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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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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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