Bulls

How David Nwaba, the shooting guard who doesn't shoot, is thriving with the Bulls

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How David Nwaba, the shooting guard who doesn't shoot, is thriving with the Bulls

The Bulls’ offense was a mess on Sunday afternoon, again searching for and failing to find a rhythm or any consistency without Kris Dunn. They did, however, make 12 more 3-pointers and add to their franchise record-breaking pace for triples in a season. Eight of 10 Bulls who played meaningful minutes attempted a 3-pointer. The two who didn’t? Center Robin Lopez, who has attempted 13 3-pointers in 677 career games. The other? David Nwaba, the shooting guard who’s doing everything right for the Bulls except, well, shoot.

It’s probably not fair to label Nwaba a true shooting guard. Though Basketball Reference says the 6-foot-4 NFL linebacker look-a-like has played 93 percent of his minutes at the position, he’s often strategically placed with two wings capable of shooting, plus reserve forwards Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. So he’s really at “the 2” in name only. In an offense that has grown and depended more on the 3-pointer than ever before, Nwaba is bucking that trend … yet still finding significant minutes.

He’s taken just 17 3-pointers all year, and 11 of those came before Christmas — on Nov. 11 James Harden attempted 17 in a single game, to put that number in perspective. Of players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, only Ben Simmons has attempted fewer 3-pointers per game among guards. In fact, 34 centers have attempted more 3-pointers than Nwaba.

Since Dec. 31, in 310 minutes, Nwaba has attempted three 3-pointers. That’s fewer than Andre Drummond’s four attempts in the same span and as many as rookie Heat center Bam Adebayo, who hasn’t made a 3-pointer all year (and didn’t make one at Kentucky, either).

It’s a trend Nwaba has followed going back to his college days. He made four, count them, four 3-pointers in three seasons at Cal Poly. Last year in the D-League he made four 3-pointers on 17 attempts in 1,150 minutes. When the Lakers called him up for the last 20 games of the year he attempted five 3-pointers in almost 400 minutes. You get the picture.

But Nwaba has taken it a step further. Not only is he avoiding 3-pointers, he’s avoiding the midrange too. In addition to the 17 3-pointers he’s attempted, only two others have been jumpers. The rest of Nwaba’s 163 field-goal attempts have come in the paint. The bulldozer is either passing, setting a screen or going toward the basket on a drive, drawing a foul on 10.5 percent of those drives, the highest mark among Bulls guards.

“David knows who he is, and he’s not going to try to play outside that. He’s a guy that understands he’s at his best when he’s attacking the basket,” Hoiberg said. “We need David in attack mode.”

Nwaba draws contact and also finishes well at the basket, shooting 60.7 percent from 5 feet and in — also best among Bulls guards. He’s shooting 54 percent on 5.1 attempts per game. He’s also helping the Bulls push the pace, with Hoiberg joking that when the Bulls’ top rebounding guard (4.5 per game) grabs a board the other four “need to run with him” better.

“You have to be aggressive going to the basket, so it’s important that I play off my teammates,” Nwaba said. “That’s what I like to bring: looking to score in transition, bringing energy and going to the basket.”

But with no real outside shot to speak of, good decision making and finishing at the rim alone can’t justify 22.7 minutes per game. Hoiberg’s Bulls have five players averaging 4.7 3-point attempts per game. In Hoiberg’s first two seasons only Nikola Mirotic eclipsed that mark. It’s clear 3-pointers are valued in this system, and Nwaba doesn’t bring even a threat from the outside — he’s made 6 of those 22 career 3-pointers. So where are these minutes earned?

“David’s the most versatile defender we have on our team,” Hoiberg said. “Whether he’s shooting the ball or not, whether he’s making shots or not, he’s still going to have a positive impact on the game. First and foremost because of his effort, which is a skill, to go out and play with that type of effort. And the other thing is defensively he’s always going to go out and battle.”

Added Denzel Valentine, who’s played more on the second unit with Nwaba since Zach LaVine returned: “He’s physical, he knows how to push the pace on offense and he’s a good energy guy. He gets you amped up to play.”

The numbers on Nwaba’s defense do him justice. Entering Sunday’s game against the Bucks his 103.4 defensive rating was the best on the team by 2.5 points (a considerable margin, for you non-statheads). The Bulls defense is more than five points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor (also a considerable margin).

And if it feels like Nwaba never stops moving, it’s because he doesn’t. Of players averaging at least 22 minutes per game, Nwaba’s average defensive speed is 4.38 miles per hour, third fastest in the NBA. He trails only OKC’s Andre Roberson, a candidate for the NBA’s All-Defensive Team, and Indiana’s Cory Joseph. His overall average speed is seventh in the league. Hustle and energy can be dubbed clichés, but it’s exactly what Nwaba brings.

“It’s just important that I bring energy when I get out there,” he said, “and do what I do on the defensive end and try to get stops as best as I can.”

There’s another overused cliché about apt defenders being able to defend all five positions: Nwaba does it in one game.

He followed Giannis Antetokounmpo to the scorer’s table late in the first quarter Sunday, and mirrored his minutes for most of his 16 minutes — he would have played more, but the Bulls were lacking for offense and trailing most of the afternoon. He saw time on Eric Bledsoe, helping weak side on an Antetokounmpo drive and blocking the All Star’s attempt off the glass. He also ripped the ball away from Bledsoe in transition that led to a Bulls transition opportunity. He also guarded wing Khris Middleton in the first half, rounding out his well-balanced coverage.

Antetokounmpo got the best of Nwaba — like he does most defenders — for a pair of buckets in the second half, including a tense back-and-forth on the block. The two hammered each other three times before Antetokounmpo faded away and hit a jumper as the shot clock expired. Nwaba had fared well in the first two contests, and the fact that Hoiberg allowed the 25-year-old a third chance to limit a 28 point-per-game scorer speaks volumes.

“Trying to do the little things to help my team win, and if it means guarding their best guy I’ll do the best that I can and try to get stops,” Nwaba said. “Defense is what I like to do. I’m trying to get stops.”

So while 3-pointers continue to gain relevance and almost become a non-starter for gaining relevance in the NBA, Nwaba is going to continue doing what he wants. And nothing else. He’s a restrictive free agent at season’s end, and some team — perhaps the Bulls — will take a chance on the shooting guard who won’t shoot. He’s the kind of player every championship team needs. He might never top 20 points in a game, but somewhere down the line he’s going to cause a 30-point scorer to go for an inefficient 22, and it’s going to win his team a quarter, a game or even a playoff series.

“We love David and hope he’s here for a long time,” Hoiberg said before Friday’s Lakers game. Nwaba had eight points and five rebounds (and no threes) against his former team. “There’s just not a lot of guys that have that defensive versatility.”

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.