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NBA AM: The Chicago Bulls Finding New Glue

The Chicago Bulls miss Luol Deng, but his teammates found his exit to be something that brought the team together… Why the hype around Dante Exum?

Steve Kyler

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The New Glue: There are times when asking the tough questions in an NBA locker room gets awkward. You never really know how a player is going to respond to a probing or uncomfortable question and knowing how much the Chicago Bulls locker room loved Luol Deng, there were doubts about how those guys would address the team’s decision to trade him to Cleveland.

As each player was asked about the impact of losing the ‘big brother,’ you could see their body language change. For the most part NBA players accommodate questions. However, in this case the Bulls players seemed eager to talk about losing Deng.

Bulls’ rookie Tony Snell talked about his leadership and advice. He talked about how much Deng helped him off the court and to adjust to what would be expected of him in Chicago.

Swingman Jimmy Butler talked about the workload he felt he needed to shoulder and that there was a void that he felt he had to be part of filling.

» In Related: The Chicago Bulls Salary Page

Player after player talked about how much the team has come together after trading the player who was constantly labeled the ‘glue guy.’ Pretty amazing that losing the glue has brought the team closer together.

The Bulls now find themselves at somewhat of a crossroads. It’s going to be time to re-tool a little this summer. It seems inevitable that the Bulls will use their one-time amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer’s final $16.8 million contract, assuming of course that they cannot find a trade partner for him in the offseason.

After Boozer’s money comes off the books, the Bulls should be looking at roughly $47.32 million in salary cap commitments. That should get them roughly $14 million in spending power, depending on where the final 2015 salary cap gets locked in at.

The prevailing thought is that Chicago would go after that one major free agent. Names like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and even Rudy Gay get kicked around, but what’s more likely is trip through the value player bin or major even acquiring a solid player in trade that’s already under contract.

The Bulls may also end up with a draft pick in the mid-teens. Historically the Bulls have been better than most at turning low tier picks in highly productive players. Taj Gibson was the 26th pick in 2009. Jimmy Butler was the 30th pick in 2011 and Tony Snell was the 20th pick last year in 2013’s NBA Draft.

Equally, the Bulls could use a mid-level draft pick as means to trade their way into a veteran.

» In Related: Six Things To Know About The Chicago Bulls

The combinations and possibilities are almost endless and that’s why the Bulls ultimately traded Deng.

In the modern NBA economy, flexibility is king and you are seeing more and more teams trying to make sure they have the ability to not only add players every summer via free agency, but to stay under the luxury tax to continue to make easy trades and move players. The days of having four guys locked into mega contracts seems to be going away in the NBA, simply because the economic module almost encourages it.

The Bulls had no flexibility with the roster they had assembled this year and while it’s fun to dream of another major star joining your favorite team, in Chicago the truth might be that the $14 million Chicago is looking at in July gets spent on three or four smaller items, to better set the team up for the future and to insure flexibility as they re-tool.

» Did you miss something on launch night? Get caught up on your reading: The new daily NBA Rumor Round Up 1/17, checkout our new daily feature Out Of Bounds. Yannis Koutroupis has an updated 2014 NBA Mock Draft. What is Basketball Insiders? Read our story here. Tommy Beer takes look at the latest Top 100 Fantasy players. And that was just a small sample of all the great content that dropped last night. Expect a lot more throughout the day.

The Appeal Of Dante Exum:  By way of full disclosure, I am a Dante Exum fan. I know you’re going to now write off my view of the 6’6 guard from Canberra, Australia as being a homer, but let me explain.

I have covered the NBA Draft as a talent evaluator for the last eight years. I held down the draft for USA Today for the last five years and consistently have had one the better averages in predicting first round talent in the business. ESPN’s Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony are the kings, all hail the kings. They usually get me by maybe two players each year.

As part of my process I spent a lot of time in practice environments with guys and watch them train and prepare. I sit and I talk with them and I try to understand what they are really about.

» In Related: Check out the latest 2014 NBA Mock Draft.

How you play is not nearly as important as how you ‘prepare’ to play. In my career I have probably watched more than 150 would-be NBA players training for the draft and it becomes glaringly obvious who is going to have success and who is going to struggle based on how they approach training.

So back to Exum; over the last two summers I have had a chance to spend time around him. He was a standout player at adidas Nations two summers ago and he was part of adidas Eurocamp this past summer in Italy. He also had a strong showing in the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit when matched up against the Harrison twins, but even more impressive was during practice that week he admitted to watching Draft Express’ scouting video of Sergey Karasev so that he could defend him better in practice. Karasev was his teammate in the actual game.

Not only does he possess a humble and easy to like personal demeanor. He absolutely gets what he is as a player. He has that confidence you like in a lead guard, but he also has the humbleness to say that he has a lot to work on. When you watch him work at his craft he is not the guy that backs down or takes plays off and his super array of skills is very enticing.

There are red flags.

Exum is rail thin, but go back and look at Kevin Garnett, Shaun Livingston, Kevin Durant, even Dwight Howard as rookies. Bulk coming into the draft is overrated, because most teams can add bulk to a player in a single summer. The question is does the player have a frame that could support more weight without compromising the skill set and in Exum’s case he does.

» In Related: Check out the latest Top 100 Player Rankings.

He is an international player. There is a long history of hot international guys coming to the NBA and not having that killer instinct to be great and they settle into average roles or average careers in the NBA. That’s absolutely true. But the problem with immediately dismissing Exum because of where he was born overlooks what he has done. Because the last five guys didn’t pan out doesn’t mean Exum couldn’t be the next that does. When you consider his frame, his ability to score the ball and his overall appeal as a marketable NBA player there is a lot to like.

Is he a true point guard? In the Chris Paul sense of the description, no he is not. In the Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose sense of the description, yes he is. A 6’6 scoring guard that can play the playmaker role, guard opposing point guards and put up 30 a game. That’s what NBA teams want from their guard spots. Exum won’t ever be mistake for Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo as pass-first guards, but when you consider the rarity of those kinds of players, game changing point guards are among the most coveted players in the NBA and that’s exactly what Exum is.

Now lastly and most importantly, he is an unknown to the masses. Outside of the Hoops Summit and the FIBA Under-19 Games this summer, most have not seen him play. NBA scouts and talent evaluators have been all over him, but the general public really hasn’t had a chance to see him. As most of the 2014 NBA Draft prospects are being micro-analyzed this season in college, Exum is a bit of an unknown because he is not playing college basketball. His stock is clearly getting a bump because the other players in the projected 2014 Draft class are coming down to earth. So there is no doubting that Exum gains from not being exposed. That may change when teams start working players out.

Why is Exum getting so much hype? Some of it is the unknown factor. Some of it based on real production he’s put on film at every level he’s played, but more importantly because when drafting for potential, how a player works, how his body is constructed and what his mindset is as an athlete plays heavily in the equation.

Always keep in mind, NBA teams no longer draft a guy based on what he’ll be as a rookie. They are drafting the guy based on what he’ll become in the next three to five years and when you project out the best case scenario for Exum, he could be one of the best players available in the 2014 NBA Draft and that says a lot consider who he’ll keep company with.

» IT is chat time at Basketball Insiders. Come drop a question for my chat at 10:30am EST. Alex Kennedy will chat at 4pm EST and Yannis Koutroupis will chat at 8pm EST. You can always find the new upcoming chat here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/upcoming-chats/ or if you are looking for a completed chat those are kept here: http://www.basketballinsiders.com/previous-chats/

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to insure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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G-League

NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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