Nwaba, Felicio, Payne: Getting to know the newest members of the Bulls rotation


Nwaba, Felicio, Payne: Getting to know the newest members of the Bulls rotation

The Bulls are moving forward with their youth, as John Paxson announced on Tuesday that David Nwaba, Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne will all enter the rotation for the duration of the season.

Call it tanking, call it wanting to get a look at younger players who may or may not be part of the rotation. Whatever the reason, here's what to expect from the three newcomers, what the Bulls are looking for and why it matters moving forward.

David Nwaba

What he's done: We wrote on Nwaba last month after the bulky 6-foot-4 shooting guard did his best to limit Giannis Anteotokounmpo in a loss to the Bucks. He's as unique a shooting guard as you'll find in today's NBA, attempting just 19 3-pointers in nearly 1,000 minutes this season. He's also taken just two 2-point attempts outside of the paint. He's a bully who attacks the basket and takes high-percentage shots, which is why he's not surprising he's shooting 51.7 percent from the field this year. Of course, he's limited offensively. The NBA is finding it hard for 7-footers to make it if they can only shoot at the rim, and Nwaba's a shooting guard...who doesn't shoot.

But he's made his mark defensively, and then some. He's the Bulls' best defender, both via the eye test and statistically. And because of that he also has the team's second best net rating (-0.4), behind only Bobby Portis (-0.2). He can defend three positions, and a fourth in the paint if need be. He's an absolute rock at 220 pounds and moves well for his size. His athleticism is on full display, and he's a high-motor guy every time he steps on the floor. His offensive limitations put a cap on his potential, and he's already 25 years old despite this being just his second NBA season. There's a spot somewhere in the league for Nwaba (see: Allen, Tony playing 14 NBA seasons), but he isn't exactly a perfect fit in Chicago because of his lack of outside shooting. He needs to be paired with floor spacers at all times or the offense will really suffer.

What the Bulls are looking for: Perhaps Nwaba's new role will allow him to have more of a green light on offense. Fred Hoiberg loves the way Nwaba plays his role (he's shooting 26 percent from 3, but on just 19 attempts that hardly matters) and doesn't go outside his comfort zone, but maybe he needs to do just that. Per NBA.com, Nwaba has played 16 minutes at the point (Grant, Dunn, Valentine, Arcidiacano all off the floor), but maybe the Bulls will see if his bully ball driving to the basket can create open looks for shooters. He's not a terribly gifted ball handler, but he's a threat in transition and an apt rebounder to boot.

Above all the Bulls are looking for a few more flashes from Nwaba. He'll be a free agent this summer and might be a part of the Bulls' plans if the market doesn't heat up for him. Again, don't expect a 3-point revelation from him. He is who he is, and that's a 6-foot-4 power forward who plays shooting guard. That has its obvious advantages, but more disadvantages. If he can prove to have a little more offensive flexibility it'd make the Bulls more comfortable about bringing him back in the fold next season. The fact that the Bulls don't have a second-round pick in 2018 helps his cause.

What to expect: More of the same from what we've seen. If it's not yet clear, Nwaba isn't going to become a different player just because he's playing more minutes. His numbers might not change much, either. It will be fun to see how much trust Fred Hoiberg puts in him to guard the opponent's best player, with matchups like Andrew Wiggins, Kemba Walker, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving coming in the next two weeks. He'll be a hounding defender, and he'll have a few 6-for-8 shooting nights. He may even begin shooting more 3-pointers, just to see if he can find a comfort level.

Cristiano Felicio

What he's done: It hasn't been Timofey Mozgov-getting-$64 million bad, but the Bulls have to feel a little buyer's remorse in giving Felicio a four-year, $32 million deal last summer. He showed real potential on offense down the stretch last season, averaging 4.8 points on 64 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds after the All-Star break. He did his damage in limited minutes (16.0 per game) but appeared to be a solid pick-and-roll option with good hands. He didn't bring much to the table defensively, but you also can't teach 6-foot-10, 270 pounds. And yet, for whatever reason, all that potential has fizzled in 2017-18. Felicio was essentially yanked from the rotation (despite the Bulls not having a true backup to Robin Lopez) and in his limited minutes has been awful. His happy feet from his rookie season have returned, he's out of position more times than not and it's led to copious fouls.

