Mark Schanowski

Why you should pay attention to Bulls preseason

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USA TODAY

Why you should pay attention to Bulls preseason

1. Who’s on point? The battle for the starting point guard position is a two-man race between Kris Dunn and Jerian Grant. And, let’s be honest, the odds are heavily stacked in Dunn’s favor. After all, the Bulls tried to acquire a high lottery pick to draft him in 2016, then made the draft night deal with Minnesota to acquire him in June. Dunn is working hard to fix his shot after a lost season under Tom Thibodeau in Minneapolis, and the Bulls are intrigued by his length, athleticism and defensive skills. If Dunn can do a good job of directing the offense and making impact plays on the defensive end, he’ll be the starter on opening night. Grant showed flashes of being a reliable 3-point shooter last season, and probably brings the most value as a scoring guard with the second unit.

2. Three candidates for the 4 spot. With rookie Lauri Markkanen sidelined for the first two preseason games because of back spasms, it will be interesting to watch Bobby Portis and Niko Mirotic try to get a leg up in the competition for the starting power forward spot. Coaches have raved about Portis’ tremendous work ethic this summer, and the third-year pro out of Arkansas is starting to emerge as a leader on this young team. Portis improved his shooting range a year ago, and has become even more consistent from the 3-point line this summer. Meanwhile, Mirotic will get yet another chance to prove he can be the player everyone expected when he came over from Europe three years ago. The Bulls are paying him starter’s money (two years, $27 million), now it’s up to Niko to prove he’s worth it. Both returning players will have to give up minutes to Markkanen when he’s ready to role because the Bulls are committed to making the 7-foot rookie one of the foundation pieces of the rebuild, along with the other two players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade: Dunn and Zach LaVine. 

3. Who’s going to score? Speaking of LaVine, he’s expected to be out until December as the team takes a cautious approach to his rehab from ACL surgery. And, with Dwyane Wade now in Cleveland, someone is going to have to score. Early candidates include Justin Holiday, who figures to start at shooting guard or small forward, Portis, Mirotic, Markkanen and second-year swingman Denzel Valentine, who figures to get a chance to show off his offensive game after an uneven rookie season. Don’t be surprised to see Robin Lopez launch a few preseason 3-pointers as he adjusts to Fred Hoiberg’s free-flowing offense.

4. Pelicans' bold experiment. While most teams in the NBA are trying to copy Golden State’s small-ball, 3-point heavy attack, New Orleans is trying to get back to the playoffs behind a pair of All-Star big men in Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. And, they have a lot invested in making it work, since Cousins will be a free agent next summer. The Pelicans are also experimenting with starting two point guards in Jrue Holiday (Justin’s brother) and former Bull Rajon Rondo. Rondo led the league in assists during the one season he played with Cousins in Sacramento, and Holiday is a good enough shooter to play off the ball. Still, if either experiment fails, Alvin Gentry could be out of a job, and New Orleans could be in for another rebuild.

5. Who’s the better rookie? When the Bulls visit Dallas on Wednesday, they’ll get their first look at Mavericks’ rookie point guard Dennis Smith, the ninth pick in June's draft. Smith was the talk of the Las Vegas Summer League with his dynamic scoring ability and athleticism, with a number of scouts and coaches predicting he could wind up being Rookie of the Year. Rebuilding teams try to find future All-Stars with Top 10 picks, and the Bulls are hoping they made the right decision to pass on Smith for an elite shooting big man like Markkanen. Only time will tell if they made the right choice, and Bulls fans should be patient since it normally takes a little longer for big men to develop.

Don’t forget you can watch all of the Bulls preseason games on NBC Sports Chicago!

Lottery reform might not be all bad for rebuilding Bulls

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Lottery reform might not be all bad for rebuilding Bulls

At first glance, reports of the NBA pushing for major lottery reform might seem like terrible timing for rebuilding teams like the Bulls. The league's competition committee is trying to come up with a system that will discourage teams from tanking to improve their odds of winding up with the best possible draft position.

Under the current plan, the team that finishes with the worst record has a 25% chance of winding up with the top pick and selects no lower than fourth. The odds then decrease for teams that finish between two and 14.

The new plan would flatten the odds for the bottom four teams, all given a 14% chance to win the top pick in the lottery. The idea is teams will no longer have an extra incentive to lose if it doesn't help them end up with better draft position.

But here's where the Bulls come in. Even though the new plan is expected to be approved by league owners, it won't be implemented until the 2019 draft. That's crucial for a Bulls' team that is likely to have one of the worst records in the league in 2017-'18, but could improve pretty quickly with some good fortune in the summer of 2018.

If the Bulls land a Top 3 pick next June, they could draft one of two elite forward prospects, Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. or Duke's Marvin Bagley III, or 18-year-old international star Luka Doncic. Then they could go into free agency with somewhere between 40 and 50 million dollars of cap space to land a couple free agents to give the roster a big time boost.

I understand the Bulls' record in free agency has not been all that great over the years, and they're not going to convince LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George or Russell Westbrook to come to a rebuilding team. But with so few teams expected to have significant cap space, why couldn't the Bulls make a run at next level stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas (if healthy) or DeAndre Jordan? Plus, they could always go the route of adding two solid rotation players like Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wilson Chandler or Danny Green rather than shoot for one max contract All-Star.

