his 34 year-old skills in the last year of the approximately 4-year, $96 million contract the Bulls would give him in this scenario, there would be little cost in flexibility due to the fact that his contract only runs one year longer than Rose’s. Overpaying for Anthony in the last years of his deal would be worth it to put together a clear championship contender early on.
Sign Anthony With Cap Space, But Only If He Comes Cheap
This scenario would start with a Boozer amnesty. The Bulls would then need to perform some additional gyrations to get to about $15 million in cap space, likely in the form of trading Tony Snell, Mike Dunleavy, and one or both of their first-rounders this year for future assets. Getting Anthony for that price would clearly be worth it. However, he might not be particularly interested in signing for a contract starting at that amount given the fact he could get as much as about $22 million to start in other scenarios.
Unfortunately, if the Bulls cannot trade for Anthony getting to the point where they can offer Anthony his full $22 million starting salary via cap room is not worth it. They would have to trade away Taj Gibson to clear that kind of space, but would then have only the two-year, $2.7 Room Exception and the league minimum at their disposal to fill in the roster around Rose, Butler, Anthony and Noah. They would have no means by which to acquire Mirotic this year either, because even if he were willing to take the Room Exception and Real Madrid were willing to reduce his buyout, it would not work because he must sign at least a three-year contract if he is to exceed the Rookie Scale.
This option would be great if Anthony is willing to reduce is salary demands enough to allow the Bulls to keep Gibson, but that would entail him taking a massive paycut that seems unlikely.
Sign Kyle Lowry
Assuming Anthony does not work out, the Bulls would have their potential $10 million in room without a seemingly great fit in free agency.. Their greatest need is on the wing, but the top wings Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng are not worth that kind of money. Nor do they provide the outstanding shooting the Bulls desperately need.*
*Ariza shot well on threes this year, but that is an outlier for his career. And Bulls fans are well-familiar with Deng’s limited touch from outside.
To find a $10 million a year type of player, the Bulls will need to think outside the box by looking at a point guard. Kyle Lowry would be the best player available. Admittedly, he seems a poor fit with Derrick Rose defensively, as one of them would have to take shooting guards. But that problem would be mitigated by having Butler, Gibson, and Noah behind them. Butler could guard any truly threatening wings, allowing Rose to hide out on the other team’s worst wing.
Meanwhile, Rose and Lowry could make a great pairing on offense. One of the two would have the speed advantage against an opposing wing, and they could both handle the ball and run multiple pick and rolls off ball reversals. Rose is much more effective shooting set shot threes on kickouts than off the dribble, while Lowry is an excellent threat from behind the arc. He took 46 percent of his shots from there and drilled 38 percent. Finally, Lowry would offer great insurance if Rose misses time again.
The Bulls could potentially offer Lowry up to a four-year contract starting for as much as $12 million per year and totaling $51.2 million with a few of the cap methods mentioned in the Anthony section. This would be a pretty big overpay, but less so than offering a wing player their available cap space.
This plan does have flaws. Lowry may not want to play with Rose, as he has been prickly about splitting time in the past. On the other hand, with Rose he would still be a clear starter, and Rose doesn’t shoot any more often than Demar DeRozan in Toronto.
An alternative Lowry scenario also offers some reason why the Bulls would want to trade away Carlos Boozer with an asset into the cap space of a team like Philadelphia rather than amnestying him. I have previously said there was no possible reason to do this other than cost-cutting by the ownership, but on further reflection there is a scenario in which such a trade makes sense.
For example, it is unlikely Toronto would take back Boozer in a sign-and-trade for Lowry without significant concessions, but if the Bulls attached an asset to trade Boozer elsewhere it would create a giant trade exception. This exception would enable the Bulls to stay over the cap even once Boozer was gone, because exceptions count against the cap unless renounced. With the threat of cap space (which would not actually be realized until the trade exception were renounced), the Bulls could induce Toronto to sign-and-trade Lowry into the Boozer trade exception and create their own useful trade exception*, with the Bulls potentially throwing in a small asset as well to obtain Toronto’s compliance. The advantage to the Bulls of staying over the cap would be retaining the BAE and MLE.* If they signed Lowry outright with cap space, they probably could not bring over Mirotic without dumping further money and would be limited to the $2.7 million Room Exception just as if they signed Anthony with cap space.
