Bulls

Bulls' fortunes could be better than anticipated

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Bulls' fortunes could be better than anticipated

As discouraged as the Bulls might feel about their health woes in these playoffs, a postseason in which their Eastern Conference rivals have also had injury concerns, they should also feel optimistic.

Who knows what this summer's free agency and even before that, the annual draft-day trading frenzy, could bring, but when examining the rest of the upper echelon of the East--conference finalists Miami and Boston, semifinal losers Philadelphia and Indiana, and the star-studded Knicks--the Bulls are in good shape.

That may come off as odd, especially after the Bulls lost in the first round to an eighth seed, Derrick Rose is scheduled to be out for eight months to a year, Luol Deng may miss the beginning of next season and valuable reserves like C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer appear to be future casualties of the NBA's salary cap, to be replaced by less expensive and possibly less-talented players, but look on the bright side for a second:

Even with all of those issues, things are less problematic in Chicago than a lot of those aforementioned places, at least in the long-term.

Both the Pacers and 76ers are young teams that showed they have potential, but are at least one impact player, preferably a go-to scorer, away from being true contenders. Each team is likely to be active in looking for potential trades--despite being their respective franchise's marquee player, don't be surprised if small forwards Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala are on the block--and while they could be players in free agency, a middling class isn't the immediate solution to their issues.

The same goes for the Knicks, who still have yet to figure out the Carmelo Anthony-Amar'e Stoudemire dilemma, not to mention whether Jeremy Lin is the permanent answer to their point-guard problem, if he even returns to New York.

As far as the two teams still playing, the Celtics look to be in line for a rebuilt roster with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett hitting free agency this summer--the latter is rumored to be considering retirement--and multiple holes to plug on an aging squad either way, while the Heat, even if they make another run to the Finals and Chris Bosh gets healthy, simply can't and won't, as long as team president Pat Riley is in charge, continue with the same roster, built almost solely upon the duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade playing at a near-flawless level throughout the playoffs.

Sure, Miami could find some takers, at a reduced rate, to chase a ring, even if they'd make more money in another city, and there's always the possibility Bosh or Wade gets dealt--though talk of Wade's imminent demise has slowed since his postseason career-worst Game 3 performance against Indiana in the second round; trading Bosh would still leave a void inside and no executive worth his salt would trade James, the current league MVP--top Celtics executive Danny Ainge could pull a rabbit out of his hat, the Pacers or Sixers could somehow swing a deal that puts them over the top and the Knicks, one team apparently unafraid of the repercussions of the punitive luxury tax, could simply throw more money at their problems, but the odds of all of those things happening simultaneously are slim.

Meanwhile, the Bulls will enter next season with low expectations, but with some shrewd offseason judgment in both the upcoming draft and free agency, Deng's return to the lineup, Tom Thibodeau coaching--it would be in everybody's best interest if his contract extension was sorted out sooner than later, as general manager Gar Forman's announcement that the organization would pick up his option for next season didn't simply make it go away--the squad to somewhere between a fifth and eighth seed in the playoffs and Rose's eventual comeback would set the stage for, if not an outright postseason run, at least throwing a scare into a so-called contender.

Even if the some of the above doesn't occur, the determination of the players currently under contract and the preparation of the coaching staff will ensure that next season won't be as disastrous as some believe, setting the stage for the 2013-14 season, in which title contention is again a realistic goal, assuming that Rose is fully healthy.

It's worth mentioning that the free-agent class in the summer of 2013 is extremely deep, perhaps rivaling the group from the "Summer of LeBron," and while the Bulls will have to make a tough decision with their own free agent in Taj Gibson by then, they'll also be able to add a significant piece and dangle assets like the rights to their protected first-round pick acquired in the 2010 Tyrus Thomas deal with Charlotte and 2011 first-round pick Nikola Mirotic--though the organization remains high on the young forward, who won the "Rising Star" award for the Spanish ACB League's top young player, for the second consecutive season--as well as having a team option for Hamilton and even potentially amnestying a player, such as Boozer, since it would make more sense leading up to a season in which a title was a realistic goal.

Regardless, whatever direction the Bulls choose, the crux of the matter is that while the team obviously won't be at a contending level going into next season, they won't be as awful as some believe and they'll have several options moving forward, as well as a roster with many current players, barring trades, entering their prime years, something that makes the current outlook a lot less gloomy.

Unless just the right pieces fall into place or the Magic simply gift Dwight Howard to a conference rival, can the same truly be said for many of their peers?

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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USA TODAY

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.

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.”