His -23.8 net rating is second worst in the NBA among players averaging 12 minutes per game, behind only Jahlil Okafor. And his 89.9 offensive rating is the worst in the league, not a good sign considering he's known as a better offensive than defensive player. It's been a season to forget, and the Bulls simply have to hope extended playing time improve his confidence, which in turn improves his game.

What the Bulls are looking for: Anything. Without piling too much on him - he's such a friendly dude - the Bulls need to see some of that spark he showed late in each of the last two seasons. Felicio has essentially split his minutes between playing with Jerian Grant (161 minutes) and Kris Dunn, and he's performed much better with Dunn (shocking, we know). That should help, and it'll also be interesting to see how often Hoiberg pairs of Payne and Felicio. Don't laugh, but those two could see a lot of time together next season off the bench. Simply being given a rotation spot isn't going to give Felicio more athleticism or quicker feet, but the Bulls will want to see him grasping concepts, communicating better and defending with his body on that end of the floor. It's a lot to ask, but he's sort of hit rock bottom as a 25-year-old making $8 million a year to rack up DNP-CDs.

What to expect: He will be better playing with Dunn, and playing alongside Markkanen should free up room for him in the paint. He'll likely be the beneficiary of some dump-offs from LaVine and Dunn on drives to the hoop. We'll get the occasional 16-point, 7-rebound night where he puts himself in the right position under the basket and plays well in pick-and-roll. Defensively he's going to continue to rack up fouls, and playing next to Markkanen instead of Bobby Portis probably won't help much. But the Bulls want to see some improvement from here on. If he can transform into a 9-point-per-night scorer who can be relatively hidden defensively, the Bulls will take it. Watch for how he moves his feet on defense, and his hands on offense.

Cameron Payne

What he's done: The centerpiece of last year's Taj Gibson/Doug McDermott deal, Payne really struggled in his limited minutes with the Bulls. Playing behind Rajon Rondo and the 14 other point guard the Bulls had that year, Payne averaged 4.9 points and 1.4 assists in 12.9 minutes. He had 15 assists and 13 turnovers in 142 minutes, while shooting 33 percent from the field. Between OKC and the Bulls, Payne had a 40.7 true shooting percentage, second worst in the NBA among 233 qualified players. His offensive rating among those same players was fourth worst. Simply put, Payne had a 2016-17 to forget...and then he broke his foot. He's set to make his debut on Thursday, taking Jerian Grant's spot in the rotation. Here goes nothing.

What the Bulls are looking for: Payne is a natural score-first point guard, or at least has been in his limited minutes in the league. But the Bulls are going to want to see how he distributes on the second unit, playing alongside wings with range in Denzel Valentine and Paul Zipser. Payne will have his chance to score, and he is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter in limited minutes, so perhaps Hoiberg will draw up some plays to find him open looks. He's got the length to succeed defensively, but thus far his defensive metrics haven't said the same.

What to expect: Payne is different from Nwaba and Felicio in that he's been injured all year. The Bulls are going to need to progress slowly with a foot he's now broken twice. So don't expect the same type of run the other newbies will get in the rotation. But Payne is going to have the green light to shoot (it's when he's at his best) but will also be tasked with finding open shooters. He's not particularly quick with the ball and doesn't create much separation, meaning pick-and-roll/pop opportunities will be where he delivers most. Put simply, he isn't as good as Jerian Grant, and the Bulls will see a decrease in production. But he's only 23 years old and is three years removed from being a Lottery pick. It'd be unfair to dub him a bust, and this is the same Bulls management that really liked Kris Dunn. That's worked out, so maybe they have an eye for point guards.

Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?


Jabari Parker has bounce and perseverance, but what's in the Chicago native's future?

Jabari Parker still has bounce.

Either that or he’s gained it after two ACL surgeries that have stalled his once promising career, evidenced by his devastating drive down the middle of the Bulls defense for an unexpected dunk.

Or his flash on the break, finishing with a one-handed slam from Brandon Jennings in the second quarter.

But what does it mean for his future?

Parker played in his first game back in his hometown after returning from injury, his first start of the season came in the absence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ franchise player.

In 30 minutes, he was three for 10 from the field for six points, four assists and three rebounds in his 20th game of the season as the Bucks held off the Bulls for a 118-105 win at the United Center. For the season, Parker is averaging 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 21.7 minutes while shooting a career-high 51 percent in a contract year as restricted free agency is looming.

Outwardly the Bucks say they’ve been pleased with his play, but the rumors persist this marriage won’t last long.

“(He’s) very good, for someone who’s gone through that twice,” Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty said. “His demeanor, his approach, is very good. He’s worked extremely hard to get back in that position he’s in. Each night we ask a lot of him that we do of everybody else. Scoring is one thing. We need him to rebound. We know he can playmake. Defend. He can play inside, he can play outside. He’s a versatile player.”

Hard to remember, it was Parker who was supposed to be that guy for the Bucks when he was drafted second in 2014, as the argument going into that draft was about Parker or Andrew Wiggins as the best player.

The Chicagoan has had to endure stops and starts since his NBA career began, tearing his ACL 25 games into his rookie campaign. He returned to play 75 games the next season before appearing to blossom even more last year, averaging 20.1 points in the first 50 games.

Then he tore it again right before the All-Star break, halting the Bucks’ vision of having three versatile wings that could cause havoc in Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton, an underrated star.

Not only that, it made for awkward contract negotiations as Parker was recovering from surgery before the October deadline and the Bucks reportedly offered a three-year deal around $18 million annually that Parker turned down in the expectation of getting a max deal.

With Antetokounmpo taking yet another step into superstardom, it’s difficult for the Bucks to commit financially that way, especially when Parker doesn’t seem like a natural fit next to Antetokounmpo.

Parker, like many others from his draft class including the Bulls’ Zach LaVine, face an uncertain future with restricted free agency this summer. At least in LaVine’s case, the Bulls have called him one of their building blocks after the Jimmy Butler trade.

For Parker, it’s been reported he was shopped around the trade deadline and nearly moved—which coincided with his season debut Feb. 2. As if he had enough to worry about in terms of getting his body in order and trying to prove where he fit within his own team’s hierarchy, the business of the NBA reared its ugly head.

For the Bucks, their No. 1 priority is Antetokounmpo, as it should be. Parker finding his way amongst the circumstances just made things murkier, just recently crossing the 30-minute threshold against the Clippers where he scored a season-high 20 points.

“With the minute restrictions it’s hard to play,” Prunty said. “Actually I think for him, we’ve struggled with scoring off our bench. He gives us scoring off our bench.”

Friday was only the second time this month where Parker didn’t score in double figures, so even if the future is on his mind, it’s not turning into selfish play—at least offensively.

You can see the missed rotations on defense and note how well the team plays when the ball moves from side to side—a common tacit note of criticism with players like Parker and Carmelo Anthony, guys who need the ball and space on the floor to score.

“Just trying to make it happen,” Parker said. “Coming off the bench, or I’m starting, just trying to do what I can.”

Middleton is a more natural fit next to Antetokounmpo, because of the economy of space he uses when he gets the ball. He rarely uses more than the space around his shadow and has found a way to be efficient around Antetokounmpo.

Parker is more naturally gifted, though, and at least while he’s in Milwaukee, finding ways to play within that simple construct is his best bet.

“This last stretch of games will be important going into the playoffs,” Jennings said. “Finding his rhythm. Me being out there with him, I’m trying to get him going, get him into a better rhythm and things like that. Make the game easier for him.”

