Bulls

Nikola Mirotic saga over as Bulls fulfill objectives in trade with Pelicans

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USA TODAY

Nikola Mirotic saga over as Bulls fulfill objectives in trade with Pelicans

The saga is finally over and the Bulls can move on after trading Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, two days after Mirotic initially vetoed the deal with his no-trade clause.

The Bulls received a protected first-round pick, along with former Bulls center Omer Asik, Jameer Nelson and Tony Allen. The Pelicans guaranteed Mirotic’s $12.5 million for next season and received a 2018 second-round pick from the Bulls.

The Bulls will waive Allen, a Chicago native, along with veteran Quincy Pondexter. They haven’t yet made a decision on Nelson, a veteran point guard. The fact the Bulls were able to get a first-round pick for Mirotic is a coup of sorts, all things considered and it opens the door to more conversations involving Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez before the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Bulls executive vice president John Paxson praised Mirotic for his stint in Chicago, which certainly had its share of ups and downs, culminating with a strong return after suffering facial injuries from a Bobby Portis punch before the season began.

“Want to thank Niko for the time he spent here,” Paxson said in a conference call. “We were pleased when we drafted him years ago and he gave us a lot of good basketball. We wish him well in New Orleans. I think it will be a good situation for him.”

Mirotic was consistent in wanting a trade after the incident with Portis, Paxson said. And Mirotic’s 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 25 games, helping turn around a Bulls team that was 3-20, aided his trade value.

For the Bulls, picking up a first-round draft pick in a loaded draft was the most attractive asset for them, so it wasn’t just a salary dump of a player who didn’t want to be in Chicago.

“It’s just consistent with the direction and plan that we talked about this summer on draft night when we made the trade,” Paxson said. “Acquiring a draft asset and having salary control over a young player in the position we’re in is important and valuable to us. This deal made sense.”

The situation with Mirotic and Portis was odd, to say the least. The two played well off each other on the floor and had virtually no communication off it.

“It was a very unfortunate thing that happened,” Paxson said. “I thought Niko handled it really, really well. He played terrific and with confidence. He never used that in any way, shape or form. He deserves a lot of credit for how he handled that.”

With Mirotic being on a short deal after his disappointing foray into restricted free agency last summer, it would’ve been tough to see a future with him and the Bulls even if the incident with Portis hadn’t happened.

The emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls’ financial objectives during the early stages of the rebuild put Mirotic’s objectives and the Bulls on separate planes.

They have cap space this summer, but will have to re-sign Zach LaVine and take another year of development before going full bore into a playoff hunt.

“We’ve got to look long term,” Paxson said. “As we mapped out what Niko would be looking for financially going out, that wasn’t a part of our timeline. We now have a situation where we’re invested in these young guys. Our focus remains on growth and development of them.”

Paxson said he hasn’t communicated with Mirotic directly, but one has to believe he’s ecstatic about the outcome considering the Pelicans weren’t ready to guarantee Mirotic’s $12.5 million for 2019-20 two days ago, worrying about commitments to the current roster.

For Mirotic, it gives him another year to prove himself to the NBA world at large before heading into free agency again—and retaining his Bird Rights in the process.

“They never backed off that stance one bit,” Paxson said. “I’m sure given everything we heard throughout this entire process is this satisfies what he wanted. More than that, it satisfies what we wanted to get out of it in moving him. It fits our timeline. It fits the direction we’re going.”

With the Bulls coming back to reality following a 14-7 stretch when Mirotic returned—settling near the basement of the Eastern Conference with an 18-33 record, they can focus on the development of their young players.

Paxson said the Bulls will play Cristiano Felicio and Paul Zipser more down the stretch, and even Cameron Payne will have an opportunity with 31 games remaining.

The message is unspoken but it’s clear: The Bulls are back in tank mode.

“When you look at where we’re at in the season, the record that we have, we have to continue to find out about our young players,” Paxson said. “This type of deal allows us to get Paul and Cris on the floor more than they have all season long. It’s our job to evaluate what they are and who fits into our future. The only way you do that is by seeing them out on the court.”

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.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.