Say the Bulls get Porter Jr. in the draft to handle the small forward spot, then sign Cousins in free agency to play center. All of a sudden you've got a starting line-up of Cousins, Lauri Markkanen, Porter, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, all lottery picks. At that point, the Bulls wouldn't be thinking about finishing near the bottom of the league to improve draft position. They'd be thinking about what moves they could make to get back to the playoffs.

So, when you read these articles about lottery reform, don't look at it as a huge negative for the Bulls. If all goes according to plan, they'll only have one season of being in strong contention for the No. 1 pick, and the rules aren't expected to change for the 2018 lottery.

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

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USA TODAY

State of the Bulls: Stacked 2018 draft class

2018 draft class is loaded at the top

Quietly, you can bet Bulls' front office executives John Paxson and Gar Forman had a little celebration after hearing that prep star Marvin Bagley III was going to graduate from high school early and enroll at Duke for the 2017-18 season, making him eligible for the 2018 draft.

Bagley, a 6'11 power forward from Los Angeles, is being compared to longtime NBA star Chris Bosh, right down to his smooth left-handed shooting touch. Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and two blocked shots during his junior season for Sierra Canyon H.S. He's also fared well against NBA competition at the highly-regarded Drew League in L.A. this summer. Bagley’s physical tools are off the charts, and you can count on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing him well for life in the NBA.

Most NBA scouts and execs expect the No. 1 overall pick to come down to either Bagley or Michael Porter Jr., who will play his one season of college basketball at Missouri. The 6'10 Porter averaged an amazing 34.8 points and 13.8 rebounds last season against Seattle high school competition. He's considered a more dynamic scorer than Bagley with more range on his jump shot. Some scouts believe he could quickly develop into one of the league's elite players with Kevin Durant-type length and shooting ability at the small forward position.

International swingman Luka Doncic is also highly coveted by NBA teams. The 6'8 swingman has excellent shooting range, and is also capable of creating his own shot with outstanding ball-handling ability. Forget the stereotype of European players being mechanical and unable to compete athletically, Doncic is capable of being an 18-20 point scorer in the NBA and should go in the top five next June. He's considered one of the best international prospects in the last decade.

Two 7-footers also will hear their names called early on draft night 2018. University of Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton averaged 19.8 points and 12 rebounds in high school last season, while Texas freshman center Mohamed Bomba has an incredible 7-foot-9 wingspan. Sure, the NBA has moved away from the traditional low post center, but teams are still looking to acquire agile big men like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside. Depending on how they fare against top level college competition, Ayton and Bomba could round out the top five.

Other names to watch in the lottery portion of next year's draft include Texas A&M power forward Robert Williams, Michigan State's forward duo of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr., and the latest one-and-dones from John Calipari's Kentucky program, center Nick Richards and small forward Jarred Vanderbilt.

In case you missed it, ESPN released its preseason win total expectations for the Eastern Conference on Wednesday, and the Bulls were dead last with a projected record of 26-56. Now, I'm not sure a team with veterans Dwyane Wade and Robin Lopez and the three young players acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota will be quite that bad, but if you're going to rebuild, the idea is to get the best draft pick possible, and the Bulls appear to be on course for a top-five selection depending on how the lottery falls.

If the Bulls are able to land an elite talent like Porter Jr., Bagley III or Doncic in the draft, then use their $40-50 million in cap space to land a couple of quality free agents, the rebuild might not be as painful as some fans are fearing.

Last dance for LeBron in Cleveland?

Well-connected NBA writer Chris Sheridan dropped this bomb on Twitter Wednesday, quoting an NBA source, "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair." Don’t forget, Sheridan was the first national writer to report James was going to leave Miami to go back to Cleveland in 2014, so his reports definitely warrant a little extra attention.

Okay, we've already heard countless rumors about James planning to join the Lakers after next season. He's built a mansion in Brentwood, is close with Magic Johnson and will be able to bring another superstar with him to L.A. like Paul George or Russell Westbrook. Plus, the Lakers have a number of talented young players in place like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. and a promising coach in Luke Walton.

Add in the likelihood Kyrie Irving will be traded before training camp opens and LeBron's long-standing poor relationship with Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, and you have the perfect formula for another James' free agent decision next July. Although, I'm not sure why LeBron would want to go West, where Golden State is positioned to dominate the league for another five seasons, with strong challengers like the Rockets and Spurs still in place. 

But if we've learned anything from watching James over the years, he's clearly a man who wants to align the odds in his favor. So don't rule out anything when it comes to James' free agent decision. If the Cavs make a home run trade for Irving, maybe LeBron decided to plays out his career in his home state. If not, look for him to find a team with the cap space to bring in another top star to run with him.

Back in 2010, the Bulls carved out the cap space to add two max contract stars, but lost out to Pat Riley in Miami. This time around they won't be on James' July travel itinerary.

One thing we know for sure. Where LeBron plays in 2018 will be the number one story throughout the NBA season.