Bulls

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Bulls headed to Parts Unknown as free agency begins

Derrick Rose will suit up for the perpetually-woeful New York Knicks, Jimmy Butler is headed to a country that has legitimate Zika virus concerns for the Olympic Games, and neither of them has as much uncertainty as the Chicago Bulls as the franchise approaches free agency in a few days.

When the clock strikes midnight Friday, it’ll open up business around the NBA but also cement a sea change for the Bulls as far as their league-wide hierarchy. Two summers ago, the Bulls were getting ready to be the welcoming committee for free agent Carmelo Anthony, believing he was the missing piece to a championship puzzle.

Anthony chose to stay in New York, in large part due to the $50 million disparity between the Knicks and Bulls, thanks to the collective bargaining agreement giving players a greater incentive for staying at home as opposed to bolting to other teams.

The Bulls wound up with a big fish anyway, signing Pau Gasol to a three-year contract he officially opted out of a few days ago, as he and Joakim Noah will depart Chicago for Parts Unknown.

Ironically, that’s the address the Bulls are headed to. Although they have over $23 million in cap space—an amount that’s enough for one max player—they won’t be grocery shopping with the big boys this time around.

They’ll be going bargain hunting, the epitome of what general manger Gar Forman calls “retooling” instead of that other dreaded “R” word: rebuilding.

Taking a couple steps back for the sake of taking a few forward sooner rather than later isn’t the easiest route. But when they decided not to trade Jimmy Butler on draft night or any other recent evening, it was the course of action the franchise decided to take.

“We’re still trying to get a sense of what the market is going to be,” Forman said the night of the NBA Draft, after the Bulls selected Denzel Valentine with the 14th pick. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s gonna happen come July 1 because there’s never been anything like this where there’s such a spike in the cap. So we’re still evaluating that. My guess is opposed to one guy we’ll look to fill some holes and guys who fit the plan moving forward.”

Butler and new addition Robin Lopez are the only starters who can say they’re in the top half in the league at their position, with Butler being in the conversation for best shooting guard.

So if the Bulls are to overachieve and find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race, thus showing the competency in the front office and the sidelines to make themselves a destination in free agency this time next summer, they’ll have to be a team whose sum is greater than its individual parts, unless they snag a top-line wing player like Nicolas Batum (Charlotte) or Chandler Parsons (Dallas)—traditional 3-and-D guys but nowhere near superstars and not even All-Stars.

Even still, the proposition the Bulls are facing isn’t enviable but there’s opportunity for Forman to show he’s ahead of the curve and for Fred Hoiberg to rebound from his very shaky rookie season as coach.

Trading Rose was a start, and teams will be interested in Taj Gibson (as they always are), but it’ll be fascinating to see how the Bulls navigate the territory of employing enough veterans to help the young pieces grow while not wasting the valuable time of a respected player like Gibson.

The prudent decisions, the tough ones the good franchises make are usually through trades—players with existing contracts and not the inflated ones the market will bear.

Athleticism is a need, along with a point guard considering the Bulls are inheriting one who had the lowest-scoring point-per-game average in the league last season in Jose Calderon (7.6 points).

While Calderon’s on-floor leadership and ability to spread the floor from the top (41 percent from 3 last season) will be highly valued should he stick around, the Bulls would be better served looking to upgrade the position, despite a class that won’t initially inspire observers at first glance.

Memphis point guard Mike Conley will certainly be the apple of many teams’ eye, but at 29 he’s at the precious age where not only is this the last big long-term contract he’ll likely sign. But he’ll likely want to do it on a team with a clear trajectory upward as opposed to a slow slope down.

Brandon Jennings is a full year removed from Achilles’ recovery, and could take a short deal to rejuvenate his value on the open market, similar to what Gasol did two years ago but on a different level. Jeremy Lin will command a lot of attention, as will Rajon Rondo.

The athletic wings are a bit deeper, but with the league putting a premium on versatile players who can defend the perimeter, run the floor and shoot, the competition will be stiff and it appears as if the Bulls will have to overpay for quality.

Knicks free agent guard Arron Afflalo could be an intriguing, if not understated option as a wing who can defend and be credible as an outside shooter, able to alleviate pressure on Butler to play 40 minutes on the opposing team’s best scorer.

The Bulls’ interest in Golden State’s Harrison Barnes has been an open secret, given his ties with Doug McDermott, Hoiberg and now-Olympic teammate Butler. But as a restricted free agent it leaves any suitor in limbo for three days while the Warriors decide if they want to match—or if Kevin Durant decides to join the juggernaut.

And given Barnes’ underwhelming performance in the postseason, teams should be wary of Barnes not being able to play above the level he’s been at in Golden State, where he was a fourth option.

Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore is an example as a quality player who’ll be in high demand, but his ceiling isn’t too much higher than his reality.

The Bulls would be wise to resist making a splash in multiple areas, as more than a few teams will commit big money to players who can’t change their stripes no matter what the price tag is.

But if the Bulls are able to resist the trends, they can emerge from Parts Unknown and find themselves in a few years on a road marked “May”—and if they’re geniuses, “June.”

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”