Bulls

NBA Buzz: Who will the Bulls take with their second pick? LeBron and the Cavs are in trouble

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USA TODAY

NBA Buzz: Who will the Bulls take with their second pick? LeBron and the Cavs are in trouble

The Bulls now own two picks in the 1st round of the top-heavy 2018 NBA Draft, which players figure to be on the board when the front office is on the clock for their 2nd selection, somewhere in the 15 to 20 range.

Of course, there's always a chance the Bulls decide to package their two selections to move up a couple of spots to get a player they really covet in the top-5. And there's a chance the Pelicans slide out of the playoffs and the choice moves into the late lottery. (I don't even want to consider the possibility the Pelicans win a top-3 pick in the lottery, delaying the conveyance of the draft choice to 2019!)

If you're a fan of the University of Kentucky, there's a decent chance the Bulls will use that mid-1st round pick on a Wildcat player. Four Wildcats are projected to go in the 12 to 25 range: point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, wing Hamidou Diallo and forwards P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Out of that group, Gilgeous-Alexander is the most interesting prospect. He's a tall point guard at 6-foot-6 with the ability to drive into the paint and shoot over smaller defenders. Gilgeous-Alexander needs to improve his outside shot, but he recently poured in 30 points in an overtime win over Vanderbilt. Sure, point guard isn't a major need for the Bulls, but in the middle of the first round, the idea is to get an athletic prospect with the biggest upside, and Gilgeous-Alexander certainly qualifies. Plus, at 6-foot-6 he can also play shooting guard alongside Kris Dunn at times, and has the athletic make-up to be an excellent defender.

Diallo is a freakish athlete who might earn a spot in an NBA Slam Dunk Contest one day. He's only averaging 12 points a game on 43 percent shooting, but with Kentucky still trying find a pecking order on an inconsistent young team it's been difficult for any player to stand out this season other than forward Kevin Knox, who figures to be a top 10 pick.

Washington is a decent power forward prospect who gets most of his points inside or by attacking the offensive boards, while Vanderbilt has been limited to just six games because of injury.

Another name to keep an eye on in the middle of round one is 6-foot-3 guard Anfernee Simons, currently playing on the prep level at IMG Academy. Simmons is still considering his college options, but he's eligible for the draft since he'll turn 19 in June, and scouts are attracted to his athleticism and ability to create shots off the dribble. Simons scored 36 points and made seven 3-pointers in a game last weekend, and he could wind up being this year's Terrance Ferguson, who played professionally overseas in Australia for one season and wound up going 21st in the 2017 draft to Oklahoma City.

Two Duke freshmen figure to be available in the middle of Round 1. Scouts are excited about the potential of 6-foot-3 point guard Trevon Duval, while Gary Trent Jr. has an NBA pedigree. His dad Gary Sr. was nicknamed the "Shaq of the MAC" and had a long NBA career, but Gary Jr. is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard who should emerge as a solid scorer at the pro level after playing in the shadow of Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen and Wendell Carter at Duke. (By the way, Carter, a 6-foot-10 power forward, could slip into the late lottery, and the Bulls have always liked Allen!)

Young wing players Troy Brown of Oregon and the Miami duo of Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker also could fit somewhere in the late teens to early 20s.

If the Pelicans miss the playoffs and their pick winds up at 13 or 14, the Bulls might have a shot at a couple of guys whose stock has dropped a bit this season, Michigan St. small forward Miles Bridges and Texas A&M big man Robert Williams.

As you can see, the possibilities are all over the map, and I didn't even list some of the true centers that are expected to go in the back half of Round 1 since the Bulls are overloaded at that position (for now) with Robin Lopez, Omer Asik and Cristiano Felicio.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

- I'm sure many of you are tired of reading about the Cavaliers' on-going struggles, figuring we've seen this story in recent years, and LeBron James always gets his team to play its basketball going into the playoffs.

