Bulls

The Bulls will always be linked to the Warriors — symbolically, practically and through history

The Bulls will always be linked to the Warriors — symbolically, practically and through history

Whenever the Bulls and Warriors meet for the foreseeable future, it’ll be a reminder of how the two franchises are inextricably linked symbolically and practically — even if no one would consider the two franchises mirror images in any way that truly counts.

Starting on the sidelines, as Warriors coach Steve Kerr will forever be etched in Bulls lore with a championship-sealing jumper in Game 6 of the 1997 Finals off a pass from Michael Jordan, the second title of their second three-peat.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was rumored to be in the running for the Warriors job after the Warriors fired Mark Jackson in 2014, when Hoiberg was still at Iowa State and Kerr was in the broadcast booth.

Reportedly, Hoiberg was a backup plan if Kerr wound up taking the New York Knicks job being offered to him by…former Bulls coach Phil Jackson.

Kerr has spoken highly of Hoiberg before games, even going as far as saying he’s stolen some of Hoiberg’s offensive plays — and it’s easy to see the similarities in philosophy, with both placing an extreme emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting.

With the Bulls crushing their own 3-point records — hitting fewer than 10-pointers six times in the last 21 games, they’re doing their best to copy the blueprint the Warriors have unleashed on the basketball world.

“I don’t know if we’ve revolutionized the game,” Kerr said at morning shootaround. “We just picked up on where the game was been heading over the last ten years with the added spacing and turning small forwards into power forwards and power forwards into centers. Really spacing the floor. It was happening before we did it. We have the personnel to shoot a ton of 3’s. It’s effective for us. Teams have to find whatever’s most efficient for them. We just try to play according to our talent.”

There’s the simple fact the Warriors erased the 1996 Bulls from the record book as far as regular season wins with a 73-9 mark in 2016, although they couldn’t finish the job in the Finals by blowing a 3-1 lead to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Warriors have joined the Bulls of that vintage, the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers and James’ Miami Heat as the road shows of modern-day basketball, drawing massive crowds, sparking historical conversations and taking opposing teams’ best shots on the road 41 times a year.

Stephen Curry has earned a new respect for what Jordan’s Bulls had to go through during that eight-year period in which the Bulls dominated to win six NBA titles.

“Until you win a championship you don’t know how hard it is,” Curry said. “Only highlight that even more, all that goes into it, year after year after year, being that team everybody is chasing. I have an appreciation before but going through a couple championship runs, you have an appreciation for the dynasty that they were. It’s always nice to be in the city they did it in.”

Then there’s the petty, as Jordan Bell will get the start in place of Draymond Green, a man who looked like a mummy at shootaround with a sore shoulder but had his elbows and knees wrapped in ice.

Bell, of course, remains a point of contention for Bulls fans as he was traded for $3.5 million on draft night to the Warriors and let everyone know what he thought of it when the two met in late November, making a money reference with his hands when coming out for his first start of the season.

Although his playing time has been spotty, he blocked six shots against the Bulls and grabbed six rebounds as an uber-athletic big man in a 49-point humbling loss in Oakland on Nov. 24.

Whether Bulls fans are in love with Bell and what he represents or merely the notion of trading a second-round pick when starting a rebuild, seeing him is a sore spot.

Kerr, though, hopes Bell has moved past the pettiness with the Bulls, as one would certainly like to think he’s happy where he is as opposed to vying for minutes with the glut of bigs the Bulls already have.

“I would hope that’s a thing of the past,” Kerr said. “Jordan’s been in the league for more than half a season. He had his fun the first time we played the Bulls with his comments and whatever he was doing on the floor. I liked it. I thought he was getting himself motivated. That doesn’t last long, in this league you gotta be motivated every single night. He’s past that now.”

Bell, assuming he develops into more than just a spot starter, represents where the Warriors are currently and where the Bulls are trying to get to: selecting physically unique players whose skill sets essentially make them unicorns on the floor.

The Warriors have that in Kevin Durant and to a lesser degree, Green, because of Green’s versatility on defense and with his playmaking, allows the Warriors to be special.

The Bulls have someone in the mold of a matchup nightmare in rookie Lauri Markkanen, who just broke the rookie record by being the fastest in NBA history to hitting 100 triples.

Markkanen did it in 41 games, breaking the mark held by Portland’s Damian Lillard. Curry, widely regarded as the best shooter in NBA history, accomplished the feat in 58 games in the 2009-10 season.

Curry’s taken note while joking Markkanen should “slow down and stop breaking all those 3-point records for rookies. I’m pretty proud of being in those groups.”

“He’s an amazing talent,” Curry said. “Got an extremely unique skill set at his height and size, being able to put it on the floor, being able to shoot the way he does, scoring a lot of different ways… He’s only gonna continue to get better. Other than that, he’s gonna be a force to reckon with as he goes through his career.”

Kerr is among Markkanen’s fans, although he won’t be one at the United Center when he tries to stop Markkanen from adding to the impressive resume.

“These things are so hard to predict but you knew at minimum he was gonna be a great 3-point shooting big man which is important to have these days,” Kerr said. “I think the question was defensively could he hold his own and could he do more than shoot and I think he’s proving all of that. He’s been good defensively.

“He’s not a one-trick pony on offense. He’s not just standing out shooting. He can put it on the floor, he can post up and he’s so young, all that stuff is gonna get better. I know our coaching staff, preparing for this game, have a ton of respect for what the Bulls are doing and Markkanen in particular in terms of his potential. We think he’s gonna be an All-Star.”

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for the second time in three seasons, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.