Jennings is in his second stint with the Bucks and was in a similar position before his restricted free agency. He and the Bucks couldn’t come to terms, and he wound up being traded to Detroit in a package, which involved sending Middleton among others to Milwaukee.

He knows how thought of the future can play into someone’s mind, let alone the double task of returning from another serious injury.

“It shouldn’t. At my age now (28), I would say it shouldn’t,” Jennings said. “But I know at that age it did for me. From me to him, he gotta look at the big picture. We’re going to the playoffs. We have a chance to get out the first round. You can’t worry about that. That takes care of itself. Once you win, sky’s the limit.”

For his part, Parker and the Bucks are saying the right things, knowing the summer awaits where the true feelings for all will be shown and a future path will be decided.

“No, I don’t think it was. I don’t think it has. My play dictates (this summer),” Parker said. “I think I’ve been doing good so far. I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history


Bulls Bracket Madness: The best individual seasons in franchise history

We're trying to figure out the best season in Bulls franchise history, and we want your help in deciding.

Because the Bulls tout the greatest player in basketball history, who could have made up this list by himself, we're giving Michael Jordan his own side of the bracket. But the other side of the bracket is also filled with some pretty memorable and remarkable campaigns.

So read up on each matchup and then have your voice heard by voting on our Twitter page here. Check out the entire bracket in the graphic above.

The Jordan Region

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96) vs. No. 8 Michael Jordan (1990-91)

No. 1 Michael Jordan (1995-96): Jordan was on a mission in his first full season back from retirement. He led the Bulls to a then-record 72 wins with a regular-season MVP award, All-Star MVP and romp through the NBA playoffs, where the Bulls went 15-3 en route to their fourth NBA title. Jordan won his eighth straight scoring title at 30.4 points a game, with nine games where he put up 40 or more. He saved his best for Detroit, scoring 53 with 11 rebounds and six steals in early March. To prove Jordan was getting better as he aged, he shot a career-high 43 percent from 3-point range at age 33.

No. 2 Michael Jordan (1990-91): 1990-91: Jordan's second MVP came with his first NBA title, as he was at the peak of his powers physically combined with the ultimate team success, with the Bulls finally getting past Detroit before defeating the Lakers in the Finals. He shot a career-high 54 percent from the field while averaging 31.5 points, six rebounds and 5.5 assists as he began to fully embrace the triangle offense in Phil Jackson's second season. Jordan had 57 games where he shot better than 50 percent from the field, and was among the league leaders in steals at 2.7 per game while earning his fourth straight All-Defensive First Team honor.

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11) vs. No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94)

No. 1 Derrick Rose (2010-11): Where to begin? The youngest MVP in league history took the league by storm, averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists while leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins. Rose had been named an All-Star the previous season but took his game to new heights in Year 3, appearing in 81 games, making 128 3-pointers (after making a combined 32 his first two seasons) while helping the Bulls rank first in defensive efficiency under first year head coach Tom Thibodeau. Rose and the Bulls lost in five games to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, with Rose shooting a paltry 35 percent on 24 attempts per game. But his historic season will always go down as one of the franchise’s best, and the only non-Jordan MVP.

No. 2 Scottie Pippen (1993-94): Yeah, well what would Scottie be without MJ? We found out that answer in 1993-94, when Pippen took the reins of the franchise as Jordan rode the Birmingham bus as a minor-league baseball player. Pippen responded with a sensational season, averaging 22.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists. He averaged 2.9 steals, shot 49 percent from the field and became a 3-point threat for the first time in his career. He was named First Team All-NBA and All-NBA Defensive First Team, and finished third to Hakeem and The Admiral in MVP voting. He averaged 22.8/8.3/4.6 in the postseason but ultimately proved it was easier to win in the spring with MJ by his side. Still, this individual season was one of the franchise’s best, if not the best. Hardware isn’t everything.