But this season just feels different. The Cavaliers have an old, unathletic roster and it looks like there's some genuine dissension in the ranks. Isaiah Thomas has only been playing for a few weeks after a long rehab from a hip injury, but the All-Star point guard who came over from Boston in the Kyrie Irving deal has been brutally honest about the team's defensive deficiencies; "Another embarrassing loss," Thomas told reporters after Saturday's 120-88 home-court blowout at the hands of the Rockets. "Something gotta change. I don't know. It was bad from the jump. I don't want to comment too much on it. I need to watch film to see what really went down. It wasn't a good one for us on both ends."

Thomas has made a porous Cleveland defense even worse, and his shot-happy style hasn't exactly endeared him to teammates. Kevin Love had been the Cavs' punching bag whenever things went wrong in the past, but now the All-Star forward is out 6 to 8 weeks because of a broken left hand, so much of the negative media attention has shifted to Thomas, who just doesn't look like the same player who finished 3rd in the NBA in scoring last season with the Celtics.

Even more significant to the Cavs' hopes of turning their season around is a report by LeBron James' confidante Brian Windhorst of ESPN, who says James is completely dispirited by the team's struggles (1-7 record vs. Top 8 teams). Windhorst writes James is upset with the front office's inability to acquire any of the top players who changed teams since the end of last season (Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin) and is waiting for owner Dan Gilbert and first year general manager Koby Altman to do something to improve the roster.

Windhorst wrote LeBron’s play over the last month has been one of the worst stretches of his 15-year career and questions whether there's enough talent on the current roster for James to lead his team to the Finals for an 8th straight season.

The onus is now on Gilbert and Altman to do something, anything, to turn around the fortunes of a Cavs team that has lost eight of their last 12 games. Cleveland has been linked to a ton of trade rumors involving players like DeAndre Jordan, George Hill, Kent Bazemore and Tyreke Evans, but so far, nothing has happened.

And, if Cleveland falls short of the Finals, you can almost guarantee James will be leaving for a better situation when he hits free agency on July 1.

- Great to see Chicago native Jabari Parker back in action for Milwaukee following a second ACL tear in his left knee. Parker has looked good in his first two games back playing on a 15-minute limit. He's scored 23 points combined and looks as athletic as ever following a second long rehab.

The Bucks face a similar situation this summer as the Bulls do with Zach LaVine. Both Parker and LaVine are restricted free agents who projected as future All-Stars before their knee injuries. The Bulls are prepared to pay LaVine whatever the market bears as the headliner in last summer's Butler trade, but Milwaukee's situation is a little more complicated given their current payroll and small market status.

Will Milwaukee be willing to sign Parker to a long-term contract at $20 million or more per season, given Giannis Antetokounmpo is already on a max deal, and Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton John Henson and Mirza Teletovic are all making in excess of $10 million annually, with Tony Snell and Matthew Dellavedova just under 10 million?

The Bucks are moving into a new downtown arena next season, but will ownership be willing to go deep into luxury tax territory to retain Parker? That figures to be one of the most fascinating questions of the off-season, especially since only a handful of teams (including the Bulls) have the cap space available to make a max contract offer to Parker. John Paxson said the front office will be patient and methodical in executing the rebuild so it seems pretty unlikely the Bulls would extend an offer sheet to Parker, especially while they wait to see what the final price tag will be on extending LaVine. Still, the thought of a healthy Parker playing alongside Lauri Markkanen, LaVine and Kris Dunn is pretty exciting.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

- Finally, back to the mess in Cleveland, where the normally media-friendly LeBron James had a tough time putting the Cavs' current situation into words. The 3-time defending Eastern Conference champions are now 0-8 in nationally televised games since Christmas after getting blown out by Houston last Saturday.

"They should take us off every nationally televised game for the rest of the season," said James. "We haven't played good at all and we get our butts kicked every time we play on national television, so I'm at a loss for words."

Someone give Jim Gray a call. It could be time for The Decision, Part 2 in July.

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”