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Inside the Chicago Bulls’ Damaging Inconsistency

The Chicago Bulls are struggling to overcome inconsistency and internal issues, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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By The Horns? Inside Chicago’s Damaging Inconsistency

Even to an outside observer unaware of their recent struggles, the tension surrounding the Chicago Bulls would be palpable after just a few minutes around the team. The air is thick, from players to staff to traveling media. Interactions feel forced and everyone near the team is well aware of the myriad issues facing this group behind the scenes.

Coach Fred Hoiberg begins his media availability before a back-to-back against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City and is immediately besieged by a wall of negativity. The Bulls were taken to school by the Los Angeles Clippers the previous day and a brief respite from the stress after a routine win over the Lakers a couple days prior has evaporated entirely. ‘What’s wrong with this team?’ Hoiberg is asked. ‘What’s causing such a talented roster to underachieve in a year when many pegged them as the most legitimate challengers to Cleveland in the East?’ Focus, effort and consistency are buzzwords of the day, clearly themes Hoiberg is familiar with hearing at this point. It takes effort to remind oneself that this team is six games over .500, a win or two away from the conference’s third seed.

They’ve dropped to five games over .500 a few hours later, and in a fashion that serves as a fantastic microcosm of their recent struggles. An otherwise generally strong game is marred by spots of inconsistency, notably a collapse down the stretch as the Bulls blow a three-point lead with just over 10 seconds remaining before folding altogether in an overtime period where they score just three points.

InsideJimmyButlerTension has become outright frustration in Chicago’s locker room after the loss. Star Jimmy Butler and veteran Taj Gibson both sit, head in hands, for extended periods of time at their lockers, staring in turn at the ground or the ceiling. Hardly a word is spoken between teammates.

Derrick Rose is first to address the assembled media. He’s asked about the possibility of a players-only meeting, a subject with a healthy stigma around the league these days, and says it’s something he’d consider initiating in the next few days. Butler is asked what he can take away from that night’s performance:

“I don’t know,” he says. “How not to play? That’s what I get from it.”

The balance within a successful and competitive NBA franchise is delicate, and the Bulls are learning just how rough things can get when the scales are uneven. Public scrutiny has enveloped the franchise in recent weeks as prominent names like Butler and Pau Gasol have commented on indicators of a disconnect.

“You have to bring the intensity, the effort,” Gasol said following the loss to Utah. “Those are the things – the intangibles – that we [are] sometimes lacking. It happens sometimes, when teams are talented and they have a great level of skill: they forget about doing the little things that I think, in this league and this sport, make such a big difference.”

All parties outwardly insist the team remains united, but privately, it certainly feels like there are tension and fractured relationships within the organization. The locker room has become divided into cliques, per Basketball Insiders sources. One group, including Rose and injured center Joakim Noah, harbors lingering resentment over the handling of ousted coach Tom Thibodeau. Butler has struggled at times to establish himself as a team voice despite the support of Gasol, a reality that’s become public. Rose’s unprompted comments about free agency before the season certainly irked some in the franchise, and it’s not hard to infer that a few of those upset by the statements were guys he shares the court with – his camp and Butler’s have long been rumored to be at odds. The potential departures of Gasol and Noah this summer in free agency have only added to the strain.

Different teams react to these stressors in different ways, and for Chicago, the damage is embodied most in an utter lack of consistency. The broadest example can be found with a quick glance at their game log to this point, a streaky mess with at least one bad loss present for every strong win. But it can also be found within individual quarters and stretches, and even on a possession-by-possession basis.

“There’s no question we’ve been inconsistent,” veteran Kirk Hinrich told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve shown we can be really good… we just have to make sure we control the simple things – our effort, our execution. You’re not going to be able to control making shots every night, but come out with the right effort and the right mindset every night, and hopefully the consistency will follow.”

Unfortunately, the evidence indicates that the Bulls have struggled mightily to right their collective approach. Every team tends to allow more points in losses than in wins, of course, but Chicago’s discrepancy here is extreme; the 94.2 points per game they’ve allowed in victories versus the 109.5 they’ve hemorrhaged in defeats creates a 15-point chasm that’s among the five largest in the league (most teams allow roughly 8-10 more points in losses than wins, for reference). These figures match a trend that’s visible to the naked eye: The Bulls simply don’t come to play every time out, particularly on the effort-heavy defensive side of the ball, and the results on those off nights can get ugly.

More granular data gives a clearer picture of just how damaging the collective malaise has been at times. Defensive rebounding has been an issue, with the Bulls checking in as a bottom-10 team here most of the season. Worse yet, though, they don’t seem to be winning battles on the glass. Per Nylon Calculus data through late January, the Bulls are 24th in the league for “win percentage” on contested defensive rebounds – that is, they secure just 47.4 percent of defensive boards where both a Chicago player and an opponent are within rebounding distance of the ball. They’re just 5-11 when they collect under half of all available rebounds in a game.

Other indicators abound. The Bulls are drawing assists on over 58 percent of their made baskets in wins, a figure that drops to 54 percent in losses. A “my turn, your turn” dynamic often develops between Rose and Butler in big moments. As a team, Chicago has allowed opponents to shoot just 48.4 percent at the rim with a defender nearby, per Synergy Sports, second-best in the NBA. That drops to an ugly 52.6 percent in 21 losses, another instance where Chicago’s gap is among the largest in the league.

Many franchises look to their in-house veterans and leaders in times of crisis, but Butler thinks everyone on the roster is on the hook.

“Nah, it’s on everybody,” he said. “Everybody’s out there playing, not just the leaders. I think we’ve gotta stay in this together, it’s not on one person more than the other.”

With a fragmented locker room has come a lack of responsibility, a common consequence. The best team cultures are those where veterans and rookies alike can constructively criticize each other in the name of progress, where liability for on-court errors is internalized and turned into positive output. The Bulls have struggled with every step of this process.

“You have to have that,” Hoiberg said. “It has to be something where the guys can look at each other in the face, and be able to hold each other responsible and accountable when they’re not doing it on the floor, and to be able to take that.”

The direction of the franchise hangs in the balance as the current group tries to iron things out before it’s too late. Noah’s absence has hurt as much due to the sharp realization that he’s likely finished in Chicago as any on-court damage. The team’s frontcourt would be in the hands of Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and rookie Bobby Portis if Noah moves on and Gasol, as has been rumored, opts out of his final year this summer.

Trading Rose is a common topic to the casual observer, but the reality remains that he’s among the least valuable high-dollar contracts in the league. Moving him would almost certainly come at the cost of another asset, and might just be flat-out impossible for a player who, while well-intentioned, doesn’t seem to have realized that his MVP days are well behind him. Rival executives see Rose leading the Bulls in usage percentage by a healthy margin over Butler and Gasol, and justifiably wonder whether this will ever be a player who could positively impact a team as a secondary or even tertiary option.

The Bulls might be stuck with their main pieces for now, and the guys on the court are determined to make it work – at least publicly. Monday night’s negativity was accompanied by frequent assurances that common goals remain shared, intentions remain positive. The return of veteran Mike Dunleavy is highly anticipated, particularly by Hoiberg, who referenced stability as a specific benefit the savvy swingman can bring back into the fold.

A few good weeks could put these struggles in the rear view mirror. By the same token, a few more like this could damage things beyond repair. There’s still a chance to right this ship, and the path there is one best taken together.

“I think that’s how you stay positive, you continually have each other’s backs,” Butler said. “You stay in this [thing] together. And when you do, it’s going to turn around. We’ll figure it out, we’ve got a good team. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing, change this thing around.”

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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