*Because it would be a sign-and-trade, the amount of this exception would be the greater of 50% of Lowry’s new salary or the $6.2 million in his last contract.
**This is a similar model to what Golden State did last summer with Denver and Utah after agreeing to terms with Andre Iguodala. They never went under the cap so they were able to retain their exceptions.
By all accounts Lowry is happy in Toronto, but they might not be willing to match an offer of four years, $51.2 million. More money in a situation more likely to win than Toronto with lower taxes could well appeal to Lowry.
Sign Isaiah Thomas
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Thomas is an even worse fit defensively with Rose than Lowry. He is undersized at 5’9 and struggles to close out on shooters, and of course can be posted up in the wrong matchup.* But much more importantly, he is also the best scorer of any free agent that is likely to be available aside from Anthony, scoring 21.1 points per 36 minutes while posting an above-average .574 True Shooting Percentage. His overall usage rate of 26.3 percent is perfect for a secondary scorer. Thomas is also a good enough shooter to open things up off the ball, taking 36 percent of his shots from downtown for his career and hitting 36 percent of them. IT2 likewise excels at getting to the rim–the layup master shot .685 within three feet last year—and the free throw line. The Bulls’ biggest need, even with Rose, is scoring. Thomas provides that in spades. Like Lowry, Thomas provides more of what the Bulls need as well as more bang for their buck than the available wings.
*One way to think about it: Thomas is probably no worse than D.J. Augustin on defense, and Rose is approximately the same size as Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls were able to make it work defensively with the Augustin/Hinrich pairing in extensive minutes last season, so Thomas/Rose could work. And the Bulls could always go bigger with Rose at the 1 if Thomas were really getting torched.
Even more importantly, the Washington product is only 25. A four-year contract would lock him up during his prime years without the back-end overpay likely required for nearly any other free agent on the market as he reaches his decline years.
The biggest problem is that Thomas, as a third year player selected in the second round, is a restricted free agent, allowing the Kings to match any offer. The plan with Thomas should be to bring over Nikola Mirotic at the same time, which as we discussed would likely require at least a $3.5 million starting salary to make it worth his while. That would leave approximately $8 million as a starting salary for Thomas.* Would a four-year contract totaling $34.2 million with the maximum allowable annual 4.5 percent annual raises be enough to dissuade the Kings from matching?
*The Bulls could also attempt the same strategy from the Lowry scenario of trading Boozer and trying to trade for Thomas using the trade exception. Or, they could throw in an asset to convince the Kings to sign and trade Thomas in the same fashion as the Pelicans did with Tyreke Evans last year.
Thomas has always seemed somewhat ancillary to the Kings’ plans, as each year saw them bring in a player to try to unseat him, only to have Thomas clearly beat him out. His size and draft position have resulted in perhaps a lower esteem from management than was warranted. Nevertheless, players with 20 PERs don’t grow on trees, and Kings’ management seems inclined to try to compete as soon as possible.
The fate of Thomas may be intertwined with Rudy Gay and the Kings’ draft pick. Gay has a $19 million player option for 2014-15. If he exercises it, the Kings will be at approximately $68 million in salary even without Thomas. Add in their number eight draft pick, and an $8 million a year starting salary for Thomas brings them perilously close to the luxury tax of approximately $77 million.* It seems unlikely Sacramento ownership would be willing to go into the luxury tax for what is looking like a very mediocre team. If they trade the eighth pick for an established player, the salary could creep even higher. It is also quite possible Sacramento drafts a point guard, which would theoretically make Thomas expendable.*
*Incidentally, what a shame for Sacramento fans if the money spent signing Carl Landry and trading for Derrick Williams ends up costing them Thomas.
With such uncertainty, a run at Thomas is worth a shot for the Bulls, despite some disadvantages. The Kings could match the Bulls offer sheet and tie up their cap space for three crucial July days while deciding to do so. And, ironically, signing Thomas could make the Kings worse and mean the Bulls do not get the top-10 protected pick from Sacramento that they are owed from the Luol Deng trade until later on. But Thomas’ scoring and playmaking would be worth the gamble.
Keep the Powder Dry for the 2015 Plan
If none of these free agents are receptive to the Bulls’ overtures, the best option is likely to just bring Mirotic over, make their selections at 16 and 19 in the draft (or combine them in an attempt to move up) and make changes at the margins. The Bulls would also have to wait on extending Jimmy Butler if he were unwilling to agree to a very cheap extension starting at below $5 million per year. This 2015 plan would include either A) amnestying Boozer in the summer of 2014 and using any remaining cap space and the room exception on one-year deals for veteran wings and a backup scoring point guard, or B) retaining Boozer and his expiring salary as a potential trade chip. The latter becomes a more palatable strategy if Love is not traded in the offseason. Another player who could become available by trade in-season is LaMarcus Aldridge if the Blazers were to regress next year and he makes it clear he does not plan to stay by the trade deadline.
Failing such an in-season deal, the Bulls could still be a potential contender in the Eastern Conference with the additional depth if Mirotic becomes an immediate contributor. Next summer, the Bulls could make a play for Aldridge, Love, or any other 2015 free agent such as Goran Dragic or Wesley Matthews. As the chart below shows, they would have about $7.9 million in cap space in the summer of 2015,* and could easily open up maximum cap room by moving some combination of Mirotic, Tony Snell, one of the 2014 draftees, the 2015 first-rounder, renouncing Butler, or trading Gibson. The Bulls could benefit from waiting in that free agents might be much more interested in the Bulls if Rose can make it through an entire year healthy.
*This assumes 1) Mirotic signs for about $4 million a year originally with 4.5 percentage annual raises; 2) Jimmy Butler is not extended and his cap hold will be $5 million (250 percent of his 2014-15 salary because he is coming off the fourth year of a rookie contract with a contract less than the Estimated Average Player Salary), 3) nobody signed in the summer of 2014 has a guaranteed contract longer than one year; 4) The Bulls will get approximately the 23rd pick in the 2015 draft; and 5) the 2014 rookies will sign for 120 percent of the rookie scale amounts. The analysis also assumes 6) a projected cap of $67 million for the 2015-16 year, but it could well be higher given how well the league has done of late.
Keeping the powder dry is a far superior option to overpaying for one of the available wings in 2014 and greatly complicating any attempt to add a second star going forward. Much as it may vex Bulls fans, the 2014 Plan could well become the 2015 Plan.
Addendum: Why No Lance Stephenson?
A few commentators have asked why Lance Stephenson was not included in this analysis, so a short explanation is in order. I certainly should have at least mentioned him along with Ariza and Deng, but I do not think he would be a good signing at all. First off, I believe he is almost certain to be retained by the Pacers because they will be over the cap and have no ability to replace him. The new higher cap and tax figures should help them get to a market value contract for him. But more importantly, I think he is an awful fit for the Bulls. He is a much worse shooter and scorer than Lowry and Thomas, taking only 28 percent of his shots from downtown. While he has hit 35 percent this year, his shooting form is not the best and the playoffs have shown he is not respected enough by defenses to create spacing for a Pacers team that desperately needs it. Stephenson also is not a good enough shooter to really pull up behind the arc with consistency off the pick and roll, which Thomas and Lowry have no problem doing. Stephenson also rarely gets to the foul line, and his usage rate is pretty average on a Pacers team that desperately needs scoring. While his signing would help the Bulls defensively more than Lowry or Thomas, he simply is not really an above-average offensive player. That is what the Bulls need.
Finally, Stephenson does not fit the Bulls’ culture at all and he appears to be responsible for at least some of the ups and downs the Pacers have experienced this year. He isn’t worth a big contract for the Bulls.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.
Fixing The Detroit Pistons
David Yapkowitz looks at how the fading Pistons can turn things around moving forward.
We wrap this week up with another installment of our “Fixing” series here at Basketball Insiders. The next team up is the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons came into this season with playoff aspirations after a disappointing 2016-17 campaign that saw them regress instead of building on their playoff appearance the season before. To begin the season, they looked like they were on their way to accomplishing that objective. Then Reggie Jackson got hurt and the season began spiraling out of control.
They tried to inject some life into the team by trading for Blake Griffin, but it hasn’t worked out as expected. The Pistons have gone 8-12 since acquiring Griffin and the postseason looks like a pipe dream at this point.
What Is Working
Not a whole lot. Despite trading for a superstar player, the Pistons have tumbled down to the point where playoffs are looking extremely unlikely.
If there’s one thing that’s a welcome sight, it’s the bounce back of Andre Drummond. After being named to his first All-Star team in 2015-16, Drummond had a bit of a let down the following season. This season, he was once again an All-Star while putting up career-highs in rebounds (15.7) and assists (3.2). Drummond is still only 24 years old and has his best basketball years ahead of him.
The Pistons have also received encouraging signs from rookie Luke Kennard. A lottery pick in last summer’s draft, Kennard he’s been one of the few bright spots at times for the Pistons. About a week ago, his playing time had diminished some and he racked up a few DNP’s, but Stan Van Gundy has since reinserted him into the rotation.
They’ve also gotten solid production out of Reggie Bullock. When Bullock came over to the Pistons in a trade with the Phoenix Suns almost three years ago, he was little more than a seldom-used wing with the potential to become a solid 3&D guy. This has been his year, however. He’s the best shooter on the team at 43.5 percent from the three-point line. His numbers, 10.8 points per game and 49.1 percent shooting from the field, are career-highs.
What Needs To Change
Quite a bit. Acquiring Griffin was a move the Pistons needed to make. On the verge of losing control of the season, they needed to make a move to try and turn things around. It’s been a disaster thus far, however. They are 2-8 in their last 10 games and although they’re in ninth place, they’re falling farther and farther away from eighth.
Who the Pistons are really missing is Reggie Jackson. Ish Smith, who has proven himself beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is an NBA player, just isn’t Jackson. They desperately need Jackson’s playmaking abilities to help take the pressure off everyone else. Even if he returns this season, it’s already too late. The Pistons need to focus on getting him healthy and ready for next season.
The Pistons also need to improve their offense. They’re in the bottom half of the league in both points per game (25th) and offensive rating (24th). A big part of that is Jackson’s absence, but they could also benefit from additional outside shooting. Right now they have one long-range threat on the roster and that’s Bullock.
Focus Area: The Draft
To make matters worse, the Pistons will likely give up their draft pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Griffin trade. The only way the Clippers wouldn’t acquire the Pistons’ pick this year is if it falls in the top four, and that’s not going to happen.
The Pistons will have a second-round pick though. The draft is never 100 percent guaranteed, and the second round is even more of a crapshoot, but talented players can definitely be found. That’s what the Pistons’ main objective in the draft should be. It sounds silly, but they truly need to buckle down and do their homework in hopes of finding that one overlooked guy in the second round. That’s pretty much all they have to look forward to come draft night.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The Pistons are going to have a couple of minor decisions to make this summer regarding their free agents. Jameer Nelson, James Ennis, and Anthony Tolliver are all unrestricted free agents. Out of the three, Ennis has given the team the best on-court production, but it isn’t necessary that any of them are brought back.
Bullock and Dwight Buycks have non-guaranteed contracts, and those are the two guys that the Pistons should work towards bringing back in the fold. Both should have their contracts guaranteed for the following season. Bullock is their only three-point threat. Buycks began the season as a two-way contract player splitting time between the Pistons and the Grand Rapids Drive of the G-League. He’s since been converted to a standard NBA contract and has done enough to earn his spot on the team next year.
In terms of adding new players to the roster, as mentioned before, the Pistons need outside shooting. Marco Belinelli and Wayne Ellington are possible options that the Pistons might be able to afford. Joe Harris is another option, but it will be interesting to see what the market is for him after the strong season he’s been having in Brooklyn.
It’s tough to gauge the Pistons’ true potential without Jackson. If he returns before the season ends, it will be too small a sample size to accurately assess the team. There are only 14 games left. Although things look pretty bleak right now, it can’t be argued that injuries haven’t played a big role in the Pistons disappointing season.
The team deserves a shot at seeing how a healthy Jackson, Griffin, and Drummond trio looks on the court together. If they start off next season the same way despite all three being healthy and in the lineup, then it would be time for serious changes.
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.