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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.

Spencer Davies

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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.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench

Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.

David Yapkowitz

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When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.

But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.

On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.

“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”

As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.

This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.

“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.

This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”

Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.

Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.

“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”

Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.

“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”

And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.

He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.

“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”

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NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?

Dylan Thayer

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In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)

The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.

Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category.  Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them. 

In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season. 

2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)

As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.

Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.

Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.

3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late. 

In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.

Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation. 

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)

Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.

Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season. 

5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)

Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.

If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.

Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)

While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP. 

It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.

While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.

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NBA PM: The Wizards Are Good Now?

The Washington Wizards went from 5-15 to 13-18 out of nowhere. Much improved from their early-season play they make a run? Dylan Thayer examines.

Dylan Thayer

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After the swap of John Wall and Russell Westbrook, the Washington Wizards did not look like they were going to be a playoff team. 20 games into the season, the team found themselves at 5-15 with trade rumors constantly buzzing. At one point, they even had the worst record in the NBA, while looked like a trade of Westbrook, Bradley Beal or even both was a certainty with the team was set to pivot into a true rebuild.

Now, all of a sudden, Washington has the look of a team that could make the postseason play-in game. 8-5 in their last 13 with wins over the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards have started to climb the conference, now just 2.5 games back on the Charlotte Hornets for the East’s eighth seed.

But what’s changed? Let’s take a step back and look at what exactly made them start the season out so slowly.

Early in the year, the former MVP Westbrook was playing through a left quad injury. He wasn’t nearly explosive with the ball as he’s always been, settling for low-percentage jumpers and outside shots, perhaps the biggest weakness in his game. Between the injury and COVID-19 postponements, Westbrook and many other Wizards were away from the court for a significant time — the whole team was in flux.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, the team took the floor in Boston and destroyed the Celtics; the 104-91 final doesn’t truly reflect that, but at one point the Wizards led by as many as 25. A national game beatdown, their play led into the best stretch the Wizards have seen this season.

Westbrook, over his injury, looked like his former explosive self. He’s posted six triple-doubles since, while he came within a point or assist of doing so in three other contests. And, back on the court, the entire team was also able to spend some time together, which allowed them to further jell as a unit and build some momentum toward future games.

It was a surprise when Beal came out and said he did not want to be traded from Washington, with more than a few curious as to how the NBA’s leading scorer could be satisfied with such subpar play from the rest of his roster. But he “shared a consistent viewpoint” with the team, according to Shams Charania, as to what they have done to build around him. The Wizards’ clear leader, Beal has signaled he’s in it for the long-haul, while additions like Westbrook should only serve to solidify that commitment.

Beyond their two stars, the Wizards roster has also stepped up in their most recent stretch. Sophomore Rui Hachimura has proven capable alongside the star-duo in the first unit, while Robin Lopez has stepped up in the absence of Thomas Bryant, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Deni Avdija and Garrison Matthews have both flashed as well, with Matthews shooting 41.3 percent from three and even earning a starting role.

If they can sustain their recent success, Washington could easily make the postseason in an underwhelming Eastern Conference. In fact, the tightly-packed nature of the East — while they’re 2.5 games behind Charlotte, just four games separate the Wizards and the fourth seed Celtics — should only serve to benefit Washington in their quest for their first postseason berth since the 2017-18 season. And, if the Wizards want to bolster their team for a playoff run and look to buy at the deadline, they certainly have the pieces to make some interesting moves. With most of their draft capital for the foreseeable future, along with some interesting contracts they could flip for more win-now type players, anything could happen.

The Beal-Westbrook, while it started rough, has not nearly been as bad as most people would think. For the team, the 2020-21 season has proven more promising than they may have thought and, if they can continue to elevate their game, don’t be shocked to see the Wizards on the big stage come May.

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