NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

NBA Buzz: Zach LaVine is back, so now what for the rebuilding Bulls?

With Zach LaVine set to make his debut Saturday at the United Center against the Pistons, Bulls fans will now get a chance to watch one of the most athletic players in the league. Matter of fact, LaVine was voted the third most athletic player in the NBA as part of the annual preseason survey of general managers, even more impressive considering he was coming off ACL surgery.

LaVine joked with reporters on Tuesday that he was ready to play “two months ago,” but the reality is the Bulls have every reason to be conservative with getting him back into game action, given their past experience with Derrick Rose and the fact the franchise currently is in Year 1 of a rebuild. The front office will get a chance to gauge how LaVine fits with the rest of the players on the roster over the final 40 games, but barring another injury, it's unlikely anything LaVine does will change his status as the face of the franchise in the wake of last summer's Jimmy Butler trade.

The immediate impact of LaVine's return will be seen in the Bulls' offense. Head coach Fred Hoiberg says he started tweaking his system over the summer with LaVine's skillset in mind, and can't wait to run high pick-and-roll plays with LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to force defenses into no-win situations. Most fans are familiar with LaVine as a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion, but he made tremendous improvement as a 3-point shooter last season in Minnesota, converting at a nearly 39-percent clip before suffering the ACL injury in early February. He's also capable of creating shots off the dribble on need possessions with his quickness and leaping ability.

LaVine will be limited to 20 minutes a game at the outset, and John Paxson made it clear there won't be any leeway for the coaching staff to go beyond that limit to get him back into a close game late. The plan is to increase LaVine's minutes slightly each week leading up to the All-Star break as his conditioning improves.

Adding a player of LaVine's talent and skill level will undoubtedly help the Bulls win some of the close games they let slip away in the first half of the season, so it's fair to wonder if we should expect more roster tweaking before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. We've seen Nikola Mirotic's name being bandied about in trade rumors nationally, and it's no secret the Bulls will listen to trade offers for the fourth-year forward, who currently leads the team in scoring.

It's also possible other veterans could be paired with Mirotic in trade discussions, including Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant. The Jazz, Trail Blazers and Pistons are among the teams reportedly showing interest in Mirotic, with contending teams like the Rockets, Celtics, Raptors and Spurs also expected to check in. With the trade deadline moved up to before the All-Star break this season, it's possible the Bulls' roster will have a much different look for the final 25 to 30 games.

Still, with LaVine back in the rotation to go along with the two other promising young players acquired in the Butler trade, Markkanen and Kris Dunn, the Bulls are likely headed to at least 25 wins this season, which probably will put them somewhere between Nos. 5 and 10 in the ranking of the NBA's worst records and corresponding lottery odds. So, they'll have to get lucky on lottery night to snatch one of the top three picks for a shot at foundation talents like Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Trae Young.

No one said rebuilding is easy. Just look at teams like the Kings, 76ers, Suns, Magic, Knicks, Nets and even the mighty Lakers, who have been picking high in the draft for several years and are still struggling to make an upward move in the standings. The Bulls got a big head start on their rebuilding project by acquiring three young, high-quality starters in the Butler trade, but it looks like the next moves will be a little trickier to execute.

Around the Association

With the trade deadline now less than a month away, we're hearing more rumors about players who could be on the move. Mirotic is one of the most popular names league-wide, but he's not the only player hearing his name mentioned in trade discussions.

There's a lot of speculation right now about what the Clippers will do with veteran center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan has a player option for next season at just over $24 million, and given the fact very few teams will have cap room this summer, it's unlikely he'll be able to command a long-term deal at that salary figure on the open market. So, do the Clippers roll the dice and assume he'll opt of his contract for next season? Or do they trade him now to eliminate the risk of having Jordan walk away in free agency and get nothing in return?

The Bucks reportedly are anxious to upgrade at the center position for the playoffs, and it's possible the Cavs might put in a bid for Jordan to give them another impact defender for the expected matchup with Golden State in the Finals. Matching the money on Jordan's $22.6 million salary won't be easy for any team, but as we've learned over the years, general managers can get pretty creative on multi-team trades to land a player they really want.

The Magic have been a huge disappointment after getting off to an 8-4 start. Injuries are part of the reason for the Magic's annual collapse, but with a new front office in place, it might be time to start exploring trades for some of the young players who were supposed to be the core of a revival in Orlando, including Nic Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja.

Fournier in particular has generated a lot of interest around the league, even with two more years at $17 million, plus a player option for 2020-21 remaining on his contract. Hezonja will be a free agent this summer and could be a second-tier player the Bulls look at as an affordable wing option for next season. Payton has been a disappointment, and the Magic could look to upgrade at the point guard position in the 2018 draft with potential stars like Young and Collin Sexton expected to go in the top 10.

Who else could be dealt before Feb. 8? The Hawks currently own the league's worst record and are in full-on tank mode, so they would be happy to unload veterans like Kent Bazemore, Ersan Ilyasova and former Bull Marco Belinelli.

The Mavericks are also hoping to sink to the bottom, which means a high-priced veteran shooter like Wesley Matthews is very much available. The Grizzlies are getting surprising production from the oft-injured Tyreke Evans, but they are having a terrible season so they might look to flip the veteran swingman for a future asset.

And, let's not forget about the Lakers, who are looking to free up cap room for their summer pursuit of free agents LeBron James and Paul George. It appears no team is willing to take on the two and a half years remaining on the ridiculous four-year contract they gave Luol Deng back in the Wild West summer of 2016, but they could find a market for combo guard Jordan Clarkson (who's owed more than $25 million for the next two seasons) and young forwards Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.

The Lakers don't own their first-round pick this year, so Magic Johnson plans to go all in on free agency, hoping to convince James or George to bring their star power to the L.A. market. But first, Magic has to whittle down the payroll, and that could make the Lakers one of the most intriguing teams to watch over the next month.

Quote of the week

Speaking of the Lakers, coach Luke Walton found himself in the crossfire as bombastic LaVar Ball held court with ESPN during his made-for-television reality show centering on his two younger sons playing professional basketball in Lithuania.

LaVar Ball told Jeff Goodman that Walton had lost the team and didn't know how to coach his oldest son, Lonzo, who was selected No. 2 overall by the Lakers in the 2017 draft.

Walton took the high road in responding to the comments, but when asked after the next game the Lakers played why he took Lonzo out so early in the first quarter, he offered this beauty: "His dad was talking s---, so I took him out early." Two seconds later he smiled and said, "Just kidding."

Or was he? Safe to say the LaVar-Lakers drama isn't going away any time soon.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